Failure is often the best teacher, and every gifted child both has a right to it and needs to experience it in order to develop optimally.
Learning from failure
One of the most pervasive myths about gifted children is that “it must be so nice” to be gifted, because school is super easy for them, an unbroken string of academic successes. While flattering, not only is this perception an exaggeration, it’s also damaging to the very children of whom it is ostensibly envious — because they, too, might actually believe it.
Gifted children, as we have often said, are notoriously prone to perfectionism. It’s not hard to understand why — after all, many of them are, indeed, high achievers (though, as we have also often said, not always). If a child only experiences success, and not opportunities for learning from failure though, she’s treading on very thin ice. When she fails — and that is a when, not an if — she’s likely to have a very difficult time figuring out how to recover. Even small failures that only look like hiccups to others can feel enormous to children who have never experienced such a thing.
For example, making an error on a weekly spelling quiz in elementary school is certainly not unusual; in fact, it’s completely normal. However, for a child with a streak of perfect scores for years upon years, it might feel like a dramatically different outcome, because it is.
THE UNFAMILIARITY OF FAILURE
It is completely natural that any kind of divergence from the normal course of events would sound some kind of alarm bell in the brain, whose everyday operation depends on thousands upon thousands of recognized patterns and expected outcomes both large and small.
However, what looks like a small change to most other people might look completely different in the mind of a gifted child: take advanced abstract thinking capabilities, fold in analytical thinking, toss in some imaginational overexcitability, and mix with a proclivity to emotional sensitivity. Next thing you know, that child might very well have spun one or two spelling mistakes into something far more complex and with much wider ramifications: it becomes a moment that they imagine to be some kind of inflection point with huge and terrible consequences for their lives.
It is often in the makeup of a gifted child to ponder, to mull things over, and to sometimes perseverate; many of them have a natural bent to introspection, and an intrinsic drive to analyze things that they don’t immediately understand. Given these characteristics, it might be more surprising if the student did not spend time thinking about the error, what might have led to it, what happened to land them in this new and unpleasant destination, etcetera.
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with spending time thinking about an unfamiliar outcome — especially an unwelcome one — and trying to understand how it happened. In fact, this is precisely the kind of thinking that scientists do on a daily basis — the kind of thinking they are in fact trained to do.
What is problematic is what happens if thinking about what was different this week (more words with silent letters? more words of French origin? more words with the dreaded i-before-e combination?) gets stalled right in that spot, unable to make any kind of progress.
While a scientist knows that one piece of data that falls well outside the others is likely an outlier that can be disregarded as a useful piece of information, an elementary school student — even a very gifted one — does not necessarily have the emotional maturity to arrive at that conclusion, and can attach exaggerated importance to their mistake.
Why would a student capable of easily understanding the idea of an outlier in science or math class be unable to see past a very obvious one in their own life? For two reasons: first, they may have very limited experience of doing so, and second, because we don’t always realize that even a brilliant child might need something complex — like the workings of the human mind, which few adults will claim to have mastered — explained to them explicitly.
YOUR BRAIN PREFERS FAMILIAR TERRITORY
Walking unfamiliar ground is less comfortable than taking a well-trodden path for humans on both an experiential and physiological level. In everyday life, we spend a great deal more time and mental energy on new endeavors; for example, new drivers can be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information inputs (speedometer, tachometer, rear mirror, side mirrors, gas gauge, climate controls, road signs, radio volume, etc.) and drive more cautiously than those who have been driving for years.
Neurologically, what biologists call the “winner effect” is wired into the brain’s reward pathways, as well: when animals — whether tadpole or human — win at something, their brains release testosterone and dopamine.
With time and repetition, this signal morphs the brain’s structure and chemical configuration to make successful animals smarter, better trained, more confident, and more likely to succeed in the future. It means your brain is continually reconfiguring its neural pathways to maximize your chances of having that feeling again.
Our brains maximize the advantages of routines by making it easier to repeat successful behaviors; thus, often-repeated behaviors become more automatic, lightening the cognitive load required to accomplish them, while novel experiences demand much more attention and resources.
