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 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.

38 comments:

  1. hmmmmm this sounds familiar...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous, Yes, it is familiar for so many gifted students and families of gifted children. Thanks for sharing.

      Delete
  2. Although.. almost too familiar.....

    ReplyDelete
  3. too familiar here as well.....and scary for a parent that sees their child behaving this way. It is also a constant "fight" with the school that doesn't even seem to understand....how cannot they see it? it is so obvious. We parents need help to help our children

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed - it is way too common. Those in the schools who recognize what is happening may not have the time and energy to address the problem. There are so many other competing concerns, and these kids are truly under the radar. Thank you for your comments and good luck with your child.

      Delete
  4. This sounds so much like my son. He was alright until middle school and then got distracted by his friends and felt like he didn't care as much any more. He refused to take AP classes in high school and now that he is a senior, has some regrets about not pushing himself harder. Since he did alright, none of the teachers really looked out for him. They tried to get him to do more, but he didn't cause any trouble, so they gave up and left him alone to do what he wanted. He got a job after school and liked doing that, but it wasn't really very interesting for him. It is such a shame that these children don't get the attention they need.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous, I agree that it is so hard to watch your child just coast through school without much passion or energy for the school work, and to see how the school refuses to help. I hope that your son eventually finds something that energizes him once he graduates.

      Delete
  5. How can one recover from the damage done by the schools? Is there a way to help a young adult recapture a love of learning and willingness to work hard?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous, You raise such an important point. How can these children recover what they have lost once they are adults? It is a complex question and one that depends on the individual and what would excite and energize his or her interests again. Sometimes finding a particular area of interest that corresponds with an earlier passion, support from a mentor, involvement with a peer group that is encouraging or challenging, volunteer work with those less fortunate, or therapy may be options that can help.

      I am not trying to avoid responding to your question - it is just so complex and so specific to each individual that I would not want to offer very definitive advice. I hope you can speak with the young adult as openly as possible and come up with a plan for working on this.

      What do others think?

      Delete
    2. It was known when I was young that I was bright. It was not known that I had Asperger's and ADHD. Because of a physical injury, I had to go on disability at age 44. Since then, these other conditions have been diagnosed.
      I currently receive speech and language therapy to teach time management and improve executive functioning skills. I would strongly recommend such therapy for the under the radar underachievers who then grow up to be underachieving adults. Executive functioning skills and social communication skills can be taught. There can be hope even in adulthood for students like this.

      Delete
  6. This describes me so very well! I coasted all through school, and college, and only in grad school did I (FINALLY!) hit the wall. And by then, it was so late, and I was so far along, that I had NO IDEA how to even begin to ask for help, and nobody could understand that I never learned how to organize myself and study. I still don't know how. Is there any help for people like me?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kimberly, You were capable enough to get as far as grad school. You are certainly capable of learning study and organizational skills. I think it comes as a shock when gifted people realize that they cannot always just absorb the material and have to do something more to learn, retain, and organize it. Ask for guidance from people who offer training in study and skills or other strategies, or even research some of it online. Best of luck with this.

      Delete
  7. I wish I could have gotten help as a kid. This description fit me exactly! Now, being a mom of four highly gifted kids, I don't feel like I have developed a lot of the problem-solving skills that would help me be a better mom to these difficult children. I can't exactly coast through parenthood on a high IQ....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Melissa,
      I completely understand - the struggle with problem-solving is a tough one, especially with handling the demands of four kids! But problem-solving can be learned. I would urge you to get the support and help you need to develop these skills. Good luck.

      Gail

      Delete
  8. a) Some of those overlooked "underachievers" fall into the category that one of my favorite researchers once labeled "the not evidently maladapted."

    b) How many people **do** "reach their potential," out of curiosity?

    c) How far below one's potential does one need to fall to qualify as an "underachiever," and for how long does one need to do it?

    d) Are we sure which kids/adults have LDs and don't therefore meet the Reis/McCoach definition of underachievers vs. which do not?

    and
    e) "Research has shown that many gifted children..." is gobbledygook because research has shown so many different things in so many different ways. We have NO idea how many kids(or adults) we are talking about here. Estimates range from 20% up over 50%, but even so we are still guessing. That's both with and without counting the hidden ones.

    Indeed, the ones that you discuss here are the ones who historically actually got the *most* attention until the 1950's or so. They were written about before the word "underachievement" was even in common parlance, for eons. They were addressed for their bad habits in the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, with risk of dropping out of school or college and failing to have a commitment to society.
    ******

    Stopping at (e) because sleep is soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You raise some good points. It is hard to know how many underachievers are out there. There are problems with the definition (how to define underachievement, how do you identify/label underachievers, what criteria to use), which are questions that are beyond the scope of this blog post. The definition of underachievement in the literature typically excludes children with learning disabilities, but you are right to suggest that sometimes that may not be accurately diagnosed. And yes, "potential" is hard to define, although I do believe that most gifted underachievers are well aware of when they are not pushing themselves to work up to the level of their abilities.

