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If you’ve been counting on your child being accepted into your district’s gifted program… or if your child is already proudly a designated member… or if your child was passed over or not even in the running to be called “gifted” … here’s a news flash: being labelled gifted or even smart isn’t the best thing that can happen to your child. It might even be the worst.

Labels like “gifted” and “smart” are just as limiting as any other labels people hang on children. They imply that a person IS something, all the time and forever. Labels like these indicate that a person is special without ever having to do anything to become special. And that’s where the trouble starts.

As noted scholar Eleanor Duckworth has pointed out, a trait mindset is less useful to a person than a growth mindset. In a trait mindset, a person is just born that way. They are naturally smart or athletic or artistic. They don’t have to work at it; things just come easy for them. Or not. One either Is or Is Not a particular labeled person, now and forever.

This means, of course, that if school comes hard for a child, under a trait mindset he expects it will always be hard. So there is no point in trying and he gives up. And – this is the kicker for gifted students – if school comes easy, there is the fear that someday it will be hard. There’s the fear that someday the child will be exposed as not-gifted and thrown out of the program or denied a prize. The gifted child, too, just like the struggling child, finds it safer to not try very hard. Labels and a trait mindset mean that all students work at less than their full capacity. For some children, labels make them give up. For other children, labels make them play it safe.

In a growth mindset, a person is working towards becoming smart or athletic or artistic. This takes effort and it’s expected that there will be triumphs and setbacks in just about equal measure.  A growth mindset is better for struggling children, who are supported in believing that practice will eventually pay off. But it’s also better for “gifted” and “smart” children, who are supported in taking chances and stretching their learning into difficult subjects.

If your child has avoided being labeled by the school or her teacher, good for her! If your child has acquired a label, either a conventionally positive one or a conventionally negative one, it’s time to take action.

  1. Avoid playing into the label game yourself. If you still have time to make a choice, think long and hard about nominating your child for your district’s gifted program, just as you would think long and hard about a move to any special needs category. In any event, avoid calling your child “smart” or “gifted” in exactly the way you’d avoid calling your child “dumb” or “slow.” All labels are limiting, even ones that appear positive.
  2. Encourage your child to take chances.  Let your child take on tasks that seem difficult. Obviously, you’ll advise against challenges that are out-and-out dangerous for someone of your child’s skill level, but don’t warn your child away from trying the things that might just be challenging. Avoid being overprotective.
  3. Let your child struggle. A growth mindset starts from the idea that a person doesn’t know everything and has things to learn. Learning is sometimes difficult. The road to knowledge is often bumpy. Don’t be too quick to lift your child over the bumpy parts. Let him find his own path.
  4. Reward grit and effort. Some parents want straight-As and blue ribbons, thinking that A students and first-place finishers are the most successful. But the child who must earn top marks to please her parents won’t take on the tough challenges. She will limit herself to tasks that aren’t difficult. This means the straight-A student is often less skilled and less capable than the student who knows how to work hard and relishes stretching her abilities.
  5. Notice when things are in a rut. When your child – or even when you – become complacent, not interested in doing more than the minimum, pay attention. Do what you can to shake things up a bit, especially setting a good example yourself. Remember that your results are not preset, based on a trait that simply Is who you are. Results are achieved through effort and growth.

We all want the best for our children and it’s tempting to believe that what’s best is what’s easy. In fact, the best things in life are never free, but are earned through dedicated effort. Even the smartest child should have to work hard.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

How distractible are you?

If you’re like a lot of people, your attention is constantly being pulled this way and that. You may find yourself jumping from the activity you’re engaged in to something else that you’re afraid you’ll forget to do, then trying to recapture what you were thinking before you got detoured.

This is a “normal” part of our busy, complicated lives. Mostly, we’re okay with this. But our kids may not be. During the older elementary school years and middle school grades, children increasingly need to stay focused on the task at hand. The most successful kids have learned how to control their attention.

