How to keep kids excited about learning: A guide for adults
By Katy Bowman
Academically advanced kids’ abilities can be misleading. They may be able to recite facts, solve math problems, or breeze through assignments with the greatest of ease — but that doesn’t mean they should be left to educate themselves. When it comes to staying excited about learning, bright kids need as much support from adults as their classmates and siblings do, whether they’re in the classroom or at the dinner table.
“As adults, our goal is teaching kids to be lifelong learners, and showing them how to learn,” said Teresa Dickey, a high school literature teacher in Los Angeles. “Many of the bright kids of today are the leaders of tomorrow we so desperately need. Our role as adults is to give them the open-mindedness to try new things. When you open a door and say, ‘Come and take this journey with me,’ it’s amazing how they respond.”
Dickey, Jody Hess, and Dan Sievers are all recipients of the Sarah D. Barder Fellowship, which the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth presents annually to educators who have demonstrated excellence in teaching. We asked them how parents and teachers can support advanced learners, and keep them engaged and enthusiastic about learning as they grow. Here’s their advice:
Show interest — and patience. Bright kids tend to want to learn everything they can about the things they like. So, developing an interest in something — like spiders, a historical figure, or a railroad system — can be powerful and all-encompassing. For their parents and teachers, hearing a kid rattle off their newfound knowledge about reptiles for the 25th time in one day can be exhausting, but it’s important not to dampen their enthusiasm.
“There’s nothing worse for a kid than having something they’re really excited about, and they tell an adult, and the adult is like, ‘I don’t have time for that,’ or ‘I already knew that,’” Dickey said. “This is the first time they are learning about it, and when you’re interested, they’ll be even more excited.”
The simple act of taking a child to the library, leading them to a shelf filled with books about something they like, and exploring with them can encourage their interest, give it context, and make it tangible.
Let kids’ curiosity be the guide. In school and at home, giving bright kids the freedom to choose what they want to learn helps build their autonomy and confidence, as well as their knowledge base, Dickey said. “I always have students who say, ‘You’re going to let me research that?’” She’s amazed at what her students uncover during a research project she calls “Finding Japan in Los Angeles.” Within that theme they are free to choose their topic.
“I had one student who chose to research the foods that Buddhist monks eat — the topic was very specific, and she was able to apply what she was learning in class to her experience,” Dickey said. “When you give them the room to explore and the tools to explore it with, they will be engaged — and they’ll remember what they’ve learned.”
Make real-world connections. A child with a burgeoning interest might find that reading nonfiction books and researching the topic online is a great place to start. Nowadays there’s also a steady stream of podcasts, how-to videos, and documentaries on every topic imaginable for kids to explore.
But it’s equally important to take them on real-life adventures. Every community has a story that is told through its food, traditions, music, landmarks, local events, and geographical features. Let kids choose a topic unique to your hometown, and discover it together.
Museums, nature centers, and even trade shows can give kids the chance to study their interests up close, talk to experts, and meet fellow enthusiasts. You can also seek out adults who work in interesting fields and ask if they would be willing to answer questions or let you and your child visit them on the job.
“People can be very generous when they see an email saying ‘I’m 12 and I live in Pennsylvania and I’m interested in what you do,’” Dickey said.
Theaters, hospitals, fire companies, and animal shelters offer volunteer opportunities that can give kids of all ages the chance to explore their interests while gaining hands-on experience.
Jody Hess, who spent years in the classroom and who now oversees gifted education programs for the state of Washington, said she loved having her students investigate different careers, and report back to the class on what they’d found — for better or worse. “I remember one kid said, ‘What I learned was that I never want to be an accountant,’” she said.
Help them find their people. Encouraging kids to get involved in extracurriculars can help them meet other kids who share their interests and find a sense of belonging. “I see a lot of bright students who are also socially aloof, and it helps when they can find a community of peers,” said Dan Sievers, a middle school math teacher in Baltimore. Chess club, Odyssey of the Mind, Quiz Bowl, or math programs like 24 Challenge — “That’s where kids can start acquiring kindred spirits, form relationships with other kids they might not have otherwise met, and start talking about things they are interested in,” Sievers said.
Help them find their voice. Bright students often have an enhanced sense of urgency about social causes like preventing climate change and gun violence, Hess said. “A lot of the advanced kids I know have identified a problem in their community and they want to use their abilities to remedy that,” she said. For parents and teachers, connecting them with a community organization or helping them start a school club can not only give kids a purpose and help them strengthen their leadership and communication skills; it can help make the world a better place.
“There’s a maturity, especially in bright students — they know about the world and are sometimes frustrated with the way things are, and they want to fix it,” Dickey said. “For adults, it’s about helping them find their voice and find their way of talking about it that can ignite change.”