Why Gifted Children Often Have Issues With Attention

Girl (6-7) sitting in classroom with head in hands, students in background.
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One of the most common myths about gifted children is that they are the bright-eyed eager students in the classroom. They are the ones who pay rapt attention to every word the teacher utters and love to do their homework.

While this may be true of some gifted children, it is far from typical gifted behavior. In fact, many gifted students behave in quite the opposite manner: they may be inattentive and often don't do their homework, or they may do it and neglect to turn it in.

Causes of Inattention

In most cases, children don't start out in school not paying attention in class. They quite likely come to kindergarten eager to learn and expand on what they already know. Unfortunately, what most of these children get in kindergarten is information that they already know.

For example, a five-year-old who is already reading at a third-grade level will have to endure lessons on the "letter of the week." Even if they aren't already reading or the information in the lesson is new to them, they learn faster than average children.

Average children need nine to twelve repetitions of a new concept in order to learn it, bright children need six to eight repetitions, but gifted children can learn new concepts after only one or two repetitions.

Since the majority of students in a classroom are average students, classrooms tend to be geared toward their learning needs. That means, for example, that even if a gifted child starts kindergarten not knowing how to read, a full week spent on only one letter of the alphabet is unnecessary. The lessons can become frustrating and brain-numbing.

Gifted children need plenty of intellectual stimulation, and if they don't get it from their teachers, they will often provide it for themselves. If lessons become mind-numbingly dull, a gifted child's mind will wander to more interesting thoughts.

Sometimes these children look like they are daydreaming. If the classroom has a window, they might be seen staring out the window looking as though they wished they were outside playing. While that could be true, it is also quite likely that the child is watching the birds and wondering how they can fly or they may be looking at the leaves on a tree as they drop to the ground wondering what makes the leaves fall from the trees.

Inattentiveness vs. Multitasking

Surprisingly, gifted children can continue to follow what a teacher is saying so that when the teacher calls on a gifted child who looks like he hasn't been paying attention, the child can answer the question without any problem. However, it's also quite possible that a child can become so engrossed in his own thoughts that he is essentially in another world and doesn't even hear the teacher, even when his name is called.

To the teacher, the child looks as though he is not interested in learning, but the opposite is usually true. The child is very interested in learning but has already learned the material being discussed and therefore isn't learning anything. Consequently, the child retreats to the rich, inner life so typical of gifted children.

How to Help Them Stay Focused

Gifted children who are appropriately challenged rarely have trouble paying attention in class. Unfortunately, it can be extremely difficult to convince a teacher that the cause of a child's lack of attention in class is the result of too little challenge rather than too much.

Teachers who are unfamiliar with the needs of gifted students understand that kids who are unable to comprehend a concept can tune out and daydream. They don't usually understand that gifted children tune out because they do comprehend.

The first step in trying to solve this problem is to talk to the teacher. Most teachers want to do what is best for their students, so sometimes all it takes is a word or two about what a child needs. It's best, however, to avoid using the words "bored" and "gifted."

When parents tell a teacher their children are bored, the teacher may become defensive. After all, most teachers work hard to teach children and provide the materials the children need.

Teachers may interpret the comment that a child is bored as a criticism of their teaching ability, even if a parent doesn't believe that to be true. When parents tell teachers their children are gifted, teachers may think that the parents have an inflated idea of their children's abilities.

Instead, parents should talk about their children as individuals and talk about individual needs. For example, parents might tell a teacher that their children work best when challenged or that their children seem to pay more attention when work is harder. If the teacher seems to be doubtful, then parents can simply ask the teacher to try a new strategy to see if it works.

The point is to keep the focus on the child's individual needs as a learner and to try to build a partnership with the teacher.

Telling most teachers that a child is gifted can move the focus away from the individual child and onto the issue of gifted children in general. Telling a teacher a child is bored may shift the focus onto the teacher's teaching ability and classroom management skills.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.