When a B grade is next to bereavement

Gifted pupils feel the pressure of living up to their label and often cope by working themselves harder, Adi Bloom reports

Adi Bloom

The more gifted pupils are, the more likely they are to suffer stress, anxiety and tension in school.

The fear of receiving less-than-adequate grades can lead to severe levels of stress, second only to that experienced by the death of a family member, new research suggests.

One gifted teenager told Hei Jean Ahn, of Cambridge University: "I feel a lot of pressure. My parents put a lot of pressure on me. They say they don't, but they do. I'm afraid to bring home a B . I feel anxious every day about achieving."

But gifted teenagers are less likely to worry about body image and physical appearance than their less-talented classmates, Ms Ahn found.

As part of her research, she surveyed 46 Year 13 pupils. Just over half were identified by their teachers as members of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth. The remainder were randomly selected.

Ms Ahn found that, for gifted pupils, doing badly in school is only slightly less stressful than a death in the family. "Gifted students are more likely to be perfectionist and lack self-acceptance of their limitations, which might increase their level of stress regarding schoolwork," she said.

She thought this is partly attributable to parental pressure: Ms Ahn suggested that parents of overachieving pupils tend to encourage them to derive their sense of self-esteem from academic success.

Less-gifted pupils, by contrast, are more likely to become stressed by out-of-school factors. Unlike their high-achieving classmates, they worry more about family members getting ill, or about the potential for divorce or alcoholism in their family.

They are also more likely to worry about their physical appearance. And girls are more likely to obsess about body shape.

Most pupils, regardless of their academic ability, cope with stress in similar ways. All said that listening to music and talking to friends and family members are conducive to relaxation. Boys are more likely than girls to use strenuous physical activity as a way to cope with tension, either going for a run or playing in team sports.

When gifted pupils are stressed, they also choose to work hard and to "improve themselves", academically or physically. Non-gifted pupils are very unlikely to respond to stress in this way, Ms Ahn found.

"The fact that gifted students cope through study may thus be related to their giftedness," she said. "It could also be seen that due to the labelling of `gifted' students, they may become over-concerned with justifying that . losing the label may mean to them that they are ordinary and somehow less worthy."

She concluded that teachers should take the differences between gifted and non-gifted pupils into account when trying to support pupils through the day-to-day stresses of school.

"Support provisions could be made by schools to help gifted students to cope," she said. "Coping strategies . could . aid schools in providing them with effective ways to reduce stress."

"A comparison of stress factors, coping strategies and motivation in gifted and non-gifted students" by Hei Jean Ahn.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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