True Grit: Resilience and the Gifted Child

True Grit: Resilience and the Gifted Child

By Jeffrey Snow, Head of School
For True Grit Blog

What is true grit? When I was growing up, my parents spoke to me in terms of hard work, determination, and sacrifice. I’m certain many other parents from the same generation voiced these themes. During my youth, when I faced adversity, I battled through it, meeting it head-on as I’d been raised to do. But more often than not, I took nothing positive from my experiences. Do hard work, determination, and sacrifice guarantee positive results? No, they don’t. And if grit requires a “nose to the grindstone” mentality, is it worth the effort? Let’s examine the science behind grit and its implications for gifted children.

Norman Garmezy was a developmental psychologist at the University of Minnesota. Over four decades, he studied thousands of children from economically depressed areas across the country and identified a common trait in those who overcame adversity, such as poverty, neglect, drug addiction, etc.* Garmezy called this trait resilience, i.e. grit. His work shifted the focus from children’s vulnerability, or susceptibility, to their coping skills.*

Emmy Werner, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, identified several predictors of resilience and most were psychological, dealing with response to environment. Her research indicated that resilient children possess an internal locus of control: a belief that success lies in their hands, not in their surroundings.* On a scale measuring internal locus of control, resilient children were two standard deviations ahead of the norm.*

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, identified perception as a central element of resilience. He wrote, “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.”* He coined the term “potentially traumatic event” (PTE) to accurately describe the subjective nature of perception. His research clearly showed events do not determine one’s resilience. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” he observed.*

Now, we should consider the findings of these psychologists as they concern gifted children.

One of our cornerstones at Bellevue Discovery is a book titled Early Childhood Gifted Education by Nancy Hertzog from the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington. When describing the characteristics of gifted children, she identifies “early empathy development, emotional intensity and sensitivity, frustration with personal limitations, and perfectionism.”† In responding to their environments, highly capable children show compassion, warmth, occasional exasperation, and fastidiousness. All four characteristics could increase one’s vulnerability to adversity and perceptions of trauma. So, the overwhelming majority of gifted children lack grit…or do they?

Turns out, the most important element of resilience is an internal locus of control. And gifted children have it! Generally, they don’t believe in predetermination, fate, destiny, luck, etc. They believe success lies in their hands. Research from around the world tells us that highly capable children hold this conviction far more frequently and more tenaciously than other children.†† An internal locus of control is a coping skill, perhaps THE coping skill. Those with it perceive potentially traumatic events as openings “to learn and grow.”* In fact, recent studies indicate an internal locus of control can reduce adolescent health risks.

Still, looking past empathy, sensitivity, occasional exasperation, and perfectionism would be a mistake. Can they create susceptibility and diminish one’s internal locus of control? Yes, it’s possible. However, an internal locus of control can be nurtured and strengthened and isn’t exclusive of these qualities, which are essential to healthy social and emotional development. Gifted programs like Bellevue Discovery should (must) focus on social and emotional growth.

I’d like to revisit my parents’ conception of grit. Hard work, determination, and sacrifice matter. But the perception of achieving a meaningful goal is a prerequisite of one’s determination for hard work and sacrifice. Remove meaning and a goal isn’t worth achieving; hard work and sacrifice aren’t worth the effort. Remove a goal and determination goes with it; hard work and sacrifice aren’t sustainable. Two psychologists from Yale, Ivcevic and Brackett, recently concluded “Achieving challenging goals…requires willingness to control impulses and work hard, as well as the ability to manage emotions associated with goal pursuit.”‡ My parents never explained the connection between resilience and an internal locus of control. They either weren’t aware of it or couldn’t articulate it. When I faced adversity, and took very little from a head-on approach to it, I lacked meaningful goals. Without my input, others had set goals for me.

In conclusion, we must nurture gifted children’s internal loci of control, focus on their social and emotional development, and allow them to set meaningful goals for themselves. That’s the path to true grit.

* Konnikova, Maria. “How People Learn to Become Resilient.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 05 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

† Hertzog, Nancy B. Early Childhood Gifted Education. Waco, TX: Prufrock, 2008. Print.

††Too many studies to cite! This footnote recognizes others’ work.

‡ Ivcevic, Z., and M.A. Brackett. “Predicting School Success: Comparing Conscientiousness, Grit, and Emotion Regulation Ability.” Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Yale University, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. Note: The study concludes coping skills other than grit are the keys to resilience. However, the researchers define grit in my parents’ terms and coping skills as resilience. A difference of terminology but similar findings.

Additional Sources
“InBrief: Resilience Series.” Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Harvard University, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Duckworth, A.L, & Quinn, P.D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit-S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91, 166-174.

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101.

Fields, Matthew Mugo. “Gifted and Talented Programs Dumb Down Our Students.” Time. Time, 6 Feb. 2015. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Kamenetz, Anya. “Who Are The ‘Gifted And Talented’ And What Do They Need?” NPR. NPR, 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Reischer, Erica. “Grit Is the Buzzword among Parents Today. But Are We Focusing on the Wrong Thing?” The Washington Post. WP Company, 07 Sept. 2016. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Sklar, Alissa. “True Grit: Check Your Kid’s Resilience with This Quick Test.” Risk(within)reason. N.p., 2 Dec. 2011. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Walsh, Bari. “The Science of Resilience.” Usable Knowledge. Harvard Graduate School of Education, 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.


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