Stress, Learning, and the Gifted Child

Updated: Jan 11, 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.