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Focus on Learning

By Wenda Sheard

Each school year brings new expectations. All over the world, parents and teachers tell children “earn good grades” and “do your best” in school. In the case of gifted children, however, giving such advice can be problematic. In this article, I’ll describe problems that sometimes result from giving such seemingly innocuous advice to gifted children. I hope to inspire parents and teachers to help their children focus on learning and understanding rather than on grades.

During my years of teaching, I’ve observed extreme grade-seeking behaviors in some gifted children. Some seek the fool’s gold of grade points rather than the mother lode of understanding. I’ve had some children explain to me that their parents punish them if they earn less than an A in a class. Some parents expect their gifted children to earn top grades. Once, when I spoke to a group of families with gifted children, a preteen girl left the room. Outside the room she began sobbing, “I don’t want to be gifted, I don’t want to earn straight A’s, I just want to have fun.” She blamed her parents for pushing her to earn perfect grades. I wonder what the parents really told the girl, and I wonder what the girl heard her parents say.

Earning good grades is not the same thing as being gifted. Gifted children who suffer a mismatch between their level and speed of learning and the curricula taught in school sometimes react to the mismatch by exhibiting behaviors that result in poor grades. Those behaviors can include refusals to do homework, refusals to learn the material, or refusals to participate in class discussions. Those behaviors might be cries for more appropriate curricula and instruction.

Sometimes factors beyond the child’s control interfere with the child’s ability to earn top grades. Gifted children who are new to the school’s language of instruction might earn poor grades unless the school makes an effort to use assessments appropriate for language learners. Gifted children with learning disabilities might have difficulty earning good grades unless the school provides accommodations for the disabilities.

Paradoxically, in some circumstances parents might be happy that their gifted children are not earning top grades—when the children are placed in challenging classes filled with similar learners. For some parents who value learning over grades, a hard earned “B” or “C” in a challenging class is worth more than an “A” in a non-challenging class. Gifted children might earn average grades in challenging classes because they are average in those classes.

One anonymous reviewer of this article cautioned that the last sentence is controversial. Another anonymous reviewer, to the contrary, felt that it makes an important point, and wondered if I’m purposely avoiding saying that having gifted children in classes where they are average and are earning average grades is a good thing.

For the record, I have always valued learning over grades, and thus my children have spent time in self-contained classrooms for highly gifted children and in demanding college and university programs. I prefer average grades in challenging environments rather than high grades in non-challenging environments. I prefer to de-emphasize grades and instead emphasize learning.

Some parents tell children to “do your best” rather than telling them to “earn good grades.” Telling children to do their best can be as troublesome as telling them to earn good grades. I once asked some stressed-out gifted teenagers whether any of their parents had made the distinction between “trying your reasonable best” and “trying your absolute best.” None of the children had heard their parents make that distinction.

I’ve seen gifted children, particularly those inclined toward perfectionism, cheat sleep and otherwise sacrifice their health in efforts to complete work to a high degree of excellence. Although many people do occasionally cheat sleep in order to finish work, if a child develops an unhealthy pattern in this regard, the child might be relieved if parents want the child to do “your reasonable best” rather than “your absolute best.”

I’m well aware that many people will argue, “But children need high grades to get into good colleges.” In order for me to rebut that argument, the scope of this article would have to include additional topics, including: (1) whether schools should assign extra weight to grades in challenging classes; (2) how colleges weigh grades, teacher recommendations, and other learning evidence when making admissions decisions; (3) what constitutes a “good” college for a particular child; and (4) how important are educational matters when compared to social, emotional, cultural, and spiritual matters in a child’s life. Yet another important topic related to the “but children need high grades to get into good colleges” argument is whether school or home schooling might be best for a particular child under particular circumstances.

In our SENG mission statement, we state our belief, “With support, gifted individuals can develop abilities that enhance their own lives and the lives of others.” We also caution, “Without understanding and support, they may be inhibited in the development of their gifts and talents, which can result in significant negative personal and societal consequences.”

As the school year progresses, let’s talk with our children about the development of their gifts and talents. Let’s aim to raise emotionally healthy children, children who understand in their hearts that learning is more important than grades, that grading systems aren’t perfect, and that some classes and teachers are more challenging than others. Let’s also teach our children the difference between trying their absolute best and trying their best within the context of staying emotionally and physically healthy.


Wenda Sheard, J.D., Ph.D. is a former SENG board member who currently lives in Connecticut. She thanks the three anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

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