Similarly, a gifted child may be at minimum deeply emotionally unsettled by the very foreign feelings that accompany failure; if nothing else, their brain may not recognize the unmapped territory of what may be a very powerful emotional experience. The very unfamiliarity of the experience can intensify their feelings to a magnitude beyond their tolerance.
ASYNCHRONY AS A MAGNIFYING GLASS
The asynchrony that characterizes gifted children may be especially fertile soil for an intensified experience of failure. Their advanced intellectual capabilities can make it difficult to remember that their emotional age is likely to be the same as (if not slightly younger than) their chronological age.
That gap is exactly the right size and shape for outsized emotional experiences: a heightened response that is developmentally normal for a four-year-old is definitely surprising coming from a frustrated six-year-old, especially one with whom you have just been having a conversation about a much more advanced topic. In that moment, adults often default to addressing the issue logically the way they might with a much older person, calling on the child’s intellect to understand a situation that we can see that way only by dint of our own years of experience as human beings.
An adult trying to explain, “A 95 on your spelling quiz isn’t a big deal!” or something similarly rational is not likely to be able to get that child to step outside of their own immediate emotional response to see things from a different perspective — especially since the person they’re trying to reassure has a far less-developed frontal lobe.
It is easy not to fail: simply do nothing of significance. Failure is a sign of trying and this can lead to learning new ways of succeeding. All “successful” people have a history of failure; people who do not fail have a history of doing nothing.
— Philip Corr, Professor of Psychology, City University of London
MAKING FAILURE BORING
The best thing that we can do to help gifted children handle moments like this is both simple and complicated: make failure into an unremarkable patch of ground that they have tromped through a million times. In this case, in a striking contrast with their intrinsic desire for novelty, we seek to make something mundane.
How we do that is the complicated part, especially for educators — the same intellectual firepower that necessitates this plan also means that it’s just plain harder to make sure that they do experience opportunities for learning from failure. While there are innumerable ways to approach this “problem,” they boil down to tried and true practices: assess their prior knowledge and teach them complex new material at an accelerated pace appropriate to their rate of acquisition.
A student who has regularly experienced academic challenge — ideally, alongside intellectual peers — should also regularly experience both the highs and lows of tackling difficult material. They should be able to experience a feeling of accomplishment after expending significant effort on something over an extended period of time, but they should also be a frequent visitor to the other end of the academic landscape. Any kind of floundering isn’t fun, but it’s necessary, since it’s the only way they will develop the ability to survive that discomfort and move forward to try a new approach.
They also need to experience the varied “flavors” of failure: tiny, irritating, avoidable errors; utterly surprising disasters; and the worst kind of all, the kind you can see coming when you can’t step out of the way. Each of these has its own nuances, of course, and each will feel different. In a perfect world, they will have a taste of them all, and will thus be equipped to more easily reach into their toolbox of emotional and mental resources to handle such occasions when they arise in the future.
THEY DESERVE TO FAIL
The very ease with which many gifted students can consistently achieve academic success — which many of their peers (and their teachers, too) may find enviable — is the major contributor to the social-emotional morass in which they may find themselves after failure. As a society, Americans are highly focused on success; there are mountains of self-help books and piles of research on successful people’s habits and behaviors, and our culture emphasizes individual rather than collective achievement.
What that means in practice is that we may talk an awful lot in education and in parenting about resilience, but we don’t necessarily talk about what comes before resilience — failure. While they probably won’t be able to perceive their own response to failure as “developmentally appropriate,” gifted children may need help to understand that the way they feel when they don’t meet their own expectations is completely normal.
Given Nancy Robinson’s poignant characterization that “[i]ssues of difference pervade the lives of gifted children,” this might ironically be a way in which they feel exactly like their peers, for once.
Read more on teaching failure
Here are a few more posts from our Director of Research, Jill Williford Wurman, and our Head of School, Melissa Bilash, sharing tips and strategies for encouraging failure in your gifted children and students.
Robertson, I. H. (2018). The winner effect: The neuropsychology of power. In P. Garrard (Ed.), The leadership hubris epidemic: Biological roots and strategies for prevention. (pp. 57-66). Palgrave Macmillan.
Robinson, Nancy M. (1996). Counseling agendas for gifted young people: A commentary. Journal for the Education of the Gifted 20(2), 128-137.