How Do I Help My Gifted Child Listen and Follow Directions?

Like most issues surrounding gifted children, if you want to develop an effective strategy for working with them it helps to understand the ways in which they are wired differently and the needs that result from those differences.

So, how do you help a gifted child listen and follow directions? First, understand why they are avoiding the task at hand. Then you can develop a strategy to help them follow through and create a system that gives them opportunities to repeat the desired behavior properly.

Understanding Gifted Behaviors

It is first important to establish an understanding of some of the underlying factors that may be driving your gifted child’s behavior. That can help you understand why they are avoiding the task in the first place. It’s usually not just one reason. Instead, there are probably many factors working together to create resistance to a directive.

Gifted children are very smart people who know how to manipulate a situation to their advantage. They are also very strong-willed people who tend to be perfectionists. They typically experience anxiety when about to take on a new task because of their fear of failing or doing something wrong.

Additionally, they experience uneven intellectual development, with their judgment developing slower than their intelligence. When you put these factors together (and many others), there is potential for behavioral challenges.

Working with your gifted child will require persistence and fortitude, but you can help them understand the importance of listening and following directions. Over time they will develop an appreciation for and understanding of why they need to listen.

When they do mature, they have the potential to be a child that can be relied upon more than others. To get them there it will help to take a deeper look at their behaviors, so you will have a better understanding of the underlying factors.

For each of the reasons in the sections below, I will include strategies for how you can try to work with your child. Then I will conclude with a roadmap to create your vision for working through this challenge.

I encourage you to keep in mind that how you work with your gifted child will be as important as what you do. Approaching them with love and kindness will be critical to relationship development and long-term success.

Intellect

First, gifted children are smart. Really smart. Like all kids, they learn from their environment and the people around them. But gifted kids learn at an accelerated rate. It can be hard to know what they have picked up over the years because it can be challenging for them to articulate their observations into words, even if they have already begun to adjust their actions as a result of what they have learned.

These dynamics can be challenging for the parent to keep up with because the child has so much going on internally with not much different appearing on the outside. Know that they are wise beyond their years, and they may try to manipulate situations to their advantage.

Your goal is to keep the focus on the task that you have determined they must accomplish so they know that you are serious about your directive. That will help keep you mentally on your feet so they don’t redirect the situation.

Sensitivity

Gifted children (and adults) experience high levels of emotional intensity. They feel more deeply and in more complex ways than other people. They can be frightened by this intensity, and over time can learn methods to deal with their intense emotional response. So, when you see them refusing to do something remember they may be trying to avoid the emotions of fear and anxiety that they have about the activity.

To help them overcome this fear, first, let them know that their feelings are OK. You may need to go through the steps of the activity with them so they know how to do it properly. Although gifted kids are smart enough to figure many things out themselves, they can be held back by their fear of failure or not doing something “the right way”.

Helping them understand that the right way doesn’t always exist and sometimes you have to make it up as you go can help to liberate them from their sometimes restrictive perfectionist mindset. It can also help to deal with their sensitivity to criticism by helping them appreciate ambiguity and uncertainty.

Try doing the task with them a few times. See where they struggle. Let them know it’s OK to make mistakes. Help them through it so they learn how to keep going when they get caught up in the small details. Then make sure they repeat it correctly a few times. That should put them on a clearer path to productivity.

Asks Why?

Gifted children naturally question everything around them, and that includes the people telling them to do things. They are not doing this to directly question your authority. Instead, they are probably trying to understand the activity and its purpose. If they decide that the purpose is meaningful, they can produce some of the best work possible. But if they decide it is not meaningful, you may see them dragging their feet.

Of course, this trait will give them difficulty later in life and you should help them deal with it now instead of later. You could first try explaining “the why” to them. Be patient and try it a few different times to see if it sinks in. Ask questions that elicit their inner curiosity so they can better comprehend their own understanding of the issue.

For example, if they are fighting with their sibling ask them how they can solve the problem together. If they can explain their answer and demonstrate the desired behavior with their sibling, you have a small victory.

If not, this may be a situation where you would consider facilitating their reasoning so they can learn the importance of resolving an issue on their own. As their guide, you can help think through the situation so they can learn the thought patterns and decision trees that need to be called upon when thinking critically.

Always remember to focus on the lesson you want them to learn so they have an opportunity to grow and move forward. Next time a similar situation arises, you would again start by asking them a question that would encourage them to understand or solve the problem themselves. Each time you do, you are giving them a chance to show growth while demonstrating fairness to them.

Disinterest When Not Challenged

Gifted kids need to feel challenged. They typically do not thrive in situations where rote learning and work is taking place all the time. If their brains are not being stimulated they will try to find that stimulation themselves. They also tend to be concept people, which means they can leave out the details sometimes. Here is where they can benefit from your guidance. They may understand a concept you are trying to teach them, but may not fully appreciate the importance of doing the task associated with it.

