Top Ten Skills to Cultivate in Your Gifted Child


Paula Olszewski-Kubilius

Director, Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University in Evanston
Chicago, Illinois
United States of America





I am often asked by parents what are the most important “things” to do for a gifted  child? Over the years, I have developed this list of characteristics that I have come to believe are some of the most important ones for parents to cultivate so as to help gifted children realize their dreams (notice I said “their dreams” and not their parents’). My list is based on the research literature in the field and my own experience as an administrator of gifted programs and as a parent. 


Grit. This is a concept that Angela Duckworth, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, has developed and promoted. She defines it as “perseverance and passion for long term goals” (p. 1087). Grit involves working assiduously in a talent domain over time, including maintaining effort despite failures, plateaus, and setbacks. Grit may emerge early in a young aspiring musician or artist or develop later as a high school student commits to the study of medicine or political science. How does one develop or cultivate grit? While research has not specifically focused on this, finding one’s passions seems to be key, which takes time and deliberate searching. Parents can help by exposing children to a wide range of fields and topics of study through informal (e.g. trips to museums) and formal learning experiences (e.g. enrichment courses). We do this a lot with young children but it is important to also help older children investigate fields and careers to find their passions. Also, helping students understand that people who make creative contributions to society were “in it for the long haul” and that creative breakthroughs do not come out of the blue without commitment and hard work over extended periods of time, is also crucial. Children can begin to get a picture of this by reading about the lives of eminent individuals and seeing that there were ups and downs, great triumphs and some failures along the way—and that the development of their abilities and talents is a lifelong journey.


Self-control. This is another characteristic that Duckworth talks about. She defines it as the regulation of behavior, attention and emotion to meet personal goals and standards. Self-control is what enables a student to stay focused on a day-to-day basis on meeting the many smaller goals that are involved in reaching big life goals. Self-control is involved in working consistently to get good grades in a course even if it is not that interesting and choosing to do homework instead of socializing with friends, even though the latter is much more fun. It boils down to a willingness to do what it takes to “get the job done” even if the activity (e.g. practice) is not always that enjoyable. Self-control involves being able to delay immediate gratification so as to remain focused on a larger goal. This is an important skill to model and teach your child. There are many things in life that we all do that are a “means to an end” - a necessary step on the path towards more autonomous and enjoyable activities. Too many gifted children miss out on challenging and engaging opportunities because they are unwilling to work to get the grades that are needed to qualify or be selected for them. Like it or not, teachers will often choose students who are willing to work hard and make the most out of a special class or opportunity rather than a child who is very bright but does not demonstrate effort. In extreme cases, when the child’s educational environment does not match his or her ability, parents must advocate strongly for changes in curricula or programming rather than allow children to underachieve or opt out of “boring” or “slow pace” classes completely.


Finding meaningfulness in learning. Del Siegle, a leading expert on underachievement of gifted children, emphasizes that “making school more meaningful is among the most promising strategies for reversing academic underachievement.” Even if your child is achieving satisfactorily, making learning more personal and meaningful can only enhance motivation and commitment. How do we do this as parents? One way is to encourage students to pursue their interests outside of school via formal programs or learning on their own at home. Rather than directly teaching your child, parents can assume a supportive role, providing resources, supplies and encouragement, and connecting children to other adults (e.g. career professionals) who can be helpful to them. Parents can request that teachers help students understand why learning something is important and will be helpful to them in the future (e.g. How might I use algebra or geometry in the future? Why is it important to understand world history?). With a little bit of research on their own, parents can help students understand the connection between subjects in school and future careers and professions or how understanding in one subject is necessary as a prerequisite for more advanced study later. 