      All of these questions you raise point to the need for further research and exploration of this important topic. I hope that more will be done in the future to help these underidentified children.

      Delete
    2. One of the substantial problems I have is just how much research has been done to how little effect. The questions I posed above arise out of the 2000 definition, but in truth that definition is very little different from those observed in Underachievement (Milton Kornrich, ed., 1965) or crafted by Edmund Williamson's How to Counsel Students: a Manual of Techniques for Clinical Counselors (1939).

      Generally speaking, if an *institution* wishes to address the problem, then following the guidelines from Joanne Rand Whitmore's Giftedness, Conflict, and Underachievement (1980) or perhaps Patricia Supplee's Reaching the Gifted Underachiever (1990) might well do the job for a substantial percentage of these kids.

      Harder to do it as a parent without the school's engagement.

      Delete
  9. Raising my hand. Thank you for such an informative and heartfelt piece. Not realizing my giftedness was a constant struggle through life until well into adulthood. Better late than never and now I'm making up for lost time. Thank you SO much for sharing what needs to be understood for so many!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, atlas. I am glad to hear that you are making up for lost time. This is the challenge for so many underachieving gifted - to find a way to appreciate and utilize their abilities despite having ignored them as children. Best wishes,
      Gail

      Delete
  10. Also note: I think the road is a lot shorter than you do and the the signs are there early on if one knows where to look.

    Nor is stimulating work necessarily enough to fix the problem when one has never had to work and has no skills with which to begin to attack that challenging material surrounded by one's ostensible peers - instead, it is one more dagger to the heart of self-esteem.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The road can be long or short, depending on each individual's situation. I imagine you have witnessed a much quicker development. Challenging work is only one of many interventions. The earlier it is offered, the better for the child. I agree that an underachieving gifted child or adult can become increasingly anxious or insecure if suddenly placed in a situation that is much more challenging after years of coasting through school. These are times when they need tremendous support from family and teaching staff to help them adjust, both emotionally and academically.

      Delete
  11. My very articulate child is in a private school for gifted. When he started there, it was hard for him to fit in. Although very well liked by kids, he found the clicks, the kids that didn't let him in games because he was too different, etc. He also mentioned that the girls were more liked by teachers...and how they will play the baby talk game and constant hugging the teachers, seemingly too fake to him.But he thought the teachers liked this and that is how he would be liked. Visiting classes I noticed what he has already told me. My son struggled and felt lonely for a while. This year he managed to become friends with all of them, and be included. But then he started imitating them hiding his articulate self. I started noticing this and said one time, it's okay son, you don't have to act dumb with me I want to see my real child. He looked at me and instantly snapped out of it and started talking nonstop about his passions, showing me, teaching me...for a day a saw his old self. I have started couching him pointing out the manipulative behaviors of the others and telling him how important is for all of us to see his real person. He now tells me his experiences of confronting classmates that try to manipulate him, like putting conditions to be in the "boys club". He is managing very well because they are still friends, it seems that he is getting their respect, but still this is a concern. This is a school for gifted, the "ideal place", you would think, but I'm afraid he is coasting and he is not reaching his potential. I feel like I have to do extra work at home to keep his true self alive, his levels of awareness high to survive these environment that proofs to be confusing to him. He is 7 but way more mature, beyond his years. I have to admit that I admire his survival skills, he could have withdrew already, but thank goodness he has a very positive approach in life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is a difficult situation. Even schools for gifted kids have their norms, and your child still may have different needs from what the school offers. Hopefully you can work with your child and the school to address what he needs. Good luck.

      Delete
  12. Great article. I see myself going through school in it. I totally hit the wall in college when I finally had to sit down and study and get organized and didn't know how or where to begin because I never had to before. I also see this in my daughter now. She has straight A+'s without having to study at all and spending maybe 10-minutes a day on homework that is mostly busy work for her. She is currently in 3rd grade and still loves school. I've talked to her teacher about trying to find ways to challenge her more, but nothing has really come of it. It seems schools are so focused on the kids on the lower end of the spectrum, to increase their scores and make them successful that they forget about those kids on the other end who have outstanding test scores and are just sailing through without ever really being challenged.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous, What you described is typical of what so many other parents of gifted children experience. They know how they eventually hit a wall, they see how their children also are not being challenged, and they don't know how to get the school's attention to change the situation. I wish you all the best in advocating for your daughter.
      Gail

      Delete
    2. If she were my daughter, I would chat with her about developing a project around one of her interests. If she is like other little girls maybe she is interested in dolls. Ask her if she knows where dolls came from or started and ask her why she thinks girls enjoy them. She might like to find some research material, visit a doll museum, or read about dolls in different cultures. If not dolls, something else close to her heart - dogs, tall buildings, tractors, pianos! If you think it might help, talk to her teacher about how she could pursue her project in class at school or in the library or learning lab. Don't worry if she wants to change projects- just as long as she remains curious about things in the world. PS. Don't do a project FOR her, just guide and chat.

