Monday, February 1, 2016

Who is the gifted underachiever? Four types of underachievement in gifted children

There is a pervasive myth that all gifted people are high achievers.

But many are not.

Most young gifted children are a ball of energy, full of life, curious, intense, and driven. Then reality sets in. They confront the limitations of school, peer pressure, others' expectations and their own fears, and some scale back their drive. Their intrinsic love of learning seems to vanish overnight.

Underachievement may develop gradually, with less effort expended on homework, tests or projects. Or it can start abruptly. A gifted child, once actively engaged in school, might lose all interest and motivation. Examples of underachievement include risk-aversion, cutting corners on assignments, a refusal to study, or angry rejection of the school culture.

Gifted underachievers are a widely diverse group of children (and adults), whose behavior springs from multiple sources. Some underachievement reflects emotional distress, family problems, or the effects of peer pressure; other times, it develops primarily in response to boredom and an absence of challenging academics. Some underachievement is more easily recognized, such as when a child starts failing at school, but sometimes it is more subtle and is overlooked.

Why are gifted underachievers so hard to identify?


Although underachievement might seem obvious, gifted underachievers may remain hidden. Many students are not identified as gifted, their giftedness is masked by a learning disability or other twice exceptionality, or they may not fit the "gifted child stereotype," (i.e., the well-behaved, highly verbal, slightly nerdy student who always excels). As they get older, they may hide their giftedness to fit in, and as long as they are not disruptive, may be ignored. Their subpar achievement may not be recognized because they can often coast through school and receive adequate grades without exerting much effort.

Researchers also have struggled to agree upon a clear definition of gifted underachievement. Difficulties include the differences across studies in terms of definitions of both giftedness and achievement. The criteria and cut-offs used to identify giftedness or gifted programs have varied, with some studies using a wide range of test scores, and others settling for placement in a gifted class. And defining achievement is even more difficult. Questions arise regarding whether to use achievement tests, grades, teacher ratings, or some other measure of progress, along with whether to assess improvement based upon objective criteria over time, or on the difference between actual achievement and the child's potential. And how do you define potential, anyway?

Despite these theoretical and practical difficulties, researchers have settled upon the following criteria for defining underachievement:

1. A discrepancy between ability and achievement
2. Must have persisted for at least a year
3. Not due to a physical, mental or learning disability

This very basic criteria is only a start and does not convey the complexity and diversity of gifted underachievers. Researchers have offered more detailed information based on investigative studies, theories of gifted underachievement, and classroom or clinical observation (see references below as examples). Based on the literature, a picture of several types of gifted underachievers has emerged.

So, who is the gifted underachiever?


One way to understand different types of gifted underachievers is to consider four categories of underachievement:

1. Involuntary underachievers

These are students who would like to succeed, but are trapped in schools that are underfunded, poorly staffed or unable to meet their needs. Frequently a problem in minority and low-income communities, these gifted students are often bored, distracted, and may be completely unaware of what might be available through a more comprehensive, enriched education. Many are never even identified as gifted or offered gifted education. Some of these students may be hard-working, but never have an opportunity to excel. Others may coast through school, give up, or act out due to boredom. These students' underachievement results from an absence of available options and is not caused by personal, family or peer conflicts.

2. Classic underachiever

These gifted underachievers underperform in all areas of study. They have given up on school... and on themselves. Their underachievement typically starts in middle school, although there may be signs of boredom or depression that manifest in elementary school. They are often angry, apathetic, rebellious, or withdrawn. Given their intellect, they often espouse a host of "logical" reasons for refusing to exert themselves, and resist parents' or teachers' efforts to encourage, prod, or coerce. School faculty may give up in frustration, pointing out the "waste of potential," and worry that they have "lost" these children.

3. Selective Underperformers

These underachievers are active consumers - they choose to excel only in areas that interest them or within classes where they like and respect their teacher. Otherwise, they exert little effort. They view school like a Sunday buffet, where they can select what they want and ignore the rest. Gifted underachievers as "selective consumers" is a concept first identified by Jim Delisle, and describes the very independent path these students take. While involvement in what they enjoy still creates some challenge, their refusal to achieve in other classes limits their academic development and sets an unhealthy precedent for future learning. It also may affect their grades and opportunities for college or career.

