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Stress, Learning, and the Gifted Child

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

By Suki Wessling.

Here is a snapshot of my daughter and I working on her math last year:

“I don’t want to do this!” She rips up the worksheet and throws the pieces at me. “I hate math! I hate you!”

My daughter and I working on math this year:

“Please, Mommy, can we go out and do swing math? I want to do dividing fractions!” She positively bounces into her shoes and runs out the door to the swing.

This story didn’t happen in the events that I document above — the story actually developed in between, when I finally gave up on “doing math” the way schools told me to and took into account the reality of a gifted child’s developing brain. What I gave up was the misinformed idea that learning can be imposed by external pressure, and what I gained was access to the joy that accompanies child-led discovery.

My guide for this journey has been Judy Willis, a neurologist who became a middle school teacher and wrote Inspiring Middle School Minds: Gifted, Creative, and Challenging. Willis’s book is specifically about brain development in teens, a bit older than my 10-year-old, but her emphasis on understanding brain development as a way into the mind of an unusual learner inspired me to be a better guide for my daughter.

In her recent article, “Twice-Exceptional Children: Exceptional Challenges,” Willis outlines the developmental facts that everyone who works with gifted children, whether 2e or not, should know. Willis explains that all incoming information goes first to the amygdala, “deep in the network of the emotionally responsive limbic system.” In lay terms, this means that what we call “learning” literally passes through and gets vetted by a student’s emotional state before it can be passed into the prefrontal cortex—the “thinking brain.” When students are under stress, the amygdala sends incoming information not to the “thinking brain,” but directly into our lower, reactive brain which contains our “fight or flight” instinct. (Willis, 2012, p. 23)

My daughter is twice-exceptional, with multiple possible diagnoses which belie the fact that when left to her own devices, she learns quite well in her unique way. To say that she didn’t excel in school is an understatement. We started homeschooling after a disastrous three months in kindergarten, a place that seemed designed to thwart her learning rather than inspire it.

Though one of her most remarkable capabilities as a young child was a high capacity for mathematical understanding, the trouble in our home school started when I decided that she needed to be “taught” math. Before then, she had learned math largely through playing games, talking about her favorite subjects like pi and tesseracts, and reading math story books like The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat (Pappas). But like most teachers, I started wanting to “document” her learning, and I expected that she should be ready to do math on paper like other children.

A good piece of paper is a creative dream for my daughter. She scribbles, cuts, and rips with great gusto. But hell for her was being placed in front of a piece of paper with math “problems” which are supposed to be solved in one particular way—or even worse, where she is expected to do problems in multiple ways even when only one of them makes sense to her. She would push on the pencil so hard that it broke. She would have trouble lining up columns of numbers, which would change size and direction as she wrote. A small mistake would result in a scribble so hard that it would wear through the paper.

A morning that included math would quickly descend into battle between a frustrated girl and her exasperated mother. Applying what I learned from Willis, I know now what was happening: by forcing her to do math in a way that caused her stress, I ignited the fight or flight instinct in her brain. And by responding explosively so that even thinking about how she’d ever learn math raised my stress level, I stopped myself from being able to think through the problem logically.

Homeschoolers have a tendency to say things like “trust the process” that sound hopelessly romantic and unrealistic to school-educated moms. But in the end, it was trust that led us to the solution. One day my daughter wanted me to push her on the swing. “We really need to go in and do some work now,” I said.

“I know,” my daughter said. “You give me a multiplication problem, and if I get it right, you have to push me as many times as the two numbers added up.”

I had been working for years to try to get her to memorize her multiplication facts. We’d used every trick in the book that was written for typically developing kids, and it wasn’t working. In her case, she needed to move, hum, and create in order to learn. So here she was, telling me in no uncertain terms that my way of “teaching” was not working and it was going to be her way or no way.

We started with multiplication facts. Those were mastered in a few days, and we were on to fractions, factors, powers, and more. Each time we added a new skill, my daughter created a new payback in the form of pushing, spinning, pulling back, and—her favorite—pushing her right at the tree the swing is mounted on.

“Sixty-four!” she yelled as her feet hit the tree. 25 was accomplished.

It is not a surprise that my attempt to move my daughter from the learning she loved to the learning she feared was unsuccessful.