Now there’s a way to help kids do just that. A study in “mindfulness” with 10- and 11-year-old students has demonstrated that practice in staying “in the moment” helps kids be more focused and less distracted. Mindfulness involves paying attention on purpose, in a calm, relaxed state. It has been shown to reduce stress levels and increase feelings of well-being.

The study was conducted in England with 30 preteens. Kids’ ability to pay attention and stay on-task was measured, then played a computer game designed to improve their level of focus. Measurements were made at three-month intervals to gauge changes over time in students’ ability to stay mentally on-task.

The exercise was a success. Students increased in ability to pay attention and ignore distractions. As the lead researcher said, “The ability to pay attention in class is crucial for success at school. Mindfulness appears to have an effect after only a short training course, which the children thoroughly enjoyed!”

The training helped children actually watch their minds at work and monitor their own levels of attention. The researchers believe a program like the one used in this study could help students who have attention difficulties like ADHD.

Notice that what was used in this study wasn’t just any video game, but one specifically designed to require mindfulness. But parents without this sort of tool can still help their children pay attention to their attention:

  1. Use what’s known as “think aloud” to model paying attention to thinking. When you get distracted, say, “Oh, my mind drifted away. I’ve got it back now. Tell me that again…”
  2. Encourage your child to monitor her own thinking, maybe when she’s doing homework. Help her to notice when her mind wanders off.
  3. Practice doing one thing at a time. Give whatever you’re doing your undivided attention and invite your child to do this too.

The ability to control attention has been shown in numerous studies to be important in children’s learning. Now that you’re mindful of mindfulness, you can guide your child better in developing this essential skill.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

The key focus these days in education circles is on “executive processing” skills of persistence, attention, and self-control. The truth is that learning the alphabet and numbers, even learning to read, are fairly simple for a teacher to orchestrate.

More difficult and more important are development of children’s attitudes towards learning. The problem has been that no one knew if some children are just born more disposed to learn or if teachers could do things to help executive processing skills along.

Now we have an idea. A study just published in School Psychology Quarterly found that teachers who support a “positive emotional tone” in their classrooms have students with better ability to pay attention, to stay on task, and to control themselves and who wind up learning more.

Researchers measured the achievement and executive processing ability of 800 preschool children enrolled in 60 schools in five school districts across the Southeastern United States. They also measured interactions between teachers and these children. Children whose teachers were more positive and less negative in their interactions developed children’s executive processing skills and their academic abilities. Lead researcher Dale Farran said, “Oddly, a positive tone in the classroom does not just affect children’s social development. The more positively welcoming classrooms are, the more children are going to learn in them.”

“Positive interactions” include being aware of children’s likely reactions to learning assignments and being proactive in guiding them to effective behavior before disruptive behavior occurs. What the researchers call “behavior disapproval” – signaling to a child that she is doing something wrong – has a negative effect on learning. Farran said, “The teacher must anticipate what’s coming up and not redirect after the fact. It’s a more subtle kind of planning that takes a lot of skill on the part of teachers.”

It’s a straight line between how teachers interact with children and the development of children’s ability to learn and their actual level of learning. Positive, proactive teachers get better results.

What does this mean for us? We usually have little control over how our child’s teacher does her job. What can we do?

  1. If you do have a choice, choose a preschool experience or a teacher who is socially skillful and child-centered. Look for teachers who are calm and who seem able to think one step ahead of the kids.
  2. If your child’s preschool or kindergarten teacher seems harsh and demanding, strongly consider other options. Executive processing skills and attitudes towards learning form early and last a lifetime. Early learning should be positive. If your child’s situation isn’t, then see if you can find another classroom for him.
  3. Practice positive interactions at home. You know your child even better than her teacher does, so you have an advantage. You understand what she will find difficult, where she is likely to get confused, and when she is likely to give up on a task. Be one step ahead of her. Guide her development of persistence, attention, and self-control by being positive and proactive, not negative and reactive.

Keep in mind how important executive processing skills are, for getting along at school and also for academic success.

Pay attention. Be persistent in your guidance of your child. And exert self-control so your guidance is positive, not negative.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.