Being “smart” has advantages, but it also has drawbacks. Gifted students don’t breeze through life any more than anyone else does. One trait common to accelerated students is their fear of failure. As was aptly written on a baseball poster hanging in my 7th grade accelerated math class, “You can’t hit the ball if you keep thinking of all the ways you could miss.” Parents and teachers do a great justice when they encourage children to take risks and accept challenges at a young age.
Too Much Praise
Compliment a child on effort and play down the actual success or failure. Continually reinforce the concept that no one is a failure if he tries. Whereas most children begged to have math contests, one boy I taught would always get ‘sick’ when we had one. He confided that he would “just be too embarrassed if he got a wrong answer.” This very intelligent boy had routinely been set apart as the perfect example by teachers in the past. He was feeling the pressure of those expectations. Praise is great, as long as it isn’t solely focused on the feat of winning.
Too Little Challenge
Accelerated students often don’t learn to study or manage their time, since they can usually just ‘wing it’. They become complacent and comfortable with this lack of challenge. So often through the years I heard parents say, “My other child is no problem. I don’t have to help her; she gets all A’s on her own.” I would cringe. That’s a disservice to the struggling sibling and the accelerated one as well. Parents and teachers need to take an active lead in making sure that gifted students take risks and are challenged. Put them into situations where they are not sure if the outcome will be success or failure. Push them out of their comfort zones. If this prodding happens early on, accelerated students will eventually learn to welcome challenge; they’ll even seek it out.
What Does Risk Mean to a Particular Child?
Observe the student. Talk to her; find out what makes her uncomfortable. Then help to guide her through her fears, to her competency level. Discuss what life would be like if she never took risks. Perhaps the challenge she fears is physical. For example, she’d love to rollerblade with her friends, but she doesn’t because she’s afraid she’ll look silly. Maybe her fear is a social one. She stays home from parties because she’s sure she won’t fit in. The risk she needs to take could be emotional. She fears being judged, so she keeps her feelings bottled inside. Attempt to get to the bottom of it.
A Parent or Teacher Can Help
Work together with this student as he challenges himself. Decide together what risk he’ll tackle. Come up with several steps that he can adopt to conquer this fear of failure. Emphasize that failure should be embraced as a learning experience.
A very intelligent boy, Jimmy, was petrified of giving a presentation in class. He opted to take a “0” rather than risk failing in front of the other students. He and I developed a 5-step plan to help him approach this difficult challenge.
He’d raise his hand in class more to answer out loud. (We had an additional agreement that I’d make a point to call on him if he didn’t raise his hand.)He signed up to read the morning announcements on the school’s loud speaker. He could then be heard, but not seen.
He volunteered to be a group leader when students broke into problem-solving groups in class.
He practiced his presentation several times at home for his family. They even videotaped it.
He came into class during lunch to practice the presentation in the exact spot where he’d be delivering it.
Once he was able to move toward his fear and relax, Jimmy ended up realizing that he actually had a flare for speaking. He reached his competence level by working up to it gradually. He even joined the after-school drama club. None of us knows our true potential until we’re pushed beyond our comfort zones.
As Brian Tracy says in his How to Overcome the Fear of Failure video, “The courage comes after you’ve confronted the fear.”