Describing Your Child’s Abilities to Others, Their School – and Themselves!
For some reason, it can be particularly uncomfortable to talk about your own child’s strengths, particularly when these abilities seem to make them stand out from the crowd. However, it is likely that a young person with high learning potential will already sense that they don’t quite fit in with their peers and an explanation of ‘why’ could be just what is needed to reassure and motivate them.
Research[A] suggests that at least three-quarters of adolescents later revealed to be gifted were already aware that they were ‘different’; experts[B] agree that danger lies in children making up their own explanations for why this is. Potential Plus UK echoes this, with many children with high learning potential who they support, finding great comfort and focus when their abilities are revealed.
If you notice your child is becoming negatively affected by feeling different, this is a good time to talk to them about their strong abilities and the complexities these can bring. This knowledge allows a high potential learner and their family to seek out friends who are not ‘different’ to them and to ask for appropriate support and meaningful challenge at school, for example.
Choose your Words
What do you say? “Bright”? “Able”? “Clever”? “Smart”? Find words or phrases that fit your family culture and show love and encouragement for your ‘bright spark’ – but not pressure. Also, avoid nicknames that have negative connotations.
Although many schools have a “Gifted and Talented” policy or register, be careful with the word ‘gifted’. In a study[C], children whose parents told them that they were ‘gifted’ actually had lower self-image, higher anxiety and increased behavioural issues. It might be the parental expectations in this group were stressfully high and did not allow for natural setbacks along the way. However, since 2013, Potential Plus UK has also raised concerns about the term ‘gifted’, feeling it can be misinterpreted and often conjures up unfortunate negative stigma. The charity now uses the term having ‘high learning potential’ to describe those with the possibility of achieving highly when given the correct support along the way.
How to Say it
Be optimistic and positive! Don’t burden your child with any high expectations, but do acknowledge that they will meet setbacks and, like anyone else, need support with both their strengths and weaknesses in order to reach their potential.
Don’t feel the need to apologise to other parents for your child’s talents, but then again don’t be arrogant either. Being proud is good, but ‘showing off’ can alienate others and doesn’t help prepare a young high potential learner for inevitable setbacks.
For more background discussion, see advice sheet PA521 What to Tell Children about their High Learning Potential (free to members in the Family Member Resources Area)
Talking to Other Parents
Helpful phrases when talking to other adults about your child’s unconventional passions might be:
“It’s his thing at the moment!”
“She just so loves [dinosaurs / the periodic table]… What can you do?!”
“Isn’t it great to see your child really enjoying something?”
“I’m so glad he has discovered [the solar system] because he’s just so happy now in the evenings. Your son is like that with his football cards, isn’t he?”
By drawing a comparison to the more mainstream interests of others, friends’ parents may be more accepting of slightly unusual or intellectual obsessions. Also, finding common ground can be key and helps to demonstrate you are not a ‘pushy parent’ – a label so many are desperate to avoid. It would be hard for another parent or carer not to share joy in seeing a child find something they really get a buzz from.
Given the right circumstances, share some of the challenges and meltdowns you face when you misplace a Rubik’s Cube or Top Trumps set, for example. When others realise you, too, are human and share similar stresses, they can understand the world of a high learning potential family is challenging and not simply full of benefits, like they may have imagined.
With the right people, you could even reach out by saying “They are all such little individuals aren’t they? It’s such a shame, though, because he’s been so picked on for loving maths equations that he now feels wrong and upset for being so fascinated…”. Or ask straight out for advice such as “What do you do when your son refuses to come off the games console at bedtime, because I have the same problem trying to get my daughter to stop reading?” These insights may bring their support and friendship.
Talking to the School
It is often a good idea to tell your child’s teacher (or the Headteacher / SENDCo) that you have noticed your child has certain abilities, before then asking what terminology they would prefer you to use to describe this. Does the school refer to ‘gifted’, ‘talented’ or ‘more/most able’ children? Would they consider suggesting ‘extra provision’ or an ‘individual education plan’ (IEP), for your child, for example? Don’t go in straight away with your own definitions or list of demands; people rarely respond well to that.
If the school hasn’t picked up on the traits of high learning potential that you see, ask how you can all move forwards. Would they be willing to carry out a review or take on the views of an independent assessment? That way you can all use the same statistics and vocabulary to talk about your child’s profile of abilities.
Talking About an Assessment
If you decide to go down the route of a professional assessment (such as by Potential Plus UK, https://potentialplusuk.org/index.php/families/assessments-for-children/ or an independent Educational Psychologist), what will you tell your child if the results show that they are a high potential learner?
Describe having some fascinating insights into how their individual brain works, rather than focusing solely on any single area of strength or weakness.
Lower results in any area (from maths techniques to memory processing speed) should be lovingly accepted, calmly explained and supported in the future while you also appropriately celebrate higher scoring areas. Help your child to set reasonable aspirations for weaving all of these aspects together (with support across the board, as appropriate).
Following an assessment that shows high learning potential, it is important to find the right words to talk not just to your child, but also to their social and educational support network, so that everyone understands what it means and what recommendations have been given.
Be factual-yet-tactful and proud-yet-humble when talking about your child’s high learning potential. Explain that this might be why they can feel different to their peers, but that there are still opportunities to make like-minded friends.
Also explain that although they may understand some subjects more quickly and deeply than their classmates, there will be other areas, (possibly such as motivation, resilience or an individual special need), in which they may lag behind and will need support.
In this way, you will help them to be a good communicator with strong self-awareness, making their first independent steps towards reaching their potential.
[A] Manaster, G.J., Chan, J.C., Watt, C., Wiehe, J. (1994) Gifted Adolescents’ Attitudes Toward Their Giftedness: A Partial Replication https://doi.org/10.1177/001698629403800404
[B] Webb, J.T., Meckstroth, E.A., Tolan, S.S. (1994) Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers
[C] Cornell, D.G. (1989) Child Adjustment and Parent Use of the Term “Gifted” https://doi.org/10.1177/001698628903300202
About the author: Gillie Ithell is a writer and editor for Potential Plus UK with a B.A. in Modern Languages & Communication and further qualifications in mental health. Having worked internationally as content manager of classic board games and ‘edutainment’ software, Gillie now writes to inspire others like herself; on a daily journey with High Learning Potential.