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  • Dr. Matt Zakreski

The Performance Cliff!



Folx, I'm so excited about this post! On Friday, I posted about #theperformancecliff and a lot of people had comments and questions about this concept. I think that #TPC (my preferred acronym) is a phenomenon that makes a lot of sense intuitively and may explain some behaviors if your children's lives (or your own, if you're also #gifted)


My amazing wife (Julia Hodgson Art) make this video graphic which explains the concept so well, though I'll provide some context as well in this post.



The Idea is that intelligence is a relatively fixed concept for both #neurotypical and #neurodivergent people, and it stabilizes (more or less) early in life. And while #education and #intelligence are definitely not the same thing, they are inter-related. The educational system is designed to start relatively simple and build through difficulty slowly.

For most people school becomes harder than their natural intelligence at a relatively young age, so they develop grit and study skills at a younger age bc they have to. This is normal and how the system was designed.


But gifted kids are so much smarter than how school is presented at the early years, so they do not have to do what their peers are doing. Their intrinsic motivation to learn, high intelligence, and quick processing allow them to learn without developing best practices or good habits. As such, many gifted kids are able to coast well into high school age with minimal studying, organization systems, and time management.


But as a result of this disconnect between intelligence level and workload, they don't develop the soft skills that support learning, as well as are given too much time to "fuse" with the idea of being smart (i.e., "I'm a genius." "I'm going to Harvard." "Everyone tells me that I'm brilliant."). The more that the person internalizes the concept of being SO SMART, the higher they are at risk for being wounded when they (inevitably) start to struggle with school.


As such, when school becomes harder than they are smart, they can fall apart both academically and emotionally, because they need skills that they don't have and have to learn them while being feeling panicked and like a failure (probably for the first time). It's like trying to build the plane while you fly it... while the plane is falling towards the earth. (And, to further the metaphor, while air traffic control is saying, "Why are you falling? You've never fallen before. Why aren't you flying to your potential?")


This trend is why #giftededucation is so important. We need to elevate the challenge of academics for our brightest kids much earlier so they can feel engaged and inspired. The earlier that you get exposed to meaningful challenge, the sooner you develop the #grit #growthmindset and #resilience necessary to be successful.


I was struck by the TPC in 8th grade. Suddenly, science class was hard. That had never happened before... weird. The math class fell apart. Suddenly, I was trying to figure out how to study (seriously, I never had) and how to manage myself to do so... while freaking out and having an existential crisis. Quote from my diary at that age: "If I'm not the smartest kid in school, then who even am I? Do I matter?"



Ouch.


I'm lucky in that I overcame it. I figured out skills on how to study, and ask for help, and work hard. It took basically into college for me to fully internalize them, but I got there. I used the support of my parents, teachers, friends, and extracurriculars (shouts to #cty) to grow and change in a positive way. Not everyone does, however.


So push for gifted education, my friends. Then push more. The more challenge we give our kids, as soon as we can, and as often as we can, the more that we can push back against the Performance Cliff and keep it from impacting our kids. I would love nothing more than to see this Cliff disappear.

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