Thursday, August 30, 2012

Perfectionism in Gifted

I honestly thought we had avoided this.

The Child is gifted, and after two years of being her teacher, I have watched her flourish and come into her own. Yes, she is still a typical kid and grumbles about French verbs, but generally, as she is designing her own learning plan, she is very motivated and enthusisatic about what she is doing; she is also willing to take risks, dive in and start over if it doesn't work. This risk-taking attitude took a couple years to develop in her academically, but now it is pretty well settled in.

Not so in softball, and it is finally catching up to her. She is a good softball player, with a great mind for the game. The next couple years are crucial, as players are separated into two categories: those that will continue and be scouted for college softball, and those that will play reasonably well and end their careers in high school. The Child would like to be the former; her stated goal is to play for the Washington Huskies softball team in college on a full-ride scholarship.

Trouble is, right now she is crippled by perfectionism and having a hard time trying to change what isn't working. Example: her swing. She knows, intellectually, what she needs to change. She has heard the same thing for the past three years from many different people. Her problem is that she doesn't want to do something that she isn't good at (i.e., try a new swing and start to slump as she makes adjustments). The Child is hard on herself and wants to be the best but can't get herself to make the changes she needs to be the best. A vicious, painful cycle.

So how do you get a gifted kid to leave perfectionism behind and be okay with failure?

Some ideas:

1. Set goals and focus on improvement. In school, The Child has benefitted by having a vision of the big picture, and then breaking it down into smaller steps and giving each a time frame for completion. This is the approach I have suggested to her dad, who is an assistant coach on her team. This prevents the task from being overwhelming.

2. Start from a strengths perspective, not a deficit model. Focus first on the areas in which a student is confident and capable, then use whatever helps them in that area to apply to their area of weakness. For example, an excellent math student who struggles with writing might benefit from looking at essays as puzzles to be solved or formulas into which information can be plugged (at least initially). These same students struggling with sentence construction and grammar might be more comfortable with that old dinosaur, sentence diagramming, as it is more mathematical in nature.

3. Focus on encouragement, not praise. Praise says, "Good job!" (vague and non-specific, thus offering no base to work from), and encouragement says, "You kept your eyes on the ball all the way to the bat," or "The way you set up that problem and gathered your resources before you began really helped you work through the problem!" Praise is hollow, and encouragement highlights what worked well. Even if they didn't hit the ball or they got the problem wrong, this gives a positive starting point; you can then ask, "What went wrong?" and let the student work backwards.

4. Study successful people. Man, did they ever fail: often, hard and frequently. The difference? They were not crippled by their failures; they may have felt a bit down by them, but not defeated.  As Andre Malraux, French historian, said, "Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not that one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one's ideas, to take a calculated risk - and to act." Steve Jobs, one of our most famous failures, was fired from Apple. His response, not the fact of being fired, is what matters; Apple is now the single most successful company in the world, largely due to his sometimes prickly leadership.

5. Eat the elephant in small bites, and enjoy the meal. Take small steps towards whatever you are trying to improve while continuing to let your kid take giant leaps in the areas in which s/he is confident. Enjoy each achievement, and enjoy the journey. This is not a race to the end; this is the major work (and joy) of life.

There is a wealth of information on this topic on Hoagies Gifted Education page. If you have worked with a kid who struggles with perfectionism, leave a comment below about how you managed it!

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