How to Uncover Your Kid’s Talent

Lessons parents can take from the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University.

All kids have potential to be talented at something and at the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, they have a place to develop that talent in meaningful ways they might not ever be able to get anywhere else.

“We have a perspective on talent that emphasizes that it is developmental, meaning that it changes over time as children grow. It starts with potential,” says Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director at the Center for Talent, which helps kids ages 3 to grade 12 tap into their talent with cutting-edge summer, online and weekend offerings.

“With the youngest kids, we don’t have any selection or qualification criteria for our programs because we believe the important thing is just exposure, letting kids dabble in different areas and seeing what they are interested in. We offer opportunities in enrichment to expose them to different areas in a playful way with the support of a teacher,” she says.

As kids develop, the program homes in on an interest or strength with hands-on learning. Then by middle and high school, students seek out the Center for Talent Development for authentic accelerated experiences and Advanced Placement courses they often can’t get at their own schools, whether with Northwestern University experts and university labs or through a network of specialized community partners the Center for Talent Development has cultivated for students.

Olszewski-Kubilius took time out recently to share how parents can encourage their child’s talent and ensure success as they grow up.

Lessons to learn from the Center for Talent Development

1. Expose kids to many different things.

“The research shows that kids need different types of teachers along the talent development path. For little kids, it’s more about engaging them and having them be enthusiastic,” she says. It’s not about correct technique or giving them critical feedback, but letting them be playful, she adds.

Then watch where kids show an interest. As they get older, find opportunities, such as the Center for Talent Development, community organizations and even resources on the internet where they can fuel those interests.

But she cautions parents not to overschedule or overprogram their kids.

Photo credit: Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University

2. Be an advocate for your child at school.

Often by necessity, schools must focus on the majority of the students in the classroom, not students who need more challenges. But if parents find their child needs something more, speak up, she says.

“Challenge is important for growth,” Olszewski-Kubilius says. You never want to see that their school work is easy, that they never have to study or that they are bored. “The only way kids learn how to be organized in their studies or how to learn difficult material, how to not be fazed by a setback or a failure, how to be intrinsically motivated, is if they experience challenge,” she says.

In Illinois, through the Accelerated Placement Act, all schools must have a policy and set up procedures for acceleration, she says. Those policies might vary by school, but parents should feel empowered to ask that their child be evaluated for advanced placement, she says.


3. Be your child’s emotional coach.

Olszewski-Kubilius calls this parents’ most important role.

“We all know, as adults, people with great talent who never produce, who never find their way. Why does that happen? Not because of their ability, but other factors get in the way. Parents can really help kids develop attitudes and beliefs that support their talent development,” she says.

For example, help kids focus on growth and improvement rather than grades. “All of us want to see our children do well in school but an overfocus on achieving grades for the sake of achieving grades sends the wrong message about what the purpose of schooling is,” she says.

Reward effort as much as performance.

“Being bright or gifted isn’t doing great things without effort. Being gifted means as much a part of motivation as it is ability, if not more. Working hard and studying and challenging oneself is really important. Parents can support children when they are discouraged or they feel like they failed by helping them acquire coping strategies and being resilient. They themselves can model hope and optimism.”

Kids need to learn to work independently, set goals, not be afraid of challenges and figure out how to come back from failures or overcome perceived obstacles, she says. Parents also can help teach their children to be courageous.

Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University

4. Allow kids to have fits and starts with their interests and talents.

Parents may find their child completely gravitating to an interest, only to have them abandon it. Understand that it’s OK for kids to dabble — and it’s OK if their talent or interests don’t match your passions or plans for your child, she says.

“When it’s very different from the parents’ own path, it can be hard to support it and can be hard to accept it. Parents need to be mindful that their goal is to find the best situation for their child and to be helpful by directing them to possibilities but not determining the ultimate choice,” Olszewski-Kubilius says.

Starting as early as preschool age, parents can help their children find their interests, then do what they can to find opportunities that match those talent areas. Don’t force anything, however. “A lot of kids don’t figure out what they want to do until college,” she says. “Finding something you want to work hard at, your passion area, is more difficult than ascertaining what you are good at.”

Find out more about how the Center for Talent Development can help your child thrive and succeed in life at

Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Since 1984, the Chicago Parent editorial team is trained to be the go-to source for Chicagoland families, offering a rich blend of expert advice, compelling stories, and the top local activities for kids. Renowned for their award-winning content, the team of editors and writers are dedicated to enriching family life by connecting parents with the finest resources and experiences our community has to offer.


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