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Check out this article featured in the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented!


Michal Maimaran was out walking in Evanston when she bumped into her family’s pediatrician and struck up a friendly conversation—a chance encounter that inspired a new research project. 

Maimaran, a research associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, has been studying decision-making in children for several years. So her ears perked up when the doctor mentioned he had observed parents giving children lots of options about various day-to-day activities: At the park, would she rather play on the slide, or the swings, or kick a ball around, or throw a Frisbee, or climb a tree? At home, which of the dozens of books on her shelves does she want to read?

The doctor was troubled by this approach. And Maimaran knew research has shown that having an abundance of choices can be a bad thing—at least for adults.

Psychologists and marketers have previously found evidence that having lots of choices can feel overwhelming or make us regretful of our final choice—a phenomenon known as “choice overload.” But no one had really looked at how an abundance of choice affects children, and in particular, how having so many affects how engaged they are with the option they ultimately choose. 

Maimaran started to reflect on the choices she offered her own children, and critically, how much they actually engaged with their final selection. After all, she says, “what matters most is, after you chose something, what do you do with it?”

Thus, a research project was born.

She found that there can be negative consequences to giving children lots of options to choose from. In several studies, she showed that when kids pick from a large set of options, they spend less time engaged with their choice than when they pick from a small set.

Over time, Maimaran suggests, using choice sets strategically can have an effect on the kinds of activities that children find interesting and enjoy, something parents, educators, and policymakers may want to keep in mind. 

“What matters most is, after you chose something, what do you do with it?” 

For example, if you want to keep your child’s nose in a book you may be better off giving them just two to three titles to choose from, rather than a hefty stack. The same idea holds for other beneficial activities, such as educational games and playing outside. On the flipside, though not studied directly by Maimaran, you might be able to shorten the amount of time kids spend on less desirable activities, such as video games, not by cajoling them, but simply by offering them a larger selection of games to choose from.