Developing appropriate attitudes towards work and ability. We all know that ability and talent has to be combined with a strong work ethic and commitment to study or practice in order for students to be successful in achieving their career and life goals. Carol Dweck, a psychologist, has popularized the idea of mindsets or beliefs about intelligence and ability. According to her, a growth mindset or a belief that ability, including intelligence, can change, grow, and improve with practice and study, is crucial for sustaining a long-term commitment to the development of one’s talents. In contrast, a fixed mindset, or a belief that one is born with a certain amount of ability or intelligence that is fixed and immutable, can hinder performance and achievement even among the most talented individuals. Research by Dweck and others shows that children who hold a growth mindset about their abilities and intelligence will persist through difficult times and rebound from setbacks (e.g. poor grades, not being selected for a program)more readily. How do parents cultivate a growth mindset? According to Dweck, the messages we give children about their performances and grades, specifically the type of praise, can influence their beliefs. Praise that focuses on recognizing and rewarding hard work and feedback that is centered on improvement and growth will promote healthy attitudes towards both ability and effort. (You can read more about how parents can use praise to reinforce a growth mindset in Dweck’s book, Mindset, Ballantine Publishers).


Enjoyment of solitude. A consistent finding within the research literature on giftedness is the value of developing the ability to enjoy spending time alone.  Historical accounts of the lives of individuals who make creative contributions to society reveal that often, this alone time was a result of difficult circumstances. But, whether self-imposed or the result of external conditions, this alone time was used productively by individuals – to pursue independent projects, read broadly, write in journals, practice musical instruments, make art, or study. How can parents cultivate enjoyment of solitude in children? It is challenging in current times with Facebook and texting as children can literally always remain connected to friends. Modeling of independent pursuits helps as well as encouragement and facilitation of a quiet place to do their work, study, practice, engage in hobbies, dabble in new interests, or just retreat to for reflective thought. Parents can stress the importance of “down time” to recharge and rejuvenate, set rules or guidelines for phone and internet use during family dinners or events, and show through their actions, how to balance productive use of solitary time with social activities.


Resiliency. One of the important facts about highly successful individuals is that though they achieved great notoriety for their creative contributions to society, their paths there were not always easy. Many encountered significant challenges in childhood including loss of a parent, instability in their family life, or poverty or racism. Often they found refuge in their talent domain—playing music, writing stories, or reading broadly and voraciously. And, even when they were in their professional careers, their success was not instant or consistent. They typically had significant failures along the way including loss of a job, work that was rejected or panned by critics, or business ventures that did not succeed. Yet, they came back from these failures and persevered. Children need to know that success and failure often go hand and hand. In fact, you often cannot get more of one without more of the other. We want to encourage our children to take risks and to see so called “failures” as opportunities to learn and improve. As parents, we can do that by modeling risk taking and effective coping with set backs and “bumps on the road”. 


Optimism. Related to resiliency is what psychologist Maureen Neihart refers to as one’s explanatory style—or how individuals explain their success or failure. Neihart says that explanatory style has three dimensions—permanence (whether the cause of an event is viewed as temporary or enduring forever), pervasiveness (projecting causes across many situations), and personalization (whether I or an external event is responsible for the loss or failure). Children who are optimistic are more likely to believe that setbacks or failure are temporary and will persevere because they have hope that things will change for the better—and they can bring about some of that change (e.g. study harder). Optimists also tend to limit the effects of failures rather than blowing them up into major catastrophes. In response to a bad grade, an optimist may say that their teacher has high expectations or the test was very hard rather than concluding that all teachers are unfair. As a result, an optimistic child can find a solution and way to improve the outcome rather than dissolving into hopelessness. Neihart says that pessimists blame themselves when things go badly and do not take credit when they work out well. Optimists do the opposite. They take credit for successes and recognize the (at least partial) role of outside factors in disappointing outcomes. The goal is to help children be accountable for their failures and address any areas of weaknesses but without losing confidence to try again. The good news is that optimism can be taught!!! Parents can help children by actively shaping their explanatory style for successes and failures - e.g. teaching them to entertain multiple explanations for a poor performance. 


