How do you guide a young student who needs your help but won’t accept it?

The most self-directed young students typically reject advice from parents and teachers. Although their drive to master a particular skill or subject ensures their progress, these toddlers and preschoolers can’t always judge what they need to learn and when. Inevitably they become frustrated.

However, just because the student is at an impasse does not mean he or she will accept advice, teaching, or any kind of help. The more strong-willed the child, the more likely this is.

What’s a parent to do? Offer emotional support. Offer guidance, but don’t push it. Offer your presence and suggestions; and encourage your child to muddle through. You will feel like you, too, are muddling through, but this is possibly the best you can do under the circumstances, and may even be enough.

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Strong-willed learners

The drive to learn in their own way, and on their own schedule, seems to be hardwired into many gifted children. While this can become an asset over time, and even produce an original, world-changing contribution, it can also create dilemmas in the early years.

These self-motivated children often reject outside guidance, not because they are contrary or rebellious, but because an inner imperative commands them to carve their own paths. At the beginning, this looks like chaos.

This chaos puzzles us when we see it coupled with early phenomenal ability; somehow we unconsciously expect to also see an organized approach. However, few or no children—even the most talented—are born knowing how to learn, except by the unplanned experience that produces most or all of the child’s knowledge in the early years. However, we are bewildered to see this unorganized learning continuing with academic subjects and the creative arts.

Even after adults can reasonably expect “organized learning,” it’s not likely that the driven child will display the approved progressive-sequential style, and this adds up to a series of difficult questions for parents who observe stubborn self-direction in their babies and young toddlers.

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The polymath in late teenage and young adult years

A plethora of abilities, and therefore a bewildering array of possibilities for projects, and eventually a college major, usually confront the older teenage and young adult polymath. The dilemma, though outwardly different from the toddler stage, is still essentially the same: how to choose among too many interests.

If conditions have been optimal during the child’s growing-up years, he or she may realize that it’s time to focus on a few subjects or areas, and accept that the rest will be sidelined, at least for a time. An example of optimal conditions would be an education that does not frustrate and distract, but actually serves the child’s needs. This in turn can help the polymath keep a clear head, and preserve his or her attention for the primary question: What am I going to do with my life?

If conditions have not been optimal, then the period of uncertainty and sorting through possible career paths may stretch out much longer because of the distractions and sidetracks imposed by those less-than-ideal circumstances.

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The adolescent polymath

The polymath’s development throughout adolescence can bewilder parents even more than the toddler phase when an unusual level of clutter proliferates in the child’s life for no apparent reason. But since adolescence baffles and worries all parents, what’s different about the life of a polymath at this stage?

Multiple interests and abilities, always stressful and potentially unmanageable, can scatter the polymath at the best of times. Adolescence, which so often includes periods of lethargy and discouragement, can exacerbate this already difficult state of being.

So where an adolescent of normal intelligence may lose his or her motivation for a time, and lack a vision for the future, the pre-adult polymath—already wandering in an internal landscape of many paths and no map—could become temporarily paralyzed. On the outside, this could manifest itself as a nearly complete halt, while your multi-talented child copes simultaneously with the anxieties of teetering on the edge of adulthood and more interests than anyone could possibly pursue.

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Mitigating the clash between school and the polymath’s inner world

As we have seen, the complex inner world of the polymath exerts a powerful pull on his or her attention, with school often pushed into second place. This frustrates everyone involved, the student most of all.

How do you cope when the adults in your life expect you to focus on subjects or activities that are not nearly as compelling as what you’re thinking about? In addition, the pressure of all those interesting thoughts and nascent abilities, plus the prospect of rarely getting to pursue them, can be overwhelming and stressful.

This is why it’s so important for parents to try to understand their child’s plight, and above all, to support the very interests that appear to be interfering with school. Encouraging these eclectic interests could help a young polymath just as practice writing helped me, and as I felt it could have helped Writer A.

The principle is the same: When many interests or ideas threaten to swamp someone—with or without the complication of unwanted school subjects—give those interests a safety valve. Don’t allow them to be bottled up, or they’ll cause a lot more trouble than they will if they have even a partial outlet.

Then, with the feeling that their voluminous interests are not all imprisoned inside their heads, grade school-aged polymaths might even gain a bit of attention for school.

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The polymath in early grade school

As the young polymath reaches early grade school, his or her diverse interests begin to coalesce. Certain activities or subjects become compelling. If these don’t mesh with schoolwork, this can cause problems; so it’s important for parents to try to understand what’s going on.