4. Underachievers under-the-radar

Gifted "underachievers under-the-radar" are frequently overlooked, and sometimes even mistaken for high achievers. These are the exceptionally gifted students who coast through school, often receiving average to high average grades, but who fail to reach their potential. Given their performance, their lack of effort often goes unrecognized and they are rarely encouraged to challenge themselves. Consequently, they may never learn how to take on academic risks, experience and learn from failure, or develop resilience. These life lessons often occur much later - in college or at work - where they may feel blindsided because of lack of preparation.

Recognizing the different ways gifted underachievers may present their difficulties is a first step toward understanding them and finding an appropriate intervention. Certainly, prevention is ideal whenever possible. Although some situations may not be avoidable, such as a family crisis or an innate tendency toward depression, many precursors could be remedied, particularly when they involve changes within the schools. Early identification of giftedness, providing gifted services, and allowing these students to accelerate or study along with other gifted peers is a first step toward providing the stimulating, creative and engaging education they need.

This blog post is Part One of a three-part series on Gifted Underachievers. Part Two will focus on causes and Part Three will cover interventions. Stay tuned!

References:

Baker, J., Bridger, R., & Evans, K. (1998). Models of underachievement among   gifted preadolescents: The role of personal, family, and school factors. Gifted Child Quarterly, 42, 5-15.
Clasen, D., & Clasen, R. (1995). Underachievement of highly able students and   the peer society. Gifted and Talented International, 10, 67-76.
Delisle, J. & Galbraith, J. (2002). When gifted kids don't have all the answers: How to meet their social and emotional needs. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Emerick, L. (1992). Academic underachievement among the gifted: Students’ perceptions of factors that reverse the pattern. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36,140-     146.
McCall R., Evahn, C., & Kratzer, L. (1992). High school underachievers: What do they achieve as adults?  Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
McCoach, D. & Siegle, D. (2001). Why try? Factors that differentiate underachieving gifted students from high achieving gifted students. Office of Educational Research and Improvement: Washington, DC. Retrieved from  http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED454678.pdf.
Olszewski-Kubilius, P. & Clarenbach, J. (2012). Unlocking Emergent Talent: Supporting High Achievement of Low-Income, High-Ability Students. National Association for Gifted Children: Washington, DC.
Peterson, J. (2000). A follow-up study of one group of achievers and underachievers four years after high school graduation. Roeper Review, 22, 217-224.
Reis, S. & McCoach, D. (2000). The underachievement of gifted students: What do we know and where do we go? Gifted Child Quarterly, 44, 152-170. 

This blog is part of the Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Other Achievement. To see more blogs in the hop, click on the following link:
http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_other_achievement.htm.


34 comments:

  1. My son is an underachiever. He stopped paying attention to school in the start of high school. The classes stopped meaning much to him, although I think it actually started to be a problem in middle school. I think he just wanted to fit in and be popular. But none of the teachers seemed to care much, since his grades were alright. But we knew he wasn't meeting his potential and it was so frustrating. We are worried about college in two years and whether he will be able to get in to a good school or not.

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    1. Anonymous, I hope that you can get some help and support for your son and for yourself. Sitting back and watching a child struggle like this is so hard for any parent. Hopefully, there is some teacher, guidance counselor or other school personnel who would be willing to work with you to reach out to your son. Good luck.

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  2. This is right on, Gail! It's a complicated topic and you explain it well. I look forward to your other 2 parts and am going to put a link to it on my blog. Well done!

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    1. Thanks, Paula. I appreciate your feedback!
      Gail

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  3. "Given their intellect, they often espouse a host of "logical" reasons for refusing to exert themselves, and resist parents' or teachers' efforts to encourage, prod, or coerce." This is my life at home. ;-) Thank you for putting it so well. I'm looking forward to the other two parts of the series -- I'm always looking for help as the mom of an underachiever.