Being an Autonomous, Autodidactic Learner. This includes a number of skills such as being able to initiate learning independently, setting individual learning goals and following through on them, identifying what one needs to learn and do in order to complete a project, being able to monitor and evaluate the success of one’s learning, and accessing the appropriate resources needed for learning, including seeking help from knowledgeable others. While the learning that takes place in school is critical to developing the talents of gifted children, much of it is determined and dictated, at least in part, by a teacher, and often is on topics children need to study, but may not particularly engage or interest them. Outside of school is often where passions can be pursued and the ability and desire to learn things that are not required for school, coupled with the motivation to pursue these assiduously, are critical for the development of talent.  Parents can help by modeling autonomous learning, helping children decide on projects and goals, and connecting children to activities that allow them to practice independent learning (e.g. competitions). They might also help by alerting teachers to a child’s significant interests and pursuits outside of school, thereby giving the teacher an opportunity to capitalize on and connect learning at home with learning within school.


Learning to Deal with Stress and Control Anxiety. Any athlete performing at a national level or performing artists such as dancers, musicians, actors, will tell you that a key to their success is learning to deal with stress and anxiety. It is not that elite performers do not feel stress and anxiety, they practice and develop techniques (e.g. breathing to reduce physical manifestations of stress or anxiety ) and strategies (e.g. over-preparation) to reduce it. Often, they are taught these techniques by coaches, sports psychologists, other performers, mentors and teachers. The performing arts schools, such as music conservatories, and training facilities for elite athletes recognize both the positive and negative aspects of stress on performance and how to capitalize on or mitigate these so as to enable peak performances. In the academic domains, we do very little of this even though scientists, literary scholars, mathematicians, and business entrepreneurs are often similarly involved in competitive (e.g. for grants, contracts, awards) or performance (e.g. presentations) situations. Also, there is stress and anxiety that comes from producing creative work, such as a story, piece or art, original song, a scholarly paper, and having it judged and evaluated by the gatekeepers, journal-reviewers, art critics, book reviewers, in a field. In short, everyone who works at the highest levels of achievement and creativity will encounter and need to learn to deal with stress and anxiety. As parents and teachers, we can begin early to help children with these feelings so that rather than shying away from a challenging course that requires oral presentations, choosing not to run for a school office because it involves making a public speech, or not submitting a story or art piece to a competition, students embrace these as opportunities to learn and view them as stepping stones towards the accomplishment of their goals. (See Neihart’s book cited above for more on this).


Working on the Edge of One’s Competency. This is one of Maureen Neihart’s 7 habits of top performers. It refers to being willing to work at something for which success or high achievement is not guaranteed. We all know the importance of challenge in producing growth. Athletes improve their game when they play against better athletes. Musicians improve their technique when they perform with other highly skilled musicians. Students improve their arguments when engaged in discussions with other students who challenge their ideas and assertions. It is not always easy, however, to put yourself into situations that require you to work on the edge of your existing competencies and many students steer clear of these, preferring to stay doing what they are good at and what they are confident they will succeed at.  Neihart suggests that parents help children identify reasonable risks to take in terms of opportunities to grow and improve significantly, help children identify ways to prepare for the challenge, and facilitate reflection on the outcome afterwards. Getting comfortable with risk-taking is critical to enabling a child to reach the highest levels of performance they desire.  


Duckworth, A, L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, 92, 1087-1101.

Duckworth, A. L., Quinn, P. D. & Tsukayama, E. (2012). What No Child Left Behind leaves behind: The roles of IQ and self-control in predicting standardized achievement test scores and report card grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 439-451.

Neihart, M. (2008). Peak Performance for Smart Kids. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2013). Top ten skills to cultivate in your gifted child: Part 1. Parenting for High Potential, 2 (5), 2-3.

Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2013). Top ten skills to cultivate in your gifted children: Part 2. Parenting for High Potential, 2 (6), 2-3.

Siegle, D. (2012). The Underachieving Gifted Child. Prufrock Press.

About Paula Olszewski-Kubilius

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius is the director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, USA. She is also a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern.



Posted as part of the 2020 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

The views and opinions expressed in the Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of NZCGE, their staff, and/or any/all contributors to Gifted Awareness Week.

Top Ten Skills to Cultivate in Your Gifted Child

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