Gifted kid burnout part 3: Outsmarting the system

An individual’s values show as early as elementary school.

Some teachers see off the bat that certain students are better listeners than others. Some students are great at communicating with their peers. Some students are naturally creative. Some students are instinctively leaders.

And these individual values intertwine with the way we present ourselves.

Gifted students love maintaining the image of the “clever good kid” because of their natural academic aptitude. Because gifted students place such high values on academics, getting accepted to great colleges should be a giveaway.

But ironically, burnouts are so focused on their high school academic life that they neglect other aspects of their life needed for a healthy balance.

Get the context! Read part one and two of this series if you haven’t already.

The movie The Breakfast Club shows the three largest stereotypes, all examples of how each individual’s values overbalance everything else in their lives. Ex., the athlete focuses entirely on sports and not so much on school. Burnouts typically fit in “the brain” category. [Photo credit: Playbuzz]

Colleges want to see balanced and well-rounded students. And skills in all areas need to start developing as early as high school for a good adult life. The key to success is balance.

High school (n): You will most likely forget about your friends, family and love life, and will exist for the sole purpose of reaching a 4.5 GPA and studying for the impeding SATs… the only free time you have will be spent crying and listening to sad music while reviewing notes for the 90th time to get a 78 on your AP Chemistry test.

Urban Dictionary

This is part three 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.

In this article I will focus on the overall goal for burnouts and how to overcome burnout.

The end goal

Outside of academic validation and deeper moral motives, gifted kid burnouts put themselves through pressure because of their end goal, usually college and a successful career path.

I plan on going to college to pursue a psychological degree. I want to be successful in a job I love while maintaining close friend and family relationships.

Remy Charleston, student

But these gifted students grow up constantly hearing that college is ridiculously difficult to get into, so the stakes feel even higher.

Gifted burnouts are too focused on the past (their mistakes) and the future (college and career) that they forget to live in the present.

The majority of students interviewed said their first choice college is Georgia Tech. [Photo credit: The Business Journals]

The desire to get into a difficult college is really what spurs academic validation, not just external pressure. Just getting into college is not enough; these students want to get into the best college.

Right now, the plan is going to Georgia Tech. I have always wanted to be a video game designer or a programmer, but I’m having second thoughts now that I heard it has some of the worst burnout of all jobs.

Bryce Longstaff, student

Having an end goal is good; gifted student burnouts just glorify it too much.

Outsmart and overcome

After much research and numerous interviews, I came to a few conclusions on ways to get out of burnout.

But first, please note: there is no formula to overcome burnout that works for everyone. Everyone’s burnout experience is completely different, and what works for one person may not work for another. These conclusions are only suggestions, not a guaranteed solution.

Future focus

Several students claim that having a college focus helps them push through burnout.

My end goal is to become a computer scientist project manager, and to do this I need to work very hard now and in college. Because I know my end goal and what I need to do, I stay focused in school and it helps stop burnout.

Caleb Christian, student
Kelly McGonigal presented a TED talk about stress and burnout that I recommend. [Photo credit: TED]

Change of mindset

I don’t know if I know how to overcome burnout, I’m kind of just floating in it right now. I don’t think there really is a way to get out of burnout, because it’s so dependent on external factors. I can’t control how much work my teacher gives me, or what unit is next.

Kayley Owens, student

Burnout students cannot control the external factors, but they can control their internal views.

Fixed perspectives are defining for gifted kid burnouts. “I’m either smart or I’m not.” “My level of intelligence cannot change.” “I already peaked a few years ago and now I won’t peak again.”

Fixed mindset contributes to most of the negative side effects of burnout. If you can figure out how to change your mindset, you can climb out of burnout.

Fixed mindset versus growth mindset. [Photo credit: Sites at Dartmouth]

Balance and cut back

For me personally, I try to manage my time well and balance school with recreation.

Josie Jackson contributed her insights to overcoming burnout and balancing her life. Josie is a competition dancer as well as a top AP student, so her time is heavily divided.

I don’t really have a lot of free time, which I think contributes to my lack of motivation. If I have a break at dance, I’ll do my homework. I also try to balance out not taking all of the hard classes and not taking as much dance.

Josie Jackson, student and dancer

Doing less, even if it may seem like the wrong answer, may do more for you in the long run.

An example of a typical daily schedule for me after school. It’s a lot to balance, but having a routine helps. [Photo credit: Makenzie Bird]

Words of advice from teachers

After many discussions with students and teachers, I concluded that the AP science track is the academic track at Cherokee with the most burnt-out students. I interviewed two AP science teachers about how they help students overcome burnout.

First I talked with Mrs. Lori Pangburn, the AP Biology teacher.

  • Pangburn: A lot of them are in a lot of advanced classes, so they tend to have more work. They struggle with balancing it. Another thing I noticed is that when they do struggle in a content area, they don’t know how to study because they’re used to picking things up so easily.
  • Me: What strategies do you incorporate into teaching to help these students?
  • Pangburn: I try to give them ideas of what to study. I personally give them… techniques and variations of assignments they can use to study for other classes. I try to listen to them when they’re overloaded and maybe extend time for some of these assignments to alleviate their stress levels.

The best teachers are the teachers who listen to their students.

Mrs. Pangburn using visual instruction to teach. [Photo credit: Makenzie Bird]

I also hosted a brief conversation with Mr. Segall, the AP Chemistry teacher.

  • Segall: I think there’s a lot of internalized stress. [Burnouts] tend to connect success and failure differently than the average student would.
  • Me: How do you help students to combat this stress?
  • Segall: I try to remind students that while their grade is important, what’s really more important is how they view their own success and what defines them. If they think a number defines them, I suggest they change their approach… and find other ways to define success. Gifted students aren’t always motivated, but they always carry lots of stress.

I found Mr. Segall’s perspective was incredibly insightful. Gifted kids go through burnout because their idea of success is too glorified, too unachievable, and focused too heavily in one area. No amount of validation will ever be enough to satisfy burnouts. Not until we define success by something other than a number.


As I examined previously in this series, gifted students experience burnout because of the pressure put on them by parents, teachers, and adults earlier in their lives. When they get older, these students develop the fixed mindset that their intelligence is a set amount.

These students set standards for themselves based on the opinions and praise of adults and the school system. And when burnouts don’t meet these self-set standards, they panic. They get depressed. They burn out.

We as a society can prevent or reduce burnout by:

  • Listening to the concerns of gifted kid burnouts
  • Not expecting consistent growth and progress
  • Not condemning failure
  • Constantly encouraging students
  • Admire, but don’t glorify, intelligence

Overcoming burnout does not happen overnight. It is a process that could extend far past high school and into adult life. But in order to overcome burnout, you must be willing to change your views about yourself and your circumstances. You must be willing to alter your ideas of success. And you must be willing to evolve.

Only then can we outsmart the system and overcome ourselves.


For input in parts one, two, or three.

Student quotes: Remy Charleston, Finn Sheldon, Bryce and Euen Longstaff, Kayley Owens, Caleb Christian, Josie Jackson, Nick Whyte, Owen Garity, Grace McPherson, Keira McGee, Mollie Murchison, Sarah Pfanstiel, Collin Ulm, Noelle Richardson, and Lilly Graves.

Credit to the two other SGA members who moved to let us take the picture in the first article.

Credit to Samantha Dodd, who let me bounce ideas off of her throughout the course of this series.

Teacher quotes and encouragement: Ms. Birdwell, Mr. Segall, and Mrs. Pangburn.

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