Teach Them Early- EASY ≠ SMART
By Wendy Clark
WAETAG Board Member
With the end of another year upon us, I think ahead to the coming fall when I will undoubtedly have the same conversation with several of my new third grade families. They are concerned. Their child is upset that school is too hard, perhaps the teacher doesn’t like them. They don’t understand. In past years, their child enjoyed school even though sometimes it was too boring. They are worried. Will their smart child dislike school and not reach their potential?
My end of the conversation usually goes something like this. “I understand why you’re concerned. Your child is very capable and so far in school most things have come quite easily, possibly too easily. I’m trying to meet their needs by providing work at their level, which may be higher than their grade level’s standards. It’s important for your child to work through these new challenges and learn now that EASY does not equal SMART.” At this last comment, I get mixed reactions. While many recognize the need for a mindset that welcomes challenge and hard work, some don’t agree that eight-year-olds should be expected to work through difficult tasks that challenge their abilities, no matter how far above grade level their abilities lie.
Understandably, the majority of the K-2 years are spent learning the most technical aspects of reading, that letters make sounds that translate into words. It is extremely important that we spend much energy getting students to learn how to read in K-2 so that they can more easily transition from learning to read, to reading to learn. So, what happens with students that come to school knowing how to read? The same can be wondered about the ability to compute and decompose multi-digit numbers, or write sophisticated stories.
If we’re not careful about the kind of feedback and praise we give students, students may end up thinking that they must be so smart because things come easily to them. What happens then when they come upon a challenge? As analogies go, once young kids think that "easy = smart", then it isn't a huge leap for them to feel that "hard = dumb".
How do we prevent or fix this kind of thinking? We need to be careful with our praise and focus on the effort put forth. This will help to develop a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed one. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, has published a lot of research in this area. People with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and talents are static and may not spend time trying to develop them. Years of praising students for tasks that require little to no effort may inadvertently help lead them to a fixed mindset, and keep them from attempting challenging tasks that put them at risk of failure. By recognizing the high intelligence and talents in our gifted students early, and providing encouragement and praise for efforts during difficulties, we can help them to develop resiliency. To not only persevere through challenges, but to also seek them out in order to foster capabilities is a worthy goal for all students. Hard work does matter, and students need to develop grit. However, having either a fixed or a growth mindset won’t make anyone more or less gifted. This article, published in Psychology Today, shows that while hard work may trump talent, that’s only the case if talent doesn’t also work hard.
In small districts like mine where the basis of our highly capable program in the early grades is clustering students with teachers that have had some training in the area of giftedness, it is essential that teachers learn to foster a growth mindset. Clustered students are in general education classrooms where it may be easy for them to get the message that putting forth little effort will result in the highest grades, rewards, or praise. Simply measuring their work against the grade level standards or bell curve of the class isn’t enough. We need to keep them challenged, recognizing attempts and failures as opportunities to help them develop a growth mindset. This video by Northwest Gifted Child Association is a fabulous example of how students that don’t experience challenge in their early elementary years don’t learn how to learn and develop grit. This often leads to underachievement and fear of failure when they are older.
Carol Dweck has outlined four steps to help develop grit and move from a fixed to a growth mindset. You can read about them here. These steps can help students recognize and talk back to negative, fixed mindset thoughts. Using this kind of metacognition, students then begin to take action and seek opportunities for growth. Gifted students need to know and understand their giftedness, to recognize that their unique traits and strengths. Teach them early. Yes, many tasks may still come easier to them because they are smart or talented, but when the going gets tough the easy:smart::hard:dumb analogy will no longer hold them back.
For more on this topic:
How Not to Talk to Your Kids
Living and Creating: Fear is Not a Disease
The Power of Belief – Mindset and Success
Making a Difference: Motivating Gifted Students Who Are Not Achieving