I sat next to Max on the floor of the hallway. Head in his hands, face streaked with tears, he'd just worked on a math problem in class that frustrated him. When he was finally able to come up with an answer, I sent him back to try again because it wasn't correct. This is where the tears began.
Struggle isn't something that students like Max, who are used to getting things right the first time, are accustomed to. But in my gifted and talented (GT) classroom, I want my students to learn to be comfortable in the uncomfortable; this is where I can really begin my social and emotional learning (SEL) instruction.
We can talk about what to do when it feels like you've hit a wall yet have to continue with the task. Gifted and talented students are great vertical learners. They know how to climb up, but when that ladder is taken away, they struggle to understand the next steps. But understanding these next steps is crucial to my students' lifelong success.
Many GT programs, including the one in which I teach in Arkansas, focus on late elementary and early middle school students. Some students are hitting obstacles early on and are therefore ready for the SEL instruction. Others won't meet an academic challenge head-on until they are in advanced classes in high school. And because these advanced classes are not targeted at GT kids, who are neurodivergent learners, any characteristics unique to them may not be obvious to the untrained eye.
GT students typically learn in one to three repetitions what takes a neurotypical learner 10 or more repetitions to learn. It's only when they begin taking advanced and AP courses that GT students may finally be learning content that they don't pick up as easily. For many of my students, this is the first time they are truly challenged on a daily basis. If they don't know how to handle this, they can begin a spiral of self-doubt.
Often, students like Max will choose to fail rather than try something hard. Choosing failure on purpose is the safer choice. So is seeming lazy or apathetic in class. However, the underlying problems are often far different. Perfectionism, which many of my students struggle with, rears its head in many unusual forms.
On the surface, Max may look fine and well-adjusted, leisurely swimming along. However, underneath the water he is pedaling hard to stay afloat. What happens when Max hits the point where his struggles are more than he can handle on his own? He'll need support and help rebuilding his deteriorating confidence.
When my students are young, they are with teachers like me who are trained in the specifics of identifying and helping with these unique issues. In my classroom, I create situations where Max and students like him have a safe space to fail. However, as Max continues on his academic journey, he may no longer be receiving gifted and talented-specific instruction at a time when he needs it the most.
Each learner is different, but recognizing the problem is an excellent place to begin. Identifying that procrastinating starting a project is due to perfectionism instead of laziness. Knowing that a student is under-achieving because of a lack of challenge instead of a lack of ability.
If we are going to help each child reach their maximum potential, general education teachers must have the right training and support to work with GT students. For example, one strategy might be to provide opportunities for high-ability students to demonstrate their higher levels of thinking and learning while working on the same standard as other students in the room.
Teachers who work with GT students should also partner with parents in identifying when their children are struggling with an unhealthy perfectionism. Students need help recognizing it in themselves and learning how to regulate it, such as focusing on the effort and the process instead of the final product. Another strategy is for teachers and parents to foster friendships by creating opportunities for interactions between students and their peers with similar intellectual abilities, even if this means looking for opportunities with students of differing ages.
With thoughtful strategies that take into account GT students' unique needs, students like Max can learn to self-regulate and successfully cope when things get hard. Instead of feeling like he doesn't fit in with his peers, Max might find that he just needs to understand himself and his own needs in friendships. Instead of feeling disconnected from their teachers, students like Max can learn to turn to them for help because they have an empathetic understanding of just how hard they are paddling to stay afloat.
Ashley Rieske is an elementary Gifted and Talented facilitator at Fairview Elementary and Rogers Virtual Learning. She is a Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellowship alumna.