Gifted Students and The Fear of Failure

once upon a timeLast year, I started tutoring a gifted middle school student named Naomi*, a sweet-natured, lovely, young tween who was doing excellent in all of her subjects, except for writing. Now, it was not that Naomi was a bad student with poor grades or poor behavior. In fact, Naomi was getting by in English class but just not acing her tests and receiving B’s instead of A’s on her papers. I was called in as academic support simply because she didn’t like writing.

What’s the Problem with Not Liking Something?

Not liking writing was not a problem for Naomi but, rather, her teacher and her mom. Together, they each encouraged Naomi to “find her voice” through the written word but despite all of this encouragement, Naomi was still not living up to her potential. I could see after just one session that she clearly had the capability to do better but for some reason purposely chose not to. Why? Well, because when Naomi didn’t like something, she quit.

The problem doesn’t lie with disliking a class or an activity. We all have our preferences. Rather, the problem lies with how we address disliking a class or activity, especially when it’s something that we have to do, like school.

Gifted Students Often Give Up When Things Get Difficult

Gifted or high achieving students often have low self-esteem because they tend to be perfectionists. Many things come naturally to these students and when something suddenly doesn’t, they have to make a choice: power through or give up.

Oftentimes, they initially give up. If they give up enough times, they’ve unintentionally created a pattern of quitting, which leads to low confidence and low self-esteem — thinking that they can only be good at the things that they’re naturally good at and not the things that they must work hard for.

It’s also a question of failure. The student may reason that there’s a greater chance of failure if they embark on the journey of working hard on a subject matter that is not necessarily easy, like all of the rest of their classes. Will the risk be worth it?

Help Students See that Working Hard for Something is Worth It

The fact of the matter is that no one can be good at everything. It’s impossible. What’s funny about working with my logical and reasonable gifted students is that logic and reason doesn’t help them overcome their fear of failure. Logic and reason would tell you to take the easy way out. Grit would tell you to shoot for the stars, without a guarantee.

Also, for many students this may be the first time in their life that school is hard. Presented with this new challenge they have to decide to put more effort into something that may not reap the same reward. And that’s scary!

Now Naomi Wants to be a Writer

Even though Naomi presented with a dislike of writing, her real issue was that she was scared of failing because most everything had come so easily to her before this class. Once we got to the root of the problem, I began to help her see the value in working hard at something even though there was no guarantee of easy success.

Naomi did the work. She practiced. Her confidence slowly improved. And Just last week, she informed that she wants to be a professional writer. It’s clear that Naomi’s not scared of trying new things anymore.

*Not student’s real name

Christine Terry, J.D., is a Special Education Advocate & Founder of Terry Tutors. She created the One Wraparound Service for The Struggling Student, which includes Academic, Behavior, Special Education Advocacy, and School Placement services. Christine truly loves helping students realize their inner potential and the possibilities that await them: “To be a part of a student’s ‘ah ha’ moment is the best feeling in the world because I know I’m helping that student build foundational confidence that will lead to a successful path, not just in school but throughout life!”

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