“Over-excitable individuals have increased stress reactions because of their increased reception of and reaction to external input,” writes Sharon Lind in “Overexcitability and the Gifted.” “Help them to identify the physical warning signs of their emotional stress such as headache, sweaty palms, and stomachache.” (Lind, para. 20)

When working with younger students who may be incapable yet of recognizing these physical signs in themselves, parents and teachers can train themselves to be more aware of the physical manifestations of stress. When my son was young, for example, we noticed that the first sign of growing distress was that his shoulders would rise up. Other children might start jittering a limb, stuttering or speaking more loudly, or breathing more quickly. My daughter quickly loses control of her limbs and her voice.

In “Keeping a Healthy Perspective on Stress and Test Anxiety,” Vidisha Patel offers a four-step process to help students: face the fear, create confidence, keep the perspective, and teach some tools. (Patel, para. 4-7) From my perspective as a parent of a 2e child, I adapt these steps to improve my parenting and teaching:

· Take note of what causes stress in the child and immediately remove those stresses—in our case, stop doing math on paper entirely.

· Introduce a completely new way of approaching the subject—swing math!

· Rethink the goal from the perspective of mastery rather than following standards—I differentiated between the need to prove skills on paper and times when it was sufficient to test mastery through verbal means.

· Teach anti-stress tools by modeling appropriate reactions to stress—my daughter now knows that temporarily backing off a task that is causing stress is one tool she can use to facilitate learning.

When I write about homeschooling, the quick answer that teachers and parents of schooled students often come up with is, “Well, that’s fine, but we can’t do that in school.” Although it’s true that kids in school hardly ever experience a one-to-one teacher-to-student ratio, the idea of heading off stress reactions through redirection and student-led problem-solving is one that teachers and parents working with a teacher can effectively implement in the classroom.

Willis points out that educators have a tendency to respond to the behavior rather than to troubleshoot the underlying source of the stress.

“If 2e children already carry a diagnosis of a learning or attention disability, their fight/flight/freeze reactions to boredom may be mistakenly attributed to their underlying conditions,” Willis writes. “Educators may limit their access to the appropriate interventions for their gifts because the students are presumed incapable of more challenging work.” (Willis, 24)

Similarly, a gifted child with dysgraphia may act out when required to produce written work in school. To head off the stress, the parents could work with the teacher to offer the use of a recording device, voice recognition, or keyboarding during these activities, with extra work on handwriting in less stressful situations.

It’s clear that if our goal is learning—and not creating a homogenous population of similarly-skilled adults—it shouldn’t matter if one child needs to learn differently within the context of a classroom. Teachers may balk at the extra work created by taking students’ stress levels into account, but such proactive remedies are certainly easier to deal with than a chronically misbehaving child.

Since those first few weeks of swing math, my daughter and I haven’t given up on doing math on paper. But we have remembered to try to start from a point of pleasure. Whenever the old resistance starts to show—she breaks her pencil lead or scribbles instead of writing the answer—we immediately change gears. I suggest we go for a walk, or she lets me know she’d rather work on her equine science curriculum, or I take the paper away and return to purely verbal discussion of the math concept we’re working on.

In this way, my daughter is learning a subject she loved before the dreaded paper was introduced, and she’s also confronting her academic areas of weakness in a constructive way.

“Teachers know the value of differentiation and individualization,” writes Willis. “However, they are not given the specialized professional development or graduate school instruction in the neuroscience of learning and the brain.” (Willis, 25)

Even a small understanding of how stress shuts off learning can open up new approaches to teaching and learning, both in the home and at school.

Suki Wessling writes about parenting, gifted children, health and homeschooling. Her book, From School to Homeschool: Should I Homeschool my Gifted Child?, was released last fall by Great Potential Press and offers families a guide to changing their mentality as they shift from a school-based to a homeschool-based view of learning and teaching. Learn more at www.


Lind, S. (2001). Overexcitability and the Gifted. The SENG Newsletter (1(1) 3-6). Accessed from

Pappas, T. (1997). The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat.

Patel, V. (2002, April). Keeping a Healthy Perspective on Stress and Test Anxiety. SENGVine. Accessed from

Willis, J. (2009). Inspiring Middle School Minds: Gifted, Creative, and Challenging

Willis, J. (2012, Winter). Twice-Exceptional Children, Exceptional Challenges. Gifted Education Communicator, 22-25.

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