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What Parents Can Do When Their Gifted Child Is Unhappy at School

Here's a pragmatic approach for parents of gifted children.

Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

Gifted children and their parents and teachers often misunderstand school frustration as abnormal. The belief that smart children will love school and be very obedient creates a problem with expectations for everyone involved in the gifted child’s education. Because as hard as parents try to find the “right” school for their son or daughter, many problems, both expected and unexpected, can easily arise. And parents quickly know (or will soon find out) that their child is not adjusting well at school. What I mean here is not that the child is unhappy because they don’t have enough Legos, enough trips to Disneyland, or enough screen time. Rather, I mean deeper and more serious unhappiness or even despair because the child is not thriving in school, both socially and academically.

Gifted children at school can have problematic experiences that are not easy to figure out. Teachers can be mean and demanding to the child. And teachers can see their parents as equally demanding and pushy, as well. School frustration problems are all over the place, so I have broken down who is being neglected/misunderstood into different categories:

The Children

Gifted children are the most affected. Their parents are high-strung and filled with expectations for school success. And why not be positive? Parents know their child is smart and think that school should be easy for them. They have carefully found a school that works with gifted kids. Speaking with their child in a positive manner, their child is excited about school both as an intellectual challenge and to meet new kids to have fun with and play with. Unfortunately, all schools have rules and structures that gifted kids may find hard to follow. Parents do not realize how stubborn their gifted child can be if they don't like the expectations from teachers (such as completing and handing in homework) or the rigid requirements of many school rules. For example, “following directions” is a steep hill to climb if your child is not in the least interested in the outcome.

The Teachers

Teachers, on the other hand, have been told by parents how talented and motivated their children are and how their children love learning. When the gifted child walks into their classroom the reality of their presence can be a shock. Gifted children can be awkward, shy, overly talkative, or unable to stay still. And gifted kids are not usually fast learners when it comes to “fitting into” the classroom. Teachers will most likely have to give extra special attention to the talented and eager children who are supposed to be so easy to work with. Teachers become as frustrated as the students, working together in the classroom on a daily basis, sometimes at cross-purposes.

The Parents

Parents have been careful to find the best school they can afford, given their lifestyle and financial ability. Does mom work full time? Who can pick up the children? Often, public schools are selected over private schools because of the extra resources that can be provided at no extra cost. Even parents who have lived through learning issues in preschool are not prepared for their child's life at a more structured school and a longer day. Parents want to believe that their child is well-behaved and flexible enough to fit into a new learning situation. Furthermore, parents think that their son or daughter will be able to work effectively with the teachers and school staff. My experiences indicate that gifted kids can be very hard to work with. For example, sitting still and listening are basic to school success but very hard for overly curious children to contend with.

Teachers and administrators don't want to have to deal with the problems of overzealous and entitled parents and children. What teachers want is compliant kids who follow the rules with great finesse, always.

Causes of Frustration and Strategies for Families and Schools

Realistic and flexible expectations are extremely necessary if gifted children, parents, teachers, and administrators are to work together. Here are some possible causes of frustration.

1. The first problem that can cause frustration is the stated and unstated belief that there is a one-size-fits-all gifted child who is thoughtful, motivated, well-behaved, and curious but calm. There is no evidence that this gifted child exists. At least in my experience as an educational consultant, author, and parent of gifted children, I have never encountered such a child. Gifted children are as different as can be. Some are shy. Some are loud. Some are heartless. And some are kind and caring. Some never stop talking or demanding attention. Others keep to themselves and seem fearful of asking for help. Frustration will diminish if you know what type of gifted child you are trying to educate. But please, no labels.

2. Parents are smart and will want to make your life easy. Wrong. No matter what, parents of gifted kids have high expectations of their children.

3. Teachers and administrators will be patient with you and your child. Wrong again. Teachers get tired of the stress of gifted families and seek out “help” from other members of the staff who will support this idea of frustration and perhaps be unkind to your family. For example, they might, upon an infraction of the rules, send your child home, which further exacerbates the shame of getting in trouble. Talking it out is better, though more time-consuming.

4. There are no clear rules for raising gifted kids. The only truth I can come up with is that gifted kids are very challenging, and you need all kinds of extra help.

Easy Solutions That Are Helpful

1. Help find a gifted friend for your child.

2. Educate family members about how gifted children need extra attention.

3. Find challenging after-school activities for gifted kids.

4. Join a parenting group for mothers and fathers of gifted children.

More from Barbara Klein Ph.D., Ed.D.
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