How to Combat Academic Underachievement in Verbally Gifted Children

Many people are under the impression that verbally adept children naturally thrive at school. We know that most programs of study strongly favour verbal learning styles (as opposed to visual learning styles), so we assume that verbally gifted children won’t face the same challenges as other children. This is, at least partially, true; however, research indicates that verbally gifted kids face problems of their own. Without adequate guidance and support, they often become apathetic and unmotivated when the school environment fails to meet their unique needs.


What Does it Mean to be Verbally Gifted?

Verbally gifted kids demonstrate an unusually high level of ability across diverse areas of verbal learning. They perform far better than their same-age peers when learning grammar, spelling, reading, creative writing, and when learning other languages. They typically start to pick up these skills very early in life, too. Verbally gifted children have an excellent ear for the sounds of language and therefore start speaking fairly fluently by preschool. Some verbally gifted children pick up the ability to read and write before attending school, too, if given the right parental guidance.

These additional skills don’t come without caveats, however. Verbally gifted children have been shown to have a distinct learning style – one that’s often overlooked by educators. One cannot be linguistically adept without also having a heightened capacity for symbolic, abstract thought. Within an education system that values rote memorization and detail-oriented learning, these gifts often go unrecognized. They may even be discouraged.


Understanding the Learning Style and Temperament of Your Verbally Gifted Child

The expansive imaginations of verbally gifted children arise from their tendency to be holistic learners. These kids are big picture thinkers; they want to know the meaning and purpose of any task that’s assigned to them before they concern themselves with details. Memorizing facts and figures is challenging for them, unless those facts and figures correspond with a larger concept that intrigues them. When they’re asked to memorize details that feel meaningless to them, they seldom succeed. This can hinder their performance on tests, particularly when their school expects them to focus on the details of a subject before learning its greater relevance. (If your child regularly receives poor test scores but excels at essay writing, book reports, and similar projects, this is why.)

Like other gifted children, verbally gifted kids are more motivated by their innate need for purpose than external affirmation. They’re independent thinkers who are generally more concerned with making time for their interests than receiving praise from teachers or even good grades. If writing a story feels more relevant to their personal objectives than studying for a math test, they’ll often be willing to risk adult disapproval in favour of doing what they’re passionate about. It’s important not to stereotype these kids as being lazy or defiant; on the contrary, they’re intrinsically motivated by challenge. (Some verbally gifted children will try to create challenge to keep mundane work interesting, in fact. They’ll sometimes rush through their assignments just to see how fast they can get them done, or set a timer to create a sense of pressure and excitement.) Gifted children simply place a higher value on internal rewards than external ones. This makes them driven, enterprising, and resistant to peer pressure, but it can also make them hard to reach.

Parents and educators should not, under any circumstances, assume that verbally gifted kids simply “don’t care” about their feedback or opinions. On the contrary, these children are usually high-strung and anxious, even if they appear (and in some ways, are) highly independent. It’s not uncommon for these kids to recognize their executive functioning challenges and start to worry about their lack of ability to focus on what they logically know should be easy work for them. If they’re criticized rather than encouraged, these sensitive children begin to dread facing their “problem areas.” This can cause them to procrastinate on doing certain types of work, which only increases their chance of failure.

Never dismiss your child if she claims a subject is “hard,” simply because you know she’s very bright. She’s probably trying to communicate her frustration with her inability to process the information effectively and stay on track. Always ask which parts of the learning process she’s struggling with, exactly, and try to help her form a realistic schedule. Then, you should think of ways you can add challenge or context to the work. Making learning facts and figures into a game, for example, or explaining exactly how the subject material might prove useful in “real life,” can activate a gifted child’s curiosity. (Learning apps can sometimes prove useful in this area, too.)

The dislike of detail that characterizes the verbally gifted mind can also lead to a type of impulsiveness. These kids will often go out of their way to seek novelty and fresh sources of mental stimulation, even if it means resorting to pranks and mischief. This need for novelty also means that gifted children get bored extremely quickly with any task that has become “routine.” This, too, can hinder their ability to focus on schoolwork. They usually thrive in highly individualized learning environments where they can work at their own pace, rather than being “slowed down” by a set curriculum.

Not all verbally gifted kids will struggle in school. Those who have excellent executive functioning skills and a strong sense of extrinsic motivation often overcome their difficulties and flourish in academic environments. Still, the more we know about verbal learning styles and how to accommodate them, the better our chances will be of getting the best out of these creative, insightful kids.

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