Homework advice for parents of bright or gifted children

Nathaniel McCullagh, Founder and Director of Simply Learning Tuition, advises how parents of bright or gifted children can strike the right balance with homework.

Nathaniel McCullagh, Simply Learning TuitionFollowing a recent webinar in our, ‘Advice for Parents’ series, I was really interested to be asked by a father about a concern he was experiencing with his six-year-old son. Based in New York, during the summer lockdown he had been giving his son some extra lessons, to essentially try and keep him off his iPad for as long as possible. Typically, they would do an hour to an hour and a half of extra work each day. The son really enjoyed this work, and the time it allowed him to spend with his father and asked if they could continue after school had restarted.

His son is now almost two grades ahead in school and his wife is worried that the other children (aged 2 and 4) are being left behind. The father asked me if this was a problem. He was also concerned that his son would be too far ahead of his classmates and may even need to switch to a school for gifted and talented children. I was asked by the father, “what should I do if my son is so keen to learn?”

I’ve been speaking to a couple of experts in the area of child development including Lloyd Miller, a coach and mentor based in South London, and Omari Eccleston-Brown, a homework expert who consults with Simply Learning Tuition. The consensus was that if a child is doing this extra work of their own volition and they really enjoy it then there’s absolutely nothing wrong. This is provided that they are not missing any of the foundation development stages and are demonstrating a good balance of all the normal social skills and interactions. Children should be getting plenty of exercise and their development in other areas such as sport, drama, arts, crafts and physical development should not suffer as a result of an increased academic workload.

I must admit that the familiar spectre of the ‘Tiger Parent’ did raise its head during our conversations. It is very important that parents don’t expect their child to be a perfected version of themselves. In some ways there is a danger that the child learns to get attention and approval from their parents by doing something that pleases the parent rather than the child. It is also important that siblings are given equal attention.

13-plus-tips-2Another common concern from parents of particularly bright children is to know how academically talented they really are. Is this extra attainment the result of a happy genetic makeup, or is it just hard work, and not necessarily the right work? Are they always getting things right because they are being taught intensively by their parents? Is this extra support making it, ‘impossible to fail’? Learning to take risks and face challenges is a big part of life and, in addition to nurturing a love of learning, possibly the most important part of education. As Omari suggests, “in many cases it may be better for parents to focus on developing their children’s emotional intelligence. How gritty and resilient are they? When they encounter a subject that takes them outside their comfort zone or even challenges their ‘cleverness’ do they go for it or do they run from it? An unintended consequence of spoon-feeding children early on can be to make them more afraid of failing than motivated to push and succeed.”

As Lloyd Miller says, “the enemy of healthy development is anxiety. When parental or educational expectations exceed the child’s innate ability to deal with stress then achievement comes at a very high price”. Lloyd also cautions against the possibility of too great a focus on academic performance, creating, “highly skilled academically accomplished individuals who are disconnected from their feelings.” He gives the example of a piano player who has spent 10 or 20,000 hours learning to play the piano as a child; they can play note perfect music but because they have never experienced true playfulness, or developed their own responses, their music has no soul.

What about the voice from the classroom? Arabella McCullagh, Year 2 teacher at Eaton House Belgravia, sounds a cautious note; “Children who appear to be far ahead of their peers may only be there because they have skipped key topics, or covered them so lightly in order to race ahead, that they have missed the underlying concepts which are so important as the child’s work gets more and more complicated.”

On the subject of schools, it is worth remembering that children at independent schools can be up to a year ahead of their state school peers. We are often asked by parents moving from state to independent how to prepare their child, and the good news is that the school will take care of this gradually and although some extra work can help make the transition easier, it is by no means essential.

So, where do you strike the balance? Possibly the most helpful advice comes from Lloyd Miller, “Imagine that you were the child, if your boss at work was always saying, “I only really appreciate you when you do lots of work and you get it right”, how would you feel? If however your boss listens to you and empowers you by spending time with you and helping you face the challenges in your work – but does not do the work for you, or make it too easy for you – perhaps that is the ideal”.

In the UK, we have a term, ‘Gifted and Talented’, (also ‘more able’ or ‘highly talented’) that refers to children who are either exceptionally academically gifted or particularly talented in another area, such as the performing arts. In some cases, these children will face problems unless their abilities are recognised and nurtured. For parents who think this may be the case, there is a very useful advice page on the Mensa website.

If after reading this article, you would like to discuss any part of your child’s education, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

If you have any comments or questions about this Advice Page, we would be delighted to answer them.