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    1. Thanks, Colleen. You're right - many gifted kids are masters at using logic to support their position. It makes life at home quite a challenge at times! Thanks again. Gail

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  4. Oh my gosh, Gail. This is just so perfect- I love how you broke it down into different types. I relate to it because I see myself in it, too. I have a hard time classifying myself as an underachiever, because I did well in school. The thing is, I never worked hard (well, almost never) and spent most of the time reading books in class- even if those were AP classes. I love the term "underachievers under the radar"- that's so me! Thanks for this! I always love your posts.

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    1. Cait, Thanks so much. It sounds like you were overlooked because you did well, but no one bothered to challenge you more. What a shame! (I personally can relate more to the "selective consumers.") So many gifted and really bright kids are ignored for so many reasons. Thank you again for your feedback. Gail

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  5. The gifted underachievers who particularly interest me are the ones with language learning disabilities, people like the author of Brilliant Idiot who do not have as much grit.

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    1. Peter, You raise an important point. While most of the research limit inclusion of people with learning disabilities in definitions of gifted underachievement, it certainly makes sense that underachievement frequently occurs as a result of unidentified and untreated learning disabilities. For children who are twice exceptional, often missed identification of either giftedness or the disability results in an absence of appropriate services. What typically occurs is that bright and gifted children feel they don't fit in, develop low self-esteem because they cannot grasp certain aspects of school, and are also bored because they are not challenged. It is a difficult dilemma and hard to remedy.

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  6. Thank You. I cried as i read each word. all my life,even though i may knowingly or unknowingly have known all this, i didnt know how to judge myself or if i had the right to judge myself and with all i knew from how the world really was, i grew to sometimes feel guilty and then lead onto depression afterwards. its only been until now after more than 3years in college and taking really high level math and physics classes that ive finally started acquiring an actual interest and began to find a healthy challenge in school however the only thing i cant seem to find is motivation in my life much less and real goal.

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    1. Ivan, So glad that you are starting to find some classes that interest you. I hope that you get some help and support in terms of finding out what will be of additional interest and meaning to you. Thanks for your comments.

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  7. This article is insightful! My 9 years old son was tested as exceptional gifted. He hadn't been challenged in public school so we transferred him to a more academical-demanded charter school (middle school setting) and also skipped a grade. He told me that he likes the challenges from the academic aspect but he hates the peers. He gets along with people and always tries to fit in, but he hasn't found someone who clicks with him.
    In this school, even smart students need to study in order to get good grades. My son still doesn't study much and his grades are from good to okay and to bad at times. If he can keep up with his in-class and home works, his grades can be improved a lot. My husband is definitely an underachiever. He has high IQ too & I can totally see his potential. I just can't understand these guys in my household because I always try my best but these males are just happy to "get by"!!!!

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    1. Anonymous, You clearly describe the difficulty highly gifted people face when they are used to coasting and don't feel it is necessary to challenge themselves. I would urge you to get some guidance regarding what will motivate him to challenge himself more in school, since he will eventually hit a roadblock and never have learned necessary study skills. Good luck.

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  8. Please don't make us wait too long for the follow-up segments! We are definitely identifying with this and our 10 year old daughter. For anyone else does the underachievement translate to not handling basic items at home that the child is completely capable of? personal care? age appropriate chores?

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous...I am planning to publish at least one of the follow-ups fairly soon. As for your question - you raise an interesting point. Does lack of motivation translate to anything and everything children don't want to do? Clearly, some children get entrenched in procrastination, lack of attention to details, rebellion, hyper-focus, or just "selecting" what they want to do - and chores don't fit the bill. I am also interested in others' experience with this.

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  9. I am currently dealing with a gifted underachiever. She has always excelled with very little effort. Seventh grade has brought more homework that requires more effort and she isn't sailing through anymore. She is disorganized, forgetting to complete or turn in assignments. The worse her grades get, the less effort she exerts. I have no idea how to combat this problem. I am extremely frustrated because I have been worried about this for years. Multiple gifted-education teachers and counselors have either minimized my worries or have been ineffective in addressing it. My daughter has fallen into the classic trap of gifted kids. She has no idea how to persevere or overcome adversity because she has never experienced this before. If anyone has resources to recommend, I would love to hear about them!

