By Kristi Holmes Espineira, Mackintosh Academy Littleton Director of Advancement
Gifted girls seem to be everywhere in popular culture recently. From the brilliant African-American women mathematicians and computer programmers in the film “Hidden Figures,” to the expert linguist who cracks the key to communicating with aliens in “Arrival,” to the highly gifted young girl struggling to feed her intellectual capacities in “Gifted,” audiences are fascinated by the challenges and triumphs of exceptional women and girls. But what about the brilliant girls in our everyday lives, who often elude the spotlight as they navigate growing up gifted and female?
Parents of gifted children know the challenges that come along with the blessing of high ability. Gifted girls face their own set of challenges. They may not receive the gifted programming they need; research shows that the number of girls enrolled in gifted programs begins to dip around age 12. Also, girls may begin to “mask” their abilities in the classroom as they grow older, bowing to social pressure to downplay their intellect. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, despite gains in some nontraditional fields, girls and women continue to be underrepresented in many STEM professions and in business and political leadership.
So how do you know if you’re nurturing your gifted daughter to her full potential? What can you do to make sure she retains her vibrant spark and love of learning throughout her life? How can you encourage her to claim her space and let her true abilities shine?
Bring girls out of the background. Sometimes gifted girls need our keen attention and advocacy to guide them into the spotlight. Diane Dunne, Mackintosh Academy Littleton Head of School says, “Gifted girls can truly be ‘hidden figures.’ They may not speak up or act out when they are not being intellectually fed or their gifts are not being nurtured. As educators and parents, we need to keep an eye on our girls to make sure they are getting what they need to develop to their full potential in and out of the classroom.” Ask your daughter about her experience in school and listen for signs that she is bored or uncomfortable. It’s her right to fully participate in her education! Encourage her to speak up and advocate for herself. If her teachers or school are not responsive, you may need to step in and advocate for greater challenges or opportunities in the classroom.
Encourage a growth mindset. According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, growth mindset is the belief that talents and abilities are not simply innate or unchangeable but can be developed through dedication and hard work. In gifted girls, you might nurture a growth mindset by encouraging them to work hard in areas for which they may not feel they have a natural affinity or ability. Assure them that hard work and dedication lead to great results; they do not automatically have to be good at something to give it a try. Encourage risk-taking and learning from failure, and try to fight the perfectionism that sometimes overwhelms gifted girls. Lula Guilbert, Mackintosh Academy Littleton 3/4 teacher and the mother of a gifted girl says, “Encouraging a growth mindset in girls helps them become intrinsically motivated rather than looking outside themselves for validation. If our gifted girls learn to compete with themselves to be and do their best, they are set up for success later in life.”
Help girls “find their tribe.” The social realm can be challenging for any girl, but gifted girls may find the challenges to be amplified. Some girls may mask their intellectual abilities or “dumb down” to fit in with girls their age. Others may gravitate to older girls or even adults for friendships. If classmates or neighbors are not a good social match for your daughter, you may want to search out girls with common interests. Friends can be found on sports teams, in community groups like scouting, or in after-school activities that center around your daughter’s interests. Is she into computers? Try a programming class for kids. An avid reader? Libraries often offer book clubs for girls.
Advocate and be a supporter for equity and inclusion in schools. Are girls underrepresented in your school’s gifted program? Find out why, and how you can help. Are girls being subtly steered away from certain activities or coursework? Speak up and let the administration know. Do you have expertise in fields where girls are underrepresented or need extra encouragement? Perhaps you can lead an after-school club or speak to girls about your field.
Look for the educational “best fit” for your daughter. Your local public school may be the best place for your gifted daughter – or maybe not. She may be “fine” – but is she truly thriving? Perhaps a different neighborhood school with a strong gifted program or extracurricular activities in her area of passion would be a better fit. Maybe there is a charter or independent school that provides a more individualized, challenging program or has a greater awareness of how to nurture gifted girls? Mackintosh Academy Littleton Admissions Director Beth Steklac has observed a trend among families looking for schools for their gifted children: “Sometimes girls may not be as vocal as boys in their need for a different school environment. Sometimes girls don’t even know what it would feel like to be ‘fed’ intellectually – but once they have a taste of what’s possible, there’s no holding them back.”
Show girls what’s possible. Be on the lookout for positive female mentors and role models for gifted girls. Yes, there’s been a burst of gifted girls in the popular media lately, but there are also “everyday heroes” in our own communities – gifted women who have successfully navigated life’s challenges and are happy to connect with young girls. It might be as simple as asking a bright woman you know to lunch with you and your daughter to share her stories and experiences.
One thing we know for sure: gifted girls need our full support — intellectually, emotionally and socially – to ensure that they develop into the strong, mature, confident young women who will help solve real-world problems and meet the challenges of the 21st century head-on. Let’s be part of a movement that nurtures gifted girls to reach their full potential!