Your child, once curious, energetic, overjoyed to learn, now has little interest in academics. As a parent, you stand by helplessly, saddened as you watch the spark disappear.
Gifted underachievers vary in how they display their underachievement. They may exert just enough effort to coast through school, under the radar and ignored because of average or even above average grades. They may become "selective consumers" who choose to achieve only in classes they enjoy, Or they may give up completely, perform poorly, fail, or drop out.
Yet not every gifted child underachieves. All children, especially teens and middle schoolers, face peer pressure and heightened expectations; not all respond by losing their drive to succeed in school.
So, then why do some gifted students lose interest and underachieve when others stay focused? Researchers and theorists have suggested various reasons for underachievement, some based on sound research, others based on clinical observation or theory (see several references below). Here are some findings:
1. Family dynamics - Family dysfunction, distress, conflict, inconsistent parenting, mixed messages about achievement, an absence of role models, excessive pressure to succeed, or either too much or not enough supervision - all may negatively impact a gifted child's drive to achieve. In families where parents are divided in their opinions about achievement, children may develop resentment about expectations, and may withdraw or rebel. If there is a high level of conflict at home, gifted children may become anxious, angry and preoccupied with the family struggle, and school may take a back seat.
2. Individual traits - Various personal traits, behaviors and emotional reactions have been linked to gifted underachievers in research and observational studies. These include any of the following: insecurity, perfectionism and fear of making a mistake, conflict avoidance, passive-aggressive behavior, existential depression, and perceiving oneself as an "impostor." These traits limit students' willingness to push themselves, care about their school work, risk failure or endure the envy of peers.
3. Sociocultural Issues - Peer pressure, the desire to "fit in," and cultural issues that discourage achievement all take their toll. Many gifted youth "dumb themselves down" to remain popular; others do this just to survive and protect themselves from bullying. Gender role development plays a part, including boys' concerns about appearing strong, athletic and tough, and girls' self-doubt and desire to be popular and attractive - all quite different from the "gifted nerd" stereotypes. And some cultures discourage academic success, particularly for girls.
4. School Policy - Underidentification of giftedness, misconceptions about gifted students' abilities, and school policy that discourages universal screening or appropriate and meaningful education for gifted children all contribute to underachievement. Some gifted children become "involuntary underachievers," particularly those in impoverished school districts lacking financial resources for gifted education. School policies that discourage enrichment, acceleration, ability grouping or creative alternatives to the mainstream curriculum deprive these students of the education they desperately need. Without the necessary complexity, depth and pace of learning, without like-minded peers, and without teachers who are trained to understand and teach gifted children, they quickly lose interest in learning, and disrespect their teachers and the school culture.
5. Teaching mismatch - Even though most teachers genuinely try to provide the best possible education, gifted students are frequently left behind. Many teachers lack training in gifted education and some hold biases about giftedness. Teachers who do not understand asynchronous development or who think all gifted students are high achievers, may assume unrealistically high expectations and become frustrated when students perform poorly. Some teachers place gifted children in the role of "junior instructor," expecting them to teach fellow students. When gifted students are singled out, their differences are highlighted even further, resulting in increased isolation from peers and possible bullying. And in many classrooms, gifted students are just left alone - it is assumed that they "will do just fine" and don't warrant the time and attention the rest of the class requires. Without school work that challenges them, they become bored, inattentive and discouraged. They also may become apathetic, afraid to take academic risks, and may never learn study skills or the value of hard work.
A perfect storm: Middle school
Although some gifted children lose interest in academics early on, most underachieving gifted students don't start to disengage from learning until middle school and high school. At that point in their development, there is a perfect storm combining the following:
- An accumulation of apathy and disrespect for the system, built up after years of boredom, frustration and feeling that their intellectual needs were never understood, appreciated or challenged. School may seem boring and pointless, and they may refuse to consider any possible benefits it could offer;
- Increasingly independent thinking, as they forge their own identities, formulate their own views, and develop distinct beliefs, often quite different from those of their families (fueled even more by their sharp intellect and questioning approach to just about everything);
- Developmental changes related to puberty, hormonal shifts, mood swings, and a heightened interest in sexual and dating relationships, which may take precedence over academics;
- Social pressure to conform and achieve popularity, prompting decisions regarding the necessity of fitting in, and whether to embrace or discard their gifted identity. If it is seen as a liability, many will "dumb themselves down" to gain acceptance. And for some, especially those in inner city schools, conformity can be a matter of survival;
- Increased academic demands. Middle school provides an increasingly competitive, somewhat rigid environment, with higher expectations related to performance, less attention and support from teachers, fewer opportunities for creative expression, and less tolerance for quirks and divergence from the rules. Students also may encounter a difficult assignment for the first time - frequently a shock for those who had coasted through elementary school;
- Awareness of their inadequacies. If they have not had an opportunity to fail at something in elementary school, they surely will by middle school. In addition to the social scene, often filled with pain and drama, gifted students start to realize that they are not going to be successful in every area of their lives. They may not be the best in every subject, may not get the highest grade, and may never be the most talented. While some can brush this off and move on, others may believe their identity is threatened, feel devastated and retreat. Fearful of taking risks, they may give up easily or become highly anxious before every exam. Since they never had to work hard before, they lack the study skills and strategic planning abilities others learned years earlier.
Understanding must inform intervention
In order to address the roadblocks that can derail gifted students' performance, a thorough understanding of the possible reasons for underachievement is essential.
For each child.
Every child is different, so offering sweeping generalizations about reasons for gifted underachievement does not benefit any particular individual child. The list of causes above is a starting point, but parents, teachers, counselors, physicians, school psychologists, therapists, and the child all need to sort out the unique and specific factors that are creating problems. Typically, more than one causal factor is involved, and resolving the problem requires intervention at many levels. But it is critical that a thorough understanding of the cause(s) must inform and drive any intervention. Your child will benefit from your close and attentive focus on what is contributing to the problem, with the hope that you and the school can intervene to quickly resolve it.
This blog post is the second in a three-part series about gifted underachievement. The first post: Who is the gifted underachiever: Four types of underachievement in gifted children focused on forms of underachievement. Also, see Underachievers under-the-radar: How seemingly successful gifted students fall short of their potential. Stay tuned for the third post about interventions for underachievement in gifted children!
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McCall R., Evahn, C., & Kratzer, L. (1992). High school underachievers: What do they achieve as adults? Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
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Reis, S. (2002). Social and emotional issues faced by gifted girls in elementary and secondary school. The SENG Newsletter, 2, 1-5. Retrieved from http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/social-and-emotional-issues-faced-by-gifted-girls-in-elementary-and-secondary-school.
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Siegle, D., & McCoach, D. B. (2005). Motivating gifted students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
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