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    1. Tattoo, You are in a tough position. It is heartbreaking to watch your child go through this. There are strategies that can be taught to help children develop study skills - they just need to be taught in a manner that gifted children are "willing" to accept and fit with actually challenging school work. She may be struggling with anxiety about exerting herself if there is a possibility of failing, so finding what is interfering with her efforts is also essential. Sometimes working with a therapist can be helpful. Good luck.

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    2. Unfortunately, we are on our second counselor. The first one took the "She's smart, she'll be fine" approach. The current counselor is, as my kiddo puts it, "too coddling". We have applied to a local school that is more flexible with placement, but it is a lottery process. We are really hoping for a spot for next year.

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    3. Following. I empathize with you TattooMama. My daughter is 5th grade currently but we have a similar description to yours and certainly I can see myself writing exactly what you wrote 2 years from now. While we found a counselor that was helpful when it comes to anxiety, it was not someone who understood how the gifted component impacted the behaviors. So, we are still trying to find help/insight.

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  10. But, many are not.
    Raising my hand as the "under the radar" underachiever. I can count on one hand the nights I actually studied. If someone had recognized my divergency as actual thought instead of wrong answers, it may have been different. I want so much more for the gifted children out there. Thanks for writing such a specific and accessible article highlighting a subset of gifted that are mostly overlooked. I appreciate your spotlight!

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    1. Thank you, Atlas. I appreciate your willingness to share your personal experience - it fits with what so many others go through, and adds emphasis to what is a glaring hole in the educational experience for so many students.

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  11. Really appreciate this broader view of the underachiever Gail. I look forward to the upcoming posts and finding more strategies to help me work with this population.

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    1. Thanks, skpicard. I appreciate your feedback!

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  12. Thank you for this article. I can recognize my daughter in #3 & 4. What suggestions do you have when the school's gifted test does not identify the child as gifted? They give the Cogat here and she did well but not high enough. She entered kindergarten early and has been expressing her boredom since 1st grade (she's now in 4th grade). I am not sure if she is gifted or not, but reads at a very high level & has a lot of gifted characteristics.

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  13. I wish more teachers would read articles like this one. My son had a difficult time meeting teacher's expectations because they were put out with him. He would give the bare minimum, but they would never add to the curriculum to challenge him. He hates writing, but could be an excellent writer if they would set challenges for him. I am praying that next year will be the year the teachers take him to task and make the work according to his ability. He will be in 5th grade. I'm glad to know that I am not the only parent out there.

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    1. Katie, You are certainly not the only parent struggling with this. Hopefully your son will have some teachers who will be willing to challenge him. Good luck.

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  14. I was like this in high school, hell if I'm being honest with my self I'm still like this, hard to admit, but I give up a lot when doing a lot of things. I'll get all inspired and I will stop for no particular reason and lose interest. I think it's partially habit for doing it so long and it stems from a complex family history I don't really care to start ranting about.

    But essentially, if you have a kid like this, I think it is more than just them being bored, I think it has a lot to do with their self esteem as well. Not just self esteem about them being good enough intellectually but possibly socially as well.

    In my case, family life really sucked and long story short at 17 i moved in with my friend's family. That is where a lot of things changed for me. His family was always encouraging and pushing me and not just saying get better grades or else but saying, hey what do you need, why are you getting bad grades, and it was out of genuine concern rather than just me getting better grades.

    I can't really explain why I tried harder for them more than I did my own parents, maybe I respected them more I don't know, but I do know that there was a day that I saw my friend's dad was visibly sad that I was giving up on myself and that hurt knowing that I let someone else down and I really started trying.

    That year I made up 4 failed classes and passed all my current classes. It was a super emotional year but I'm glad I had it with them, I would be much worse off had I not lived with them that year. I still have major problems that I need to work on, but it is like a terrible habit and its hard to get rid of, you can revert to it so easily.

    I think one of the problems is that everything feels pointless, so I would figure out some way to make sure that they know (and not just through telling them, but through example) that their efforts are not in vein and that they are not pointless, and maybe that will help them. Also let them know, by showing them, that you are there to help with whatever they are dealing with and that you care not because you are obligated to but because you actually care. I don't know how you do it, but that's what you got to get through to them, that there are people who actually actively care and that their efforts are not pointless.

