Hitting the Wall

“My student has hit a wall. What should we do?” I hear this question all the time.  The proverbial “wall.” Of course, the answer to that question is quite complex and intricate and varies from student to student. I’d much rather focus on the question, “How did they hit the wall?”

Let’s imagine one of the best amateur golfers in the world. He is on the verge of turning professional. The only caveat is that he has never had to play a single green. The “normal” rules don’t apply to him. Each time he reaches the green, he is able to pick up his ball, walk over to the cup, and drop the ball in the hole. Of course, this was a huge advantage, and he quite frequently won tournaments. Now, that golfer turns professional. And the professional tour requires that he putts just like everyone else. Well naturally, our hypothetical golfer struggles mightily on the greens once a professional. And not only is he a bad overall putter, he struggles with every component that makes up a putt because he has never used this skill before. He has always relied on his non-putting rule. He can’t read a green. He has no feel for distance. He is unsure of what grip to use. Heck, he doesn’t even know what weight putter he likes or the type of club face he should use. He can’t even select a putter to use. And not only does he need to learn all these skills-within-a-skill, but he needs to learn them on a pressure-packed, professional stage.

Gifted students can be directly compared to our professional golfer. The golfer had a special situation that prevented him from having to putt. Well, gifted students find themselves in a similar situation. Their immense cognitive ability has prevented them from having to develop certain academic skills through their early school years. The lack of these skills hasn’t caused any problems because in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, they finished their homework in 20 minutes or less before relaxing for the night. But as students begin to struggle, most likely in middle school or high school as academic responsibilities become more demanding and gifted students are challenged, it becomes clear that their exceptional cognitive ability has masked areas of vulnerability.

The majority of these skills fall into the executive functioning category: organization, time management, note taking, planning, studying, writing skills, the list goes on. There is a general aura of neglect in this area. Because why would the smartest kid in the grade need help with these skills when he is getting straight A’s and the highest standardized test scores? The lack of skill development isn’t dealt with in the moment and will contribute greatly to a student’s struggles later.

Now, as I so cleverly mentioned earlier, the golfer not only has to learn these new putting skills, but he also needs to learn them on the pressure-intense, professional tour. Gifted students aren’t on the pro tour, but they certainly live in a world of pressure and high-stakes, whether real or imagined. Struggling in school will compound the emotional sensitivity of the situation and is a vital component of the growth process.  That will make growth, development, and awareness a much more difficult obstacle to overcome.

Although each student is in their own unique situation, gifted students will often benefit from academic and executive function skill development. This must be approached from an emotionally aware perspective with growth as the central focus. I have explained this in the most simple and general terms, but it is not a simple problem.  One thing is certain, students need practice and skill development under the direction of an expert. The golfer would not “learn on the fly” while on the professional tour, nor would he turn to his buddies for help, even those who are great putters themselves. He would hire a coach, put in hours of practice, and develop his skills for each of the physical and mental components of putting. This specialized support is what the gifted student needs and what will help them grow, develop, and become successful.