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The Gift of Failure

Perfectionism is highly correlated with giftedness, especially highly or profoundly gifted students. With perfectionism the idea of failure is anxiety provoking, but how often does learning occur without some degree of failure? Due to the nature of their incredible abilities, these little lights shine brightly from an early age. Failure is rare or perhaps overshadowed and overlooked by all the early milestones and successes.


Naturally the feedback they receive from the beginning with early accomplishments is a resounding "Wow!" or "That's amazing!" They often move through curriculum at ease from very early on, receiving excellent scores. They are rewarded with significant positive feedback with regards to academic success. They may receive some enrichment in school in the form of additional work. After much red tape and hurdles, these students can be advanced by a single subject or grade.

As parents it is difficult to keep these children challenged. This is especially evident in elementary school. Asynchronous development complicates this as well. We have to find the "sweet spot" of acceleration that balances academic rigor, interesting and engaging content, subject depth, and individual executive function. For example writing long papers about big ideas and concepts for little hands often can result in big meltdowns. The existential crisis of the blank page alone is enough to provoke overwhelming feelings for young perfectionists. Watching our young children struggle is difficult but necessary. Without struggle at what point do our HG/PG students learn to fail? Richard Rusczyk, founder of AOPS, writes in his article "Don't Fall Into the Calculus Trap,"

If ever you are by far the best, or the most interested, student in a classroom, then you should find another classroom. Students of like interest and ability feed off of each other. They learn from each other; they challenge and inspire each other. Going from “top student in my algebra class” to “top student in my college calculus class” is not a great improvement. Going from “top student in my algebra class” to “average student in my city’s math club” is a huge step forward in your educational prospects. The student in the math club is going to grow by great leaps, led and encouraged by other students.


In other words, seek out challenges. Finding enough acceleration for the HG/PG student is not only challenging, but also on-going. The HG/PG group often needs more than their gifted same age classmates. Sometimes they require more acceleration (or more frequent acceleration) than schools are willing or able to provide. The small gains in enrichment or advancement may not be substantial or sustainable enough for the HG/PG group. Worse, they may create extra work on top of an already mundane curriculum. HG/PG students may perceive that they are in twice as much "school" as their classmates and feel less inspired and more bogged down. Jennifer Greene points out the importance of finding enough challenge in her article, "Why Getting 100% on Everything is Setting Gifted Students Up to Fail."

She writes, "Making failure less scary will also mean that when students hit walls in college and in life, they’ll know how to approach the harder problems they’re facing...In years to come, how will your student cope with hard college classes if they’re not being challenged right now?

Dealing with challenges means more than not giving up on after they’ve gotten a "B" for the first time (although persistence and responding to constructive criticism are crucial life skills). It means all the things that go along with trying to learn something truly difficult."

Gifted students need material that really challenges them, not only to learn efficiently, but also to learn how to problem solve and, more importantly, how to study. For some HG/PG students, early high school and early college are inevitable. These kids must learn to problem solve and be independent on a faster and earlier timeline than their same age mates in order to be able to manage higher level academics in a shorter frame of time.

One thing that Rusczyk points out is the importance of finding like minded peers. He says, "In addition to this intellectual enrichment, the social enrichment of being amongst like-minded peers is invaluable. My closest friends now are doctors, bond traders, consultants, lawyers, professors, artists, and so on. Some are religious, some aren’t. Some are athletic, some aren’t. The common thread among them all is that they all enjoy using their minds...The top athletes don’t take PE in school, or even PE in the nearby college. They gather with other top athletes in special programs to enhance their development. The top students can do the same for their minds." For the average or above average student, finding challenge is easier. Learning and personal growth are done in a more traditional and straightforward timeline. Challenge is easily found early on and study skills are developed naturally and encouraged and supported by teachers and peers simultaneously. Just by being in school (pending some individualized adjustments), they are constantly immersed in a learning environment. Unlike other students, the HG/PG student is not constantly immersed in a learning environment. Actual learning occurs less frequently for this population. The development of study skills does not start early on and as naturally for HG/PG students as a result of a gross misunderstanding of the needs of the HG/PG population. Because of the rarity of these students, there are statistically very few true peers to provide that positive peer pressure that catalyzes academic and social development. The lack of opportunities to learn in school can leave much time for learning less desirable skills, such as learning to fly under the radar or to do the bare minimum. Finding challenge early combined with finding true peers who may positively influence your child can be helpful in warding off the potential for future underachievement and at-risk issues. It is crucial to find ways to present challenge early on with the HG/PG population. It is crucial to help them connect with true peers to challenge and encourage them, so they can feed off of each other's positive energy. Kids who already know the material and are performing perfectly aren’t learning much in the way of new academic concepts OR in the concept of HOW to learn.


Knowing is not learning

There is a need to experience some failure. It can be viewed as a necessary and substantial part of the learning process. We fail and we fall so that we may get up stronger than before. "It can be profoundly unpleasant for a student who’s never faced truly challenging material to encounter it for the first time. Some students who haven’t learned how to reach out for help may feel pressure to cheat. Others may even quit studying fields they used to love and settle for majors that seem less difficult.

That’s why, as students move beyond the basics, it’s crucial for them to see material that actually challenges them. Young learners need opportunities to try answering questions that push their abilities. They won’t get everything right, of course—but that’s exactly the point. Advanced students deserve to see that failing isn’t a sign that they’re secretly stupid. Instead, they should learn that hard things are just that: hard. And when, with hard work and persistence, they eventually get it right, they’ll be even more proud of their accomplishments."



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