Monday, November 23, 2015

Underachievers under-the-radar: How seemingly successful gifted students fall short of their potential

Research has shown that many gifted children are underachievers who fail to reach their potential. Some mask their abilities so they can fit in with peers, some stop caring and receive barely passing grades, and some drop out altogether. Academic achievement becomes meaningless and their intrinsic love of learning seems to vanish. These conspicuous underachievers often capture the schools' attention because their disengagement is so apparent.

There are other underachieving gifted students, though, who remain hidden; their struggles detected by only the most astute observers. On the surface, these kids seem to be model students, with good grades and stellar test scores creating an appearance of hard work, motivation and drive. Their failure to reach their potential, though, remains unnoticed, well beneath the school's radar.

These underachieving students have mastered the ability to easily coast through school and still achieve good grades and test scores. They finish their work quickly, and distract themselves with reading, texting, doodling, or daydreaming. They might seem cooperative, but in reality, they rebel by taking shortcuts and performing well beneath their potential. Having lost faith in an educational system that appears dull and lifeless, they have learned to entertain themselves and exert just enough effort to just get by in school. They don't know their limits, they don't know how to fail, and they don't care to push themselves any more.

Gifted underachievers under-the-radar take shortcuts and certain risks, but none that ultimately help them succeed or reach their potential. Their decisions reflect passive rebellion, risk aversion, conflict avoidance, or attempts to entertain themselves. For example, they may:
  • take "easier" classes to avoid homework that would require much effort
  • avoid competitive activities, such as the debate team or math contests, to evade potentially envious or angry reactions from peers
  • refuse to try anything that might lead to failure or rejection, such as auditioning for the lead in the school play.
  • procrastinate until the last minute to see how quickly they can write a paper before the deadline. 
  • refuse to practice their musical instrument before band auditions, to see if they still make first chair, despite sight reading the music. 
  • take pride in only reading SparkNotes and still getting A's in their AP English class. 
  • avoid participating in the science fair because the project would require too much extra work
  • refuse to study or prepare for the SAT's, claiming they only want a "pure" score to reflect their abilities.

The long, slow road to underachievement

Gifted underachievers typically embark upon school just like most gifted children - eager to learn and excited to stretch themselves and take on new challenges. Disappointment gradually sets in - sometimes soon, sometimes later - but always in reaction to boredom and repetition. Gifted children get used to breezing through most material and occupying themselves while lessons are repeated for other children, They learn to stop asking so many questions to elude ridicule from peers or resentment from their teachers. They also learn that requests for more challenging assignments may evoke a sigh of frustration from an overburdened teacher, or result in busywork or extra homework.

Unlike more extreme gifted underachievers who struggle to attain even average grades, or drop out of school completely, gifted underachievers under-the-radar are not necessarily troubled with family conflicts or personal traits sometimes attributed to underachievers, such as insecurity or perfectionism. And while they may experience pressure to fit in with peers and conform to socio/cultural and gender stereotypes, most of these students are not plagued with emotional or psychological problems. They have become apathetic, complacent, and frustrated in response to an educational environment that has consistently ignored their needs - often for years.

Frustration, apathy and fear

Most gifted underachievers under-the-radar juggle several competing emotions related to their efforts. Frustrated and angry toward a system that labels their learning needs as less important than those of their classmates, they become cynical about what school has to offer them. Some also may feel betrayed by teachers who have misunderstood them, criticized their outside-the-box thinking, or who failed to protect them from bullying.

Apathetic toward schools that have eliminated opportunities such as acceleration or ability grouping, these students may stop caring about their own progress. While they may comply enough to achieve good grades, they rarely push themselves to reach their potential. If no one is going to encourage me, why should I bother?

Without the opportunity to tackle truly demanding academics, gifted underachievers under-the-radar develop a fragile sense of overconfidence. Cynical and critical of teachers and school, they may appear arrogant at times, but this attitude often masks underlying fears. Most realize that they lack the "self-regulation skills" (i.e., organizational strategies and study skills) that their classmates have mastered. When learning seems effortless, there is little incentive to apply strategies and skills that appear unnecessary at the time. Unfortunately, these students remain unprepared for more rigorous work when it finally arrives. Many gifted underachievers suspect that their lack of preparation will catch up with them. They worry that they will be exposed as "impostors" once they land in a more demanding learning environment, and may secretly doubt their abilities.

Three tips for helping gifted underachievers

1. Improve their education 

This might seem obvious, as it serves to both prevent and remedy the problem. But given the philosophical and financial constraints present in many school districts, the needs of gifted children are frequently overlooked. Gifted underachievers under-the-radar benefit from learning that incorporates depth, complexity, and an accelerated pace, where they feel free to express their creativity, where they are not embarrassed to be themselves, and where they are grouped with like-minded peers. As Siegle and McCoach have noted, gifted underachievers need to trust the academic environment and expect that they can succeed within it.

2. Enlist their sense of integrity

Gifted children are idealistic, with a highly developed sense of fairness and justice. They care about those who are less fortunate, and struggle with existential concerns related to life's meaning. Sometimes their idealism results in discomfort with their talents or guilt about having choices that are unavailable to others. While their integrity is admirable, it can unnecessarily limit their options. Encourage them to appreciate that they can better position themselves to help those in need if they apply themselves academically. Help them recognize that ignoring their talents benefits no one.

3. Engage their passions and interests

Remind them that even if school has been a bore, they can direct their energy toward what they most enjoy learning. Whatever intrigued them as young children can be transformed into a variation of the original activity. If they loved Legos, for example, they could pursue robotics or architectural design. If their interests cannot be met at school, help them find extracurricular activities in the community or online. Once they discover a meaningful, engaging activity, they might be willing to challenge themselves, take on a new and difficult skill, or develop some of the self-regulatory strategies that previously seemed unnecessary.

A final note...

If you look carefully, you will find gifted underachievers under-the-radar coasting through schools everywhere. Some may hide behind average to above average grades; others may be stand-outs or even class valedictorians. None of them have tested their limits and they don't recognize the extent of their capabilities. As they get older and enter college, the work force, or adult relationships, they may "hit a wall." Lacking adequate organizational strategies, fearful of risks, and new to the business of exerting effort, they may struggle with self-doubt, increased apathy, and even feelings of anxiety and shame. It is a disservice for schools to neglect these talented students and assume that grades and test scores are sufficient evidence that they are thriving.

Continued advocacy is needed so that even seemingly "successful" gifted students - those under the radar - are challenged to reach their potential.