10 ways to boost an able child's confidence

Supporting your gifted child
Being academically gifted can put a strain on your child’s emotional wellbeing, so how can you spot if they’re struggling and build their self-esteem?
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It’s easy to assume that more able children should be overflowing with confidence. But actually, children with high learning potential are more susceptible to low self-confidence than others.

These can be triggered by anything from a lack of understanding from other children to to serious bullying.

Boosting able children's confidence: what’s the problem?

There are several factors that may affect a gifted child’s confidence.

Perfectionism The most children tend to set themselves high standards, but sometimes these standards are so high that the child can never meet them. Children can go into 'meltdown' over something as small as getting a spelling wrong.

Intense emotions Children with high learning potential can be very sensitive to criticism, rejection and isolation. For example, their games may be so complicated that other children don’t want to play with them. They also think more deeply than other children, for instance about world issues like climate change, which can lead to worry, anxiety and even depression.

Asynchronous development Your seven-year-old may be able to read books intended for teenagers, but that doesn’t mean they have the equivalent level of maturity. Their cognitive ability often outstrips their social and emotional skills, and people may forget about their age and treat them as mini adults, imposing unrealistic expectations on them.

Misunderstanding Because high academic ability and the accompanying personal characteristics are often misunderstood by teachers and other kids, children may become frustrated and feel as if they don't fit in.

Sensory difficulties Sensitivity to stimuli like noise is common amongst children with high learning potential, and can affect their quality of life. It's not unusual for these children to have accompanying special educational needs like dyspraxia or sensory processing disorder.

Impostor syndrome Highly able children sometimes doubt their intellectual abilities, and might even feel like a fraud. This can override any evidence of success.

Building your highly able child’s confidence involves balancing their learning ability with their social and emotional needs. So how can you ensure you’re looking after their self-esteem as well as their academic achievements?

1. Praise the effort, not the ability

Rather than focusing on your child’s ability, praise the effort they make. So when they get full marks in their maths test, instead of saying, ‘Wow, you are so clever!’ try saying, ‘You’ve worked really hard on learning those formulas – well done!’

2. Acknowledge their age

Bright children are often treated as if they’re older than they actually are. At school, for example, they may be used as 'mini teachers,' expected to help their classmates with work. It's important to recognise that they’re still learning to regulate their behaviour and emotions, even if you feel they should be able to articulate their feelings rather than throwing a tantrum.

3. Teach them to cope with getting things wrong

One of the most valuable things you can teach your child is that it’s okay not to be perfect. A good way to do this is to try something new as a family, like roller skating or photography, knowing that you’re all likely to struggle at first. This helps your child learn how it feels to not be so good at something, in a supportive environment, which builds resilience.

4. Provide challenges at home

Highly able children are often under-stimulated at school, which can lead to them becoming bored and even depressed. You can help to counter this by extending them at home. Research projects and creative tasks are easy to set up and provide an excellent way to stretch and challenge your child.

5. Tap into their interests

Many gifted children have areas of particular interest, and having to keep their enthusiasm – or even obsession – under control at school can knock their confidence. If your child is passionate about space, dinosaurs or electric circuits, give them plenty of time and resources to explore these at home, whether that’s through books, the internet, extracurricular clubs or weekend outings.

6. Facilitate play

Children with high learning potential may struggle with friendships because other children perceive them as ‘different’. Encourage friendships by inviting other children to play, and be on hand to guide your child: setting up non-competitive tasks such as baking or craft can help them to bond on a more level playing field.

7. Don’t make comparisons

It’s easy to hold your child up as an example to others, particularly their siblings – ‘Why can’t you just concentrate on your homework like your brother?’ Try to avoid this: rather than building self-esteem, it could lead to your child ‘dumbing down’ so their abilities are less noticeable.

8. Give them down time

Trying to engage your child in intellectual activities all the time – even if they’re unconnected to schoolwork, like learning an instrument – can give them the message that they are only valued for their achievement and ability. Overscheduling can also lead to anxiety and sleep problems, which in turn affect confidence and wellbeing. Remember that your child needs time to play, watch TV, potter around outside and mess about with friends or siblings.

9. Be positive and proactive with school

Often, parents are concerned about being seen as pushy, but you know your child best. It’s common for gifted children to seem like model students at school when actually, they’re bored or unhappy, so if you feel your child’s needs aren’t being recognised, you need to have a positive discussion with their teacher about what can be done.

10. Get extra help if it’s needed

Sometimes, children with high learning potential need a little extra help in dealing with their emotions and building self-confidence. If you’re concerned about your child, talk first to their teacher, but be open to exploring other avenues of help, such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), accessible through your GP, and organisations like Potential Plus