How to Keep Gifted Kids Motivated

How to keep gifted kids motivated by Gifted Guru

Ever wondered how to keep gifted kids motivated? Ever laid awake nights wondering how to keep gifted kids motivated? Ever torn your hair out wondering how to keep gifted kids motivated?

Spoiler: I don’t have the answer.

The reason there’s no answer is that the intervention will only work if:

A) the theory about why the person is unmotivated is correct, and

B) the person cares as much about the lack of motivation as you do, and

C) the person is mentally healthy.

Before you get too discouraged, I do have some suggestions.

How to Keep Gifted Kids Motivated

1. Respectful work

Students are…wait for it…human. And humans like respectful work. It’s harder to get motivated to clean a toilet than to do something you find rewarding.

Too often, we ask GT students to have a level of motivation completely unreasonable for the task.

I’ve written about how we have expectations of the gifted we don’t have of typical learners, and this is part of it.

Motivation is deeply connected to the reward centers of the brain. There is no dopamine available to learners asked to do the same or similar task that offers no challenge day after day. No dopamine = no motivation.

The student may not be unmotivated; the student may be demonstrating a reasonable response to low-level work.

2. We reward them too much.

We connect learning to reward very young, and all those stickers and grades eventually degrade motivation to learn when it’s not being rewarded (and even when it is).

Teachers and parents need to back off of external rewards and help youth recognize the inherent pleasure and satisfaction to be found in work and learning.

We can start by modeling it ourselves instead of complaining when we’re asked to do something for no reward. Kids hear that.

Over-reward in areas outside of school influence school motivation, so it’s important that we avoid ridiculous rewards in all areas. That means no trophies for T-ball. T-ball does not deserve a trophy, friends.

This isn’t just an older student phenomenon. A great study has shown how even preschoolers get demotivated by external reward. If you want to read more, I’ve mentioned Alfie Kohn’s book before, and it’s worth mentioning again here. Read it to understand the damage we’re doing.

3. Lack of Autonomy

One of thing’s Dan Pink wrote about in Drive was the importance of a sense of autonomy in being motivated. We have to feel a sense of choice. Here are some ideas to add a sense of choice (or maybe even genuine choice):

  • My friend Laurie Westphal has written soooo many books on using menus with gifted kids.
  • Allow acceleration in all its forms. Check out the Acceleration Institute‘s great information.
  • Encourage options in reading and use read-ahead contracts.
  • If you sense resistance to an assignment, allow the student to offer an alternate suggestion. You don’t have to accept unreasonable suggestions, but it’s helpful to allow the opportunity.

4. Lack of Purpose

We are asking kids to accept that if they work hard (at things they find no joy in), they can go to college. After college (which they may also not at all enjoy), they can get a good job (which they may also not at all enjoy). After they get a good job… oh, wait. What happens then?

Ian Byrd has spoken about this, and I think it’s such an incredibly important idea. We have to accept that our purpose is not their purpose. We have to help them find greater purpose.

I completely disagree with the people (mostly irritating me on Twitter) who are all about how kids need to change the world. That’s a lot of pressure for a ten-year-old. I do agree that they can change their own world. But this will only happen if we let them.

Help them identify who they would like to be as well as what they would like to be.

5. Too little Stress

Yeah, I lost you here a little, didn’t I? I know. Just hold on.

Dan Peters and I wrote about myths about anxiety, and one of the myths of anxiety is that if you’re feeling at all anxious, you should avoid whatever it is making you anxious.

Anxiety is normal.

We’re built to feel anxiety. It’s totally normal. We have an entire biological system to help us feel anxious when something threatens us. In some people this system goes awry, but for the vast majority of people, normal amounts of anxiety pose no problem. Don’t believe the memes that people share on Facebook. Actually, if you want to decrease anxiety, avoid Facebook in general.

In the past twenty years, we’ve had this huge parental shift towards protecting kids from any anxiety. This has led to kids being protected from activities that help them learn how to deal with normal anxiety. Let kids feel a little stressed. It will help them develop the skills they need.

6. Perfectionism

I literally wrote the book on perfectionism, and I’m convinced it is a common thread in a lack of motivation.

When you set unreasonable goals for yourself and realize you can’t meet them, it’s hard to stay motivated.

Teachers and parents should make sure that they are not creating a culture and climate of perfectionism in classes and homes.

Ironically, the opposite can also be an issue. We have kids who are so conditioned to the glory of their virtual lives that they stop seeking or caring about any real achievement in their real lives. Dialing back screens and engaging kids in their real lives can counteract this anti-perfectionism.

7. Rebellion

Gifted kids often reject the whole “learning in exchange for a grade” economy. They often exert control over their lives by rejecting things their parents value. Sometimes, they just want to fit in with peers, and they can undermine themselves intentionally.

Teaching and learning have a personality component, and students can rebel against a teacher they don’t like by refusing to perform.

Children can often rebel against their parents’ expectations for them as well.

What looks like a lack of motivation can actually be a strong motivation to prove that the adults around them don’t control them.

8. We Expect Them to Wait Too Long for Too Little

As soon as you submit something you’ve done, the clock starts ticking. You want to know how you did. Too many times, kids turn in work and then wait…and wait…and wait to find out how the work was evaluated.

Report cards do not motivate students.

In addition to time, we also have to make sure that we are giving our GT students quality feedback. Too often, the GT students are getting a happy face sticker and nothing else. We should be telling them where they can grow.

We need to be giving quality and timely feedback to students.

So there are eight things to consider when thinking of how to keep gifted kids motivated. I hope they help at least start a conversation with the gifted kids in your life.

Interested in more? Try these articles that relate to motivation:

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Ideas for how to keep gifted kids motivated from Gifted Guru

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