      Delete
    3. If she were my daughter, I would chat with her about developing a project around one of her interests. If she is like other little girls maybe she is interested in dolls. Ask her if she knows where dolls came from or started and ask her why she thinks girls enjoy them. She might like to find some research material, visit a doll museum, or read about dolls in different cultures. If not dolls, something else close to her heart - dogs, tall buildings, tractors, pianos! If you think it might help, talk to her teacher about how she could pursue her project in class at school or in the library or learning lab. Don't worry if she wants to change projects- just as long as she remains curious about things in the world. PS. Don't do a project FOR her, just guide and chat.

      Delete
  13. Thank you very much, Gail!
    I really found myself in this text. Now as I think about it, I really lack those practical skills to study - I tend to postpone things, start learning a few hours before I sit the test and so on. I do have many extra activities, but most of the time that's free, I sit down to my laptop and do nothing. That makes me angry towards myself and also worried - what if I won't cope with university? I wish to study in the UK. There's nothing I can do with my teachers (higschool - year 3 out of 4). Is there a way for me - something I can do - to change myself before I fail?
    Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You describe such a common problem for so many. I hope that you can find a teacher or mentor who can challenge you to develop some structure or organizational strategies. They are skills, and you can learn them. Good luck.

      Delete
  14. I attended primary through HS in a different country where "gifted" was not even coined as a word... The school system perceived me, academically, disinterested and absolutely not "college material"... I came to the States and had to learn English... even with that handicap, I finished a four year BS degree in two and a half years... and was amazed at my "abilities" to learn and learn fast... I thought the educational system here was easy... just that easy... So, I went on to get a graduate degree and then, a post-graduate... Then, I had my first child who was "kicked out" of a private school for "talking out of line" and just "academically, not very smart"... We moved to a different house so we can be zoned to academically strong schools that had systems in place to help "behaviorally challenged" children... within two months, my child was tested and breezed through IQ tests to be classified as "highly gifted"... Then, as the parent of a "newly minted" GT child, I attended a "welcome to your GT child" session put on by the district and I was floored... all my "symptoms" were up there, on the overhead... my kid and I were so much alike... and we had a "diagnosis"... by the time our second child was born, I recognized the same symptoms in him... We were now the "proud" parents of not one but two HG kids... they both have DEPs and they both know their potential... we discuss freely with them the difference in potential for an average child v a child with their potential... but, this "condition" is not to be envied... with the older child, we had to go through serious failure in 8th grade because he also has ADHD and both children suffer from serious anxieties, for which, both children are undergoing biofeedback... Of course, I also suffer from - sometimes debilitating - anxieties... The one common "complaint" I hear from both my kids is "why do I have to work harder only because I'm smarter? I get the concepts easier so, why can I not just play the remainder of the time the other kids are still struggling to get the concept down?" It's a hard question to answer... but it's also one, I think where the answer hinges on "underachievement"... I read somewhere that as many as 20% of the inmate population has an IQ of 130+... if those kids weren't challenged and in a way, enticed into achieving more than what their schools offers them, they will fill the gap of time with activities we may not be able to control once they hit adolescence and beyond... But if there is ONE thing that I can say that helped A LOT is talking with the kids about their "special" gift to help them understand that without using their additional potential, it may all just go to waste... Just my two cents...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Esquire, Thank you for your heartfelt description of your journey and that of your children. You describe the struggle so many gifted children and adults experience. I appreciate your comments.

      Delete
  15. Yep- changed countries and schools at six, got put back 2 years because I was physically tiny. That was the start of the rot. What kid wants to spend their free time on teaching others to read when they finish everything too quickly? Didn't learn proper study skills until I was 60 and doing my Masters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, Anonymous. I guess better late than never. But what a shame that you were ignored so terribly and had to wait so long to challenge yourself. I'm glad that you found something that was meaningful and challenging for you. Thank you for your feedback.

      Delete
  16. Yes, this is me. I was a very good all rounder, no one would question me if I said I was in the top two or three of my class at school, maybe top.
    I was in a UK comprehensive school we didn't have gifted programmes there.

    Maths classes in particular consisted of five minutes of tuition, then 55 minutes of messing around because I didn't need to practice. Looking back at report scores and calibrating them against data online I was certainly scoring well into 'exceptional' at maths by age 9 (maybe before, that's just when I have info) and was in 'the top 1%'. No one told me. I got bored of maths and stopped listening, there was no pleasure in getting everything right so easily. Now I wonder just how good at maths I was, or could have been.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous, Thank you for sharing your experience with us. You describe what happens for so many gifted children - they get lost in a school system that assumes that are doing just fine. They become bored and never get challenged to reach their potential. Hopefully you have found some things that challenge you as an adult. Thanks again for your comments.

      Delete
    2. Thanks, I've done well and been happy. Two undergraduate degrees from very good universities (again, achieved by just turning up) and a successful career in social research consultancy for which being highly literate and numerate has helped. I'm now self employed and get my professional satisfaction from tinkering with my business which is a real pleasure.

      Do think school was a huge waste of my time, and wonder what could have been if someone had suggested I read pure maths at Oxbridge.

      Also thinking on this a lot as I consider schools for my three year old son.

      Delete