Wednesday, June 20, 2012

5. Have High Expectations of Your Gifted and Talented Teen

10 ways Parents of Gifted Teens can support them in high school (continued)

A home does not have to be a wealthy home for gifted individuals to thrive! What is needed are parents and family who value learning.

Valuing learning is not the exclusive domain of the middle class or wealthy. For example, not many people know that the Tongan people have more doctorates per head of population than any other culture in the world[1].  This small, rich Pacific Island culture, while not economically wealthy, has high expectations of their people although they do things a little differently from other cultures.  When the teen leaves school, he or she stays home and cares for the babies and small children of their older brothers, sisters or cousins while they are studying at University. As they get older, it is their turn to study and gain their qualifications, supported by the other members of the extended family.  This is a culture that values learning, and has an expectation of ‘giving back’ to the community.

Research shows that one of the key ingredients needed for gifted and talented students to achieve highly is that they come from a supportive home environment that has high expectations[2].  The other ingredients necessary have to do with the inner qualities of the student, and provisions within the school environment, but the major ingredient that parents can bring to the table is their expectations of their child during their high school journey and beyond.

Not all gifted and talented students have high achieving[3] parents against whom they can model themselves.  Some come from backgrounds where it is frowned upon to be a high achiever, and this may be actually discouraged (perhaps subconsciously) by parents who cannot envisage the type of world that high achievement may project their son or daughter into.  Not only age peers, but adults can be dismissive of the world of possibilities that could open up for their gifted teen.  It is an alien world to them. They may even fear it or feel threatened by it. The ‘culture’ of the neighbourhood may not place value upon academic success. Such students can struggle to stand against the tide of opinion, but a teacher or mentor who believes in them can make all the difference.

Surely gifted kids have enough pressure put on them already by parents and teachers?

That depends upon your definition of ‘high expectations’. There is a difference between high expectations and pressure to perform.  Let’s unpack each of them.

Pressure to perform: where pressure to perform is the dominate message coming from parents. 
These parents may see every single step in the learning journey as crucial.  They place emphasis upon constant high achievement.  They may micro-manage their teen, rather than encourage them to become independent learners who set SMART goals and implement them.  In these pressure situations students can feel that unless they are highly successful they are letting themselves down, and that their parents and teachers will like them less for any perceived ‘failure’ to achieve. This belief, while it may temporarily encourage the students to work harder, does not reinforce the behaviours of an autonomous learner. It feeds the anxieties of the gifted perfectionist, and is generally counter-productive.

On the other hand, Parents who have high expectations                           

Value learning
Parents value the wisdom and knowledge that continued learning brings, not only as a future insurance for employment, but in the benefits it brings to their community and society.  They value learning for its own sake and take an interest in their teen’s interests and passions.

Have a belief in their child’s ability to do well in life, and communicate this to them. Frequently.  
Research indicates that underachieving gifted students have been ‘turned around’ by having someone who believes in their ability to succeed. Sometimes parents can be tempted to excuse underachievement with comments such as “well I never did well in exams either” or “I’m not surprised she is no good at [x subject / school] neither was her father.”   This is counter-productive and sends the message that the parent has no faith in their teen’s ability to surmount obstacles. Also, your teen is being educated in a different world to you, so comparison is not necessarily valid.  Some teens are quick to pick up on an excuse to drop out of the hard yards, because they have yet to learn the rewards of sticking with the long haul.  Rather have faith in your teen’s eventual success in their life-long learning journey and be there to pick them up when they lose faith in themselves.

Makes sure their teen knows that there is an expectation that they will develop and use their gifts and talents.
This means their teen knows it is not okay to squander the ability they have been given, and that with the privilege of having that talent in generous quantities comes the responsibility to put it to good use. Many cultures and religions would add the expectation that it should be put to good use in the service of others – their community or society. Many gifted individuals are driven by a passion to ‘make a difference’ in their world, so this expectation need not be the cause of conflict.

Understand that a learning journey and building mastery takes time.
Just as a small step forwards is not a major achievement, a small hiccup or backwards step is not a failure. Their teens know that it is their continued application and their ability to rise above disappointment or less-than-desirable outcomes that is admired by their parents, not just the award.

Understand that there is always going to be others out there who have more talent, and who are more gifted.
These parents measure their gifted teen by qualities such as perseverance, self-control, a growing self-efficacy and against their individual progress rather than against the grades and success of others.
Helping them bridge the gap between teen and adult does not mean you 
should become a doormat upon which they scrape their feet as they pass over! 
Parenting gifted teens is not for the faint-hearted! You need to be there for them when they want to throw in the towel, listen to the problems and issues they are facing and apply your parental wisdom in discussion with them as to their options, choices, and the consequences of those choices. Work with them to help them make informed decisions: help them find the experts and mentors who can give them the advice that is needed. (Their high school is sure to have personnel who can do this, but also seek assistance from people in the community). It takes a whole village to raise a child;  you are not on your own.

Above all, don’t lower your standards! Helping them bridge the gap between teen and adult does not mean you should become a doormat upon which they scrape their feet as they pass over! That sends a message that you don’t believe they can achieve.  Having realistic, high expectations of our gifted youth reaffirms our faith in their eventual success as they pick their pathways on their chosen journeys.

[1] Dr Timote Vaioleti, University of Waikato
[2] Factors Affecting the Achievement of talented urban Students (Reis, H├ębert, Diaz, Maxfield, Ratley (1995) Case studies of talented students who achieve and underachieve in urban high school. Storrs, CT: NRCGT
[3] I am not only referring here to highly successful academics.  It should not be forgotten that high achievers come in every field, from farming, to the arts, to community leaders and beyond. It is the behaviours of high achieving parents, in whatever area, that make parents excellent role models. So don’t count yourself out!

© Sonia White, (M.Gifted Ed).  Author, Teacher, Gifted Education Consultant (2012),  

This article is part of a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years. 

To read preceding articles on this topic click on the links:

Parents of Gifted:  2. Does your teen know you love them 'warts and all'?

Parents of Gifted:  3. Promote sensible risk-taking

Sonia White is a parent, teacher, author and gifted education consultant.  She has many years of experience working with gifted learners of all ages.
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Follow Sonia on Twitter: @SoniaWhite_  or Facebook: Sonia White Gifted Education    

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