One strategy that may work for you is to involve them in a bigger project. Give them a more difficult version of the task that you are asking them to complete. If you are asking them to sweep the floor, instead block off some time and work with them to do a deep cleaning of the room. It may sound counterintuitive, but there are some quirks to giftedness that can be worked with to help you reach your goals with your child.  

Help them understand and experience the whole cleaning cycle by involving them in it. Let them know how important their contribution is and how much it helps you. Do the periodic deep cleaning, weekly full house cleaning, and daily sweeping and dishes with them. Then, slowly transition sweeping over to them to handle by themselves.

Believe or not, this strategy actually speaks to how their minds work and can motivate them to participate in the process. Then, when they have to sweep the floor they will appreciate how it fits into the bigger concept and why the little details matter.

Judgment Not Developed

Gifted kids may be intellectually and emotionally advanced, but their judgment doesn’t always move along as fast. Sometimes they just make bad choices. This can be perplexing to a parent because the child so often demonstrates astute awareness and understanding of situations.

Remember, this does not always translate into effective decision making. They can be impulsive just like their peers. If you think they have experienced a lapse in judgment, know that they will are well prepared to learn from their mistakes.

If their disobedience warrants a consequence then give them one. Try not to remind them that they should know better than everyone else. They know that already. You will just make them feel worse about falling short.

Instead, work with them when things settle down to understand what went wrong. Have them reflect on where there were opportunities in that situation to do things differently. Help them understand that the next time they are in a situation that requires good judgment, they need to step back and consider the options available to them and the consequences of each. You will have to do this many times, just like any other parent.

The benefit with the gifted child is they develop a more nuanced understanding of the situation and its interconnected possibilities, so that can extract deeper meaning from each experience. As they do, they will have a stronger understanding of the world and you can be the person who helped guide them to it, building your relationship with them in the process.

Intensity/Persistence

This one can be their biggest asset at times, but it can also work against them. Their intensity and persistence can be legendary. If a gifted child doesn’t want to do something, they will put all of their energy into finding a way out of it. That can include outright defiance. Once they dig their heels in, it’s really hard to get them to see things in a different way. In times such as this, they can test the patience of a parent.

If you find yourself in a situation like this, take a step back. It doesn’t matter if you get them to do things your way right this second (they can face their consequence for noncompliance if needed). You are more focused on the long game.

If the consequence they faced does not persuade them to back off of their position, try to give them insight into the bigger picture of the situation. When a gifted child is dug into a position they sometimes struggle to pull themselves out. Talk them through the underlying principles and make sure they repeat their understanding of them back to you. When they grasp a concept, they tend to be more motivated to comply with a directive.  

Shaping A Path Forward

Now that we have a shared understanding of some of the common challenges gifted kids face, let’s talk about shaping a vision to move forward. As a general rule, you want to try to stay focused on the long-game. Remember that their personal growth and your relationship with them are the priorities here.

What do you need to do to help them find opportunities for growth? How can you help them understand why they need to live up to their responsibilities? They need to make an explicit connection. This can take time and patience. A gentle touch will be key.

Let’s say their challenge is getting ready for school in the morning. Tell them what the expectation is. Ask them why it’s important to get out the door on time. Have them repeat the expectation back to you. Help them create a checklist of things they need to do in the morning and how long each should take.

Make a Checklist

How long do they need to brush their teeth? Make their bed? Get dressed? When their alarm goes off and they get out of bed have them take the list with them. If you need to, keep a small battery powered clock in the bathroom to keep them focused as they accomplish each item.

After a month or so, this routine becomes established and engrained in their minds. Encourage them during this period of growth and let them know that you support them. Soon, they will be able to complete the routine on the list and you will have been a support for them in the process.

Your focus on relationship building will help to make you a valued resource in their lives. These are the little things that they will look back on one day with appreciation. It’s not just what you do for them, it’s how you do it.

By taking the time to understand why they are reacting the way they are, helping them create a system that will keep them focused, and supporting them with love, patience, and kindness along the way you are taking big steps forward to in facilitating their growth and ensuring you will have a strong relationship with them in the future.

Related Questions

How Do You Discipline a Highly Intelligent Child?

Smart kids thrive off of clear expectations and structure. They want to know the rules in place, why they are in place, what they need to do to be in compliance, and what the consequences will be if a rule is broken.

Be direct with them when communicating each and make sure you enforce consequences. You will be helping them by setting clear boundaries for them to follow. Make sure the consequences give the child a chance to explain how they learned from their mistake and demonstrate the desired behavior.

Can Behavior Problems Be a Sign of Giftedness?

Yes. Gifted kids can become behavior problems in school if they are not being challenged. They can also simply disconnect and spend the period daydreaming because the pace of the work is so slow that they are no longer interested in participating in the class.

If you want to test whether this could be your child, try to observe them in a setting where they are engaged in an activity with other kids with whom they share abilities. Do they work hard? Can they maintain attention for a long time? If so, they could be in a situation where they are not being challenged enough.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

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