Overthinking: Weakness or Strength?
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Some children (and adults) seem prone to making quick, impulsive decisions. At the other extreme, some seem to be held hostage by choices, evaluating and reevaluating options long past the point most of us would consider helpful.
For adults somewhere between, watching a child “overthink” can trigger frustration. Parents and teachers may worry about a child’s stress, delays, and possibly sleeplessness as a result of runaway thinking. Adults may not know how to provide help.
Consider this: in some cases, what if a student’s tendency to “overthink” might be a sign of an unmet need for higher-level analysis? A sign of advanced, untapped problem-solving ability, ready to be channeled and harnessed?
Below are a few resources for helping students (or adults) feed a hunger for problem-solving, some of which may help guide deep thinkers toward constructive analysis. Though perceived overthinking is not limited to children with gifted-level cognitive needs, they are sometimes described as exhibiting this behavior, so GT-friendly strategies are included below.
Teaching about Thinking
Critical thinking can be taught, both at school and in home. Educators continue to develop new and innovative ways to incorporate Bloom’s Taxonomy, critical thinking skills, and other ways to “think about thinking” (metacognition) in the classroom. Simply developing an awareness that humans move through different processes in our thinking – and that to some extent, we can deliberately control those processes – may bring peace of mind to some children who worry about their thinking.
Image: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Creative Commons Attribution license.
Teachers can create assignments that help develop thinking skills and awareness of the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning, strategies for validating information, methods to compare and contrast, and ways to sequence and prioritize information (Cash, 2011). For more ideas about teaching critical thinking, please see the resources below.
Habits of Mind
The Habits of Mind were developed to help students “appreciate the value of and to develop the propensity for skillful problem solving using a repertoire of mindful strategies applied in a variety of settings” (Costa & Kallik, 2008). In a district in my area, the GT program includes the “Habits of Mind” in the curriculum, providing instruction on deliberate skills to help students overcome or compensate for social-emotional challenges such as perfectionism, masking, and impostor syndrome. Some of these strategies may help all students to develop analytical skills and to make better use of their thinking. The Habits include Thinking Flexibly (“putting on a different kind of thinking cap for the moment”), Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations, Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, Finding Humor (may help ease stress, if worry is a trigger), and Taking Responsible Risks, among others. The authors of Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind outline ideas for teaching the Habits in the classroom, as well as strategies for creating a “mindful language of learning” that parents can try at home (Costa & Kallik, 2008).
Talking with other students who share their challenges, particularly with the guidance of an adult, may help students “self-reflect, reflect about others, learn expressive language, explore careers, self-regulate, make decisions, and progress with developmental tasks” (Peterson, 2016). An affective curriculum is designed to address the well-being of students, and it may help with some of the social and emotional needs that can sometimes lead to perceived overthinking. For ideas on how an affective curriculum can be used in a “lunch bunch” setting for gifted-identified students, check out The Lunch Bunch: Affective Curriculum for Elementary Gifted Students (Johnson, 2017).
Differentiation and Acceleration
Teachers: does your curriculum go beyond rote memorization, providing opportunities for cross-curricular analysis? Does it allow students to dive deeper into topics of interest, and/or to explore and compare additional examples of a concept? Do students have choices in assignments and opportunities to respond in ways that tap into their individual strengths? Are pre-testing, curriculum compacting, or other acceleration strategies used for students that already know the material?
If the answers are negative, consider pursuing campus or individual professional development on differentiation strategies, including research-proven strategies for modifying the curriculum for gifted learners. For more information on differentiation and curriculum modification, please see the resources below.
Working with Perfectionism
While perfectionism can cause stress, and can sometimes lead to perceived overthinking or “paralysis,” some experts note that it can also bring “intense satisfaction and creative contribution, depending on how it is channeled” (Schuler, 2002). It has been noted that in gifted students, research shows “a lack of challenge may contribute to the development of perfectionism,” which calls “for an increase in challenging curriculum that support for curriculum compacting, acceleration, enrichment, and teaching at a more conceptual level” (Neumeister, 2016). In writing about gifted children, authors Jim Delisle and Judy Galbraith offer a strategy that can help all perfectionists: instead of aiming for perfection and constant success, children (and adults) can shift thinking toward a “pursuit of excellence.” This might involve the celebration of trying new things (despite temporary failure), a deliberate choice between activities (rather than focusing on the absence of equal talent in everything), and the decision to focus on trying again, if desired (Delisle & Galbraith, 2002).
If school hasn’t (yet) satisfied a student’s need for knowledge and exploration, consider enrichment opportunities, either online, locally, or at home. A wealth of parent ideas can be found through gifted parents’ blogs (such as those in Hoagies Blog Hops), and your area may offer classes and clubs in your student’s areas of passion. Local universities sometimes offer summer camps geared toward students with special interests and learning differences. For more information about STEAM-based, passion-based learning through NuMinds Enrichment (founders of this blog), check out their mission here.
Adults may want to consider whether an overthinking child is actually overthinking. Some types of decisions require careful analysis and the anticipation of all likely (and less likely) outcomes. Is overthinking causing the child stress? Does it have a negative impact on his/her quality of life? Or is it leading to better, more carefully considered decisions? If a child feels happier with detailed analysis, in some situations, could that be a strength? (We certainly appreciate that architects and aerospace engineers anticipate ways things might fall down…) With the conflicts and deep differences in our world, more and more, we need problem-solvers able to consider a multitude of perspectives. For your student, could you seek out and provide guidance on selecting pursuits where his or her strengths are needed and valued?
Please remember to take children seriously. When adults listen, children may be more receptive to learning which information might be helpful to consider in detail and which might require less attention. If a child is suffering, please seek expert help (beyond the scope of this post) – but in some cases, careful thinkers may need guidance, not repair. We may discover that our children and students can come up with innovations and solutions that work better than our own.
This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Overthinking. Our blog is proud to participate in Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page Blog Hops! Please click on the graphic above (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to read other Hoagies’ Blog Hop posts!
References and Further Reading
Cash, R. M. (2011). Advancing differentiation: thinking and learning for the 21st century. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Costa, A. L. and Kallick, B. (2008). Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Delisle, J. and Galbraith, J. (2002). When gifted kids don’t have all the answers. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Neumeister, K. S. (2016). Perfectionism in gifted students. In M. Neihart, S. I. Pfeiffer, and T. L. Cross (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: what do we know? Second Edition. A Service Publication of the National Association for Gifted Children. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Johnson, R. (2017). The lunch bunch: affective curriculum for elementary gifted students. The Gifted Education Review, 4, 1-3.
Peterson, J. S. (2016). Affective curriculum: proactively addressing the challenges of growing up. In K.R. Stephens and F. A. Karnes (Eds.), Introduction to curriculum design in gifted education. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Schuler, P. (2002). Perfectionism in gifted children and adolescents. In M. Neihart, S. M. Reis, N. M. Robinson, and S. M. Moon (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: what do we know? A Service Publication of the National Association for Gifted Children. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Stephens, K. R. and Karnes, F. A. (2016). Introduction to curriculum design in gifted education. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Roberts, J. L. and Inman, T. F. (2015). Strategies for differentiating instruction: best practices for the classroom. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
** I would like to thank Monica Simonds, M.Ed., for making me aware of the benefits of and instructional strategies for the Habits of Mind, for incorporating them in the GT curriculum, and for her work to nurture the social-emotional needs of students.
#overthinking #enrichment #metacognition #gifted #perfectionism