For example, suppose your clearly able child isn’t paying attention during the reading lesson. It could be because math—along with about ten other subjects—is exerting a much stronger pull on his or her mind. Adding to the complications, even if the child is interested in the subject the teacher is presenting, his inner world often fails to harmonize with it.

Therefore, it’s essential to try to learn what your child is thinking about, and how. Conversations like this are possible in the grade school years. By adolescence, those same conversations will be much more difficult, so now is the time to try to connect with your child’s deepest passions. Then you can support and facilitate the multiple abilities that may be interfering with school, but certainly aren’t going to diminish in quantity or intensity.

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“Why does my toddler need to keep everything?”

Given that the two-year-old future polymath appears disorganized and even scattered, how can we help? We can start by trying to understand the likely source of the outer chaos we’re observing.

Almost from birth, the diverse abilities of the polymath are stirring. These children see many possibilities for various future activities, and this leads naturally to seeing potential uses for almost every object in their worlds. So they keep all sorts of things.

They apparently sense their multiple abilities long before they learn to organize objects. Where would a two or three-year-old get the ability to sort, categorize and arrange things? This is probably the source of the wild disorder of their play-spaces and bedrooms that can so frustrate and bewilder parents.

If we’re paying attention to our child’s mental and emotional state, we learn not to require too much neatness. When we suggest that certain objects are useless, and then see how much stress this idea causes, we learn to forget the clutter and adapt as best we can.

It’s better to allow preschool-aged polymaths to feel possibilities and opportunities in the raw, even though at this early stage these possibilities are mostly fulfilled by keeping things.

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The polymath in the preschool years

The inner world of the polymath is full and complicated. This inevitably produces chaos on the outside, and this surface disorder is most noticeable in early childhood. It is also baffling and sometimes frustrating to teachers and parents.

“Why can’t my child keep track of basic possessions, like shoes? Why does he forget which room of the house he’s supposed to be heading for, and the reason? Why does she forget basic instructions, or maybe never heard them?”

These children also experience insights far beyond their years, and are unusually alert, despite being absent-minded.

It’s exciting to witness the beginnings of such complex and high intelligence, and also a consuming task to figure out what’s going on, and how best to serve these children in their earliest years.

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The hidden benefits of finger patterns: mitigating the tedium of the 10,000-mile journey

What my students discovered about finger patterns revealed the interesting dimension in a potentially boring activity. As they established their routines for finger patterns, they soon found that their minds behaved in new and surprising ways.

One of my students, Alice, was especially alert and curious. She told me, “I’m noticing other things while I’m practicing finger patterns,” reporting increased focus on the general sensations of playing; a new ability to hear and evaluate her tone; subtle changes in pitch according to how she placed her fingers or angled her left hand, and similar elements not directly related to finger patterns.

My other students discovered that they could also place their attention on different aspects of their technique, thus making this drill count for more than just its apparent worth. This was possible precisely because the drill itself was so simple and repetitive.

Since they didn’t need their whole attention for so easy a task, they had enough left over to work on other sectors of their technique. This was a fascinating development, both for what it gave their minds to do, and for what it suggested about the gains they could expect to achieve long before they’d completed their 10,000 hours.

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How I convinced my cello students to get started on their 10,000 hours

Drawing on a mysterious fund of patience, my cello students all agreed to adopt one of the most routine, simple practice techniques I’d ever assigned. It could have been boring but somehow wasn’t; even those most likely to resist this task were excited.

Possibly this miracle of pedagogy occurred because I’d tapped a deep place within myself to find the vision for this drill, and the reason for doing it.

Building on a traditional component of stringed instrument pedagogy, finger patterns, I modified certain procedures for my purpose. The most important change was in the period of time my students were to practice finger patterns. Where most of my teachers had assigned finger patterns for a limited period, I told my students to practice them for the foreseeable future.

During the next few weeks, we had fascinating conversations about this simple, repetitive drill that didn’t even rise to the interest level or challenge of an easy etude.

After demonstrating finger patterns, and having my students try them, I said, “These are so simple that your reason for practicing them from now on isn’t because they’re hard.”

They agreed. One or two asked, out of curiosity more than resistance, “Why should we practice these so much if they’re so easy?”

“Because of what they will do for your technique: When you play, can you currently see the fingerboard; every note on it, and which notes are accessible from any given location of your left hand?”

It was a rhetorical question because their playing wasn’t at that level yet. But when I asked, their eyes sparkled.

“Finger patterns are your journey toward that comprehensive grasp of the fingerboard. It’s a limited task, though long, and every time you practice them, you’re advancing one step closer.”

They all got it. Not one argued or dragged his or her feet. And as they gained experience practicing this drill, other benefits soon emerged.

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