Burned Out

The “smart kids” you were friends with in elementary school are probably miserable now


Emma Clasen

A match slowly loses it’s fire. This is symbolic of the way gifted student’s ambition slowly slips away over the years.

Avery Olson , Staff Reporter

My favorite type of mail to receive as a kid was when the school district sent out my MAP test scores every June. With my advanced scores in English language arts, math, and science, my parents hailed me as some kind of child genius. As I’d find out, that sentiment would be reflected throughout my childhood. A few times a year, I’d read short stories in front of someone, and they’d smile and write nice comments about the inflection in my voice or the speed of my reading. 

Afterwards, my classmates and I would compare the scores on our pages, and I’d smile at the notes that said I was several years ahead of my reading level. In the car on the way to soccer practice, my grandma would quiz me about the American Revolution or photosynthesis. I loved hearing her telling me how smart I was, how she couldn’t wait to watch me grow up and have a successful future. 

The praise from my family members and teachers was nice, especially because I didn’t have to work hard for the scores I’d earned. In my mind, being ahead of the curve was just a part of life for me. Reading came naturally to me, the MAP test was fun, I never had homework. Elementary school was a breeze, almost too easy. 

Then came middle school, and the difference was like night and day. I’d been in school for nine years, but it had never felt so overwhelming. Nothing before this point had prepared me for an academic challenge; no concept had ever dared to be difficult for me to understand. As a sixth-grader, I had homework for the first time. Tests became challenging, due dates and deadlines piled up. But when these challenges arose, they came all at once. I wasn’t ahead of the curve anymore, I was struggling just to keep up.  

When I told people about my newfound struggles, it felt like I was letting out a dirty secret. 

I was supposed to be the smart kid, right? What had happened to me? School had been so easy before, but now every night I was hunched over my kitchen table in tears of frustration while doing pre-algebra problems. All of a sudden, I had real letter grades, each subject a ball to keep juggling.

By the end of the first semester, I got the hang of school again. I found out the hard way that challenge was a normal part of the human experience; just because school was suddenly very hard for me didn’t mean I was any less intelligent. I grappled with the fact that I now had an hour or more of homework each night. 

However, the biggest change I noticed was that I was dragging my feet through school. Being in class no longer felt like a learning opportunity, I was just there because I was required to. I went from a student in a classroom to a body in a building.

I went from a student in a classroom to a body in a building.”

When school suddenly transformed from all play to all work, my passion for learning got burnt out in the process. Academically, things were hard, and subconsciously I just checked out. In the back of my mind, I thought that things weren’t “allowed” to be difficult for me because of all these pedestals I was put up on as a kid. 

Why should I have to go back and revise this research paper three times, aren’t I supposed to be good at English? If it weren’t for my consciousness telling me I absolutely had to perform well in school, I probably would’ve completely stopped putting forth effort altogether. 

School felt different from middle school onward. I was still getting good grades and scoring well on tests, but my motives were different. I was staying on top of school because I knew I’d disappoint all those people that sang my praises when I was younger, everyone who saw me as the child prodigy. I trudged through middle school as a high achieving student who, at her core, was fizzled out and used up. 

Summer before freshman year was the first time I’d ever heard of gifted kid burnout. I read an Instagram post with a story that was remarkably familiar to my own: a girl that was a 99th percentile student as a child, but was now struggling through AP classes and barely making it out alive. It was such a relief to know I wasn’t the only one in the world with this narrative.

 Knowing that I wasn’t alone in my struggle prompted conversations with my other “gifted child” friends, and I came to a conclusion: convincing kids their high test scores and impressive reading abilities will make them bulletproof from challenge and frustration will only amplify their challenge and frustration later on. Academic excellence is a gift that should be carefully nurtured, and a child’s knack and passion for learning can both be instantly drained if their abilities are improperly molded. 

What I realized is that just because I was a fast reader as a kid didn’t mean I would never be challenged in ELA. Just because I scored within the top percentile on standardized tests didn’t mean I would never struggle with a physics concept. All of those standards that said I was gifted couldn’t protect me from being pushed to my limits.

The latter realization I had was that primary educators should place less of an emphasis on test scores and reading levels as a trajectory of what a student will achieve later on. The focus should shift from these benchmarks to things like teaching kids how to prepare for tests and deal with stress, challenge, and disappointment. If high-scoring kids were told that yes, the rules of the human mind did indeed apply to them too, challenges in middle and high school would be easier to digest. Once students are properly prepared for the road ahead, the future looks a little brighter for every gifted kid.