Gifted kid burnout part 1: A pandemic in perfectionism

In elementary school, we knew them as the smart kids. These kids got good grades, read at a higher comprehension level, and once a week, a group of these students were pulled out of class to attend their own class: the gifted program.

Then these students grow up and rise into the ranks of middle school. They take advanced and accelerated core classes. They continue to get good grades, occasionally receive awards and praise for their talent, and still find time to enjoy extracurriculars, spend time with their friends and family, and make time to study.

So ideally, in high school, these students are placed in college level courses, honors courses, and academic-based electives. These people are in the top of their class ranks, dominate student government, and graduate with scholarships to Ivy League schools.

And from there, they take on the world: they make new discoveries in the medical field, they publish books and papers, they win the Nobel Peace Prize and make their parents proud!

Well, not exactly.

High school is where things start to go downhill.

Class rankings is just one of the many pressures put on students that add up to Gifted Kid Burnout. [Photo credit: Makenzie Bird. Note: the names of the students have been blurred out to protect their privacy.]

Yes, these students are put in rigorous high-level classes. Yes, most of these students place in the higher ranks of their class, and yes, several of them are involved in student government and get scholarships.

Sure, it looks great on paper, but when you look closer, you see the day-to-day struggles these students face mentally, socially, physically, and intellectually.

This is gifted kid burnout. And it also is increasingly difficult to recognize without looking closer.

Gifted kid burnout (n): when children who were once considered the “gifted” or “smart” kids in class grow up to underperform academically and (likely) socially.

Urban Dictionary

This is part one in a column series by Makenzie Bird on gifted kid burnout. In this series, we will cover what gifted kid burnout is and why it happens, how individuals are personally affected by gifted kid burnout, and how to (hopefully) conquer it.

Where it all begins

For most, although not all, it begins in the elementary school’s gifted program.

In Cherokee County, we call it AIM. AIM students are tested, either through an AIM program aptitude test or through a standardized test for elementary students. And if these students score well enough, they are considered to be “gifted students” and are invited to be a part of the program.

This means that once a week, these gifted students don’t go to their normal school schedule and instead go to the gifted program classroom for the full day. Here they work on puzzles, mind games, logic, problem-solving, strategy, and more.

Below: Some mind puzzles found commonly in AIM classrooms. [Photo credit: Makenzie Bird]

But note: the category of “gifted students” doesn’t fall only to AIM. Just most do. “Gifted students” are any students who were told when they were younger that they were “gifted” or had a higher reading comprehension or understanding of math.

I hosted a conversation in student government to get the opinions and stories from a few who are considered “gifted students,” but were not in the AIM program.

  • Noelle Richardson: I missed the gifted program by one point. It was the creativity part, and it was because it said “draw 96 smiley faces,” and I drew the same smiley face over and over again.
  • Nick Whyte: I was never in it because I wasn’t very creative. They gave me an egg, and I made a Cooking Mama background because I was really into that game on the Wii… I failed bad on the creativity part.
  • Sarah Pfanstiel: I honestly don’t think it matters if you were in AIM or not to where you are now. Your intellectual abilities develop as you get older.
  • Mollie Murchison: Like, look at me. I was never tested or in AIM, and I’m the smartest one at this table.
  • [laughter]
  • Nick Whyte: You know, I actually kind of liked not being AIM because a bunch of kids were in AIM in my classes. So every Tuesday, they would all leave the class, and so there was maybe like, four of us left. And you could learn so much more.
The student government representatives in our interview. [Photo credit: Ally Whyte]

Makenzie: What does the AIM program provide for students?

I think that thinking outside the box and recognizing patterns have stuck with me. I really liked the [AIM] parties because I normally did not get junk food at home.

Bryce Longstaff, CHS student

An ego.

Anonymous CHS student

Where they are now

It’s not about actually learning anymore, it’s just about me getting through the next day.

Kayley Owens, CHS junior

Theoretically, these gifted students are the top of the class, living their best high school life, getting good grades and on their way to great colleges. However, high school is about where burnout hits.

These students are running low on motivation. They procrastinate, yet are perfectionistic. Time and effort have worn them down, and these students almost become obsessed. And once they make one mistake, their fixed mindset tears them down.

I definitely consider myself a gifted kid burnout. I feel like it makes it harder for me to continue working through school work with the same enthusiasm I used to have.

Finn Sheldon, CHS sophomore
A popular meme on Reddit that shows the mindset and struggles of gifted kid burnouts. [Photo credit: Reddit]

Burnout looks different per individual person. Sometimes it comes in the major form of a mental illness. Sometimes burnout comes as a lack of work ethic or procrastination.

The worst part of burnout is feeling like I’m unable to do any work.

Owen Garity, CHS sophomore

A lot of these students are in this mindset because from elementary school and on, learning and retaining what they learn has come naturally to them. So now:

I have no study methods. I never had to study throughout elementary and middle school. To this day, I struggle. I don’t know how to study. At all. I don’t know how to take notes either. I can’t concentrate.

Keira McGee, CHS sophomore

Because academics have previously come naturally to these students, they come into high school unprepared for the workload and challenge of AP classes. It’s nothing most can’t handle; however, the increased amount of pressure and stress leads to burnout.

Gifted kid burnout is real, and it affects more people than we think. Yes, many of these students are doing well academically, but their mental well-being pays the unfair price.

Part 2 and 3 will be coming soon. Part 2 will cover my experience with burnout compared to others, and Part 3 will discuss ways to overcome burnout, if there are any.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s