    Those were the biggest factors for me.

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    1. Anonymous, Thank you for your poignant, heartfelt description of what you went through. You point out so clearly how much children - all children - need emotional support and encouragement to reach their potential.

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  15. In my years of working with gifted learners, I have come to believe that one of the pervasive causes of underachievement is fear. I invite you to consider that gifted children labour under the weight of incredible expectation. Typically, the academic expectations from parents and teachers are immense and unceasing. The current NAGC position is an example of this, as performance and output are their benchmarks and eminence is their goal.

    Comparisons to people such as Einstein, Mozart and Hawking are common and set a pretty high bar. Perfectionism and the Imposter Syndrome compound these fears and can be debilitating. For many of the gifted I have worked with, there is no space between gifted and stupid, so falling short in any way makes them believe they are not gifted but stupid. There is a tremendous desire to avoid others, and themselves, from forming that conclusion. The best way to gain some control of that inevitability is to avoid producing anything that can be evaluated and judged as falling short of gifted - ergo, stupid. The parallel to this thinking is also the reality for many that performance is either perfect or a failure.

    The risk of this judgement is increased as the performance of gifted kids is more scrutinized, not only by others but by themselves. Gifted persons tend to be more aware and critical of themselves. They are also less able to regulate the need to perform at the level of perfection.

    Another factor contributing to their fear is the inevitable transition from the celebrated, spontaneous examples of their innate childhood curiosity to the high level of expectation that becomes their reality once they start school. Their motivation shifts from an internal locus of control wherein curiosity, discovery and the acquisition of new knowledge and skills are sources of intense pleasure to the external locus of control where their motivation is to please parents, teachers and others, and where the possibility of failure becomes their shadows.

    Many gifted persons are also proponents of the idea that intelligence is fixed, so you either are or you are not. (Entity vs Incremental Theory, Dweck, 1999). Those who believe this are not able to see that failure is something to be learned from in order to grow, avoid the opportunities to fail in order to avoid the inevitable conclusion that failure leads to - not gifted and therefore stupid.

    In their younger years, many gifted kids are able to read, creatively solve problems, work with numbers and think abstractly. Progress in school comes easily. As they age and are faced with work of increasing difficulty, progress does not come as easily. The increased level of challenge can lead many to believe that they are not as smart as they once thought they were. Again, not gifted but stupid.

    The role of fear in a gifted person's life can be immense. Expectations can be paralyzing. The resulting sense of not being in control of many of the factors determining one's status as gifted or not gifted - a success or a failure - can lead to the extreme reluctance to do anything at all that offers the possibility of judgement. The only way to gain some control over this process is to refuse to produce. The result is underachievement.

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  16. Hal, Thank you for your thorough and detailed comments about fear-based factors related to underachievement. I completely agree that fear of failure, in particular, underlie avoidance for many gifted people. Your last paragraph highlights this dilemma so clearly.

    I think that the extent to which fear contributes to the limitations and resulting underachievement relate to the child's temperament, the family dynamics, and the school environment, as not all gifted children succumb to this. What is clear, though, is that the pressure to perform and succeed at all costs is so detrimental, and robs them of the intrinsic joy of learning that once existed when they were young. Thank you so much for your comments.

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  17. Consider executive brain function as a possible problem. Start with the DSM-V ADHD descriptors and then move on to the full relationship of thinking and acting. YouTube: drcharlesparker

    I schooled my own doctor with Dr. Parker's teachings, got on my precise, custom dose of stimulant medications, and now I'm a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a specific interest in helping those with ADHD/Executive Function Disorders. Again, think: Brain function, not superficial, outward appearances.

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    1. Absolutely agree that some of the distractions with learning for some gifted students are a function of ADHD, twice exceptional issues, or executive function problems. However, there are a range of reasons for underachievement and all of them are not due to brain function. Sometimes, there are social issues or merely boredom with an inadequate education. Our challenge as parents, educators, health practitioners or therapists is to identify the reason. Thanks for your feedback.

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  18. Underachievers under-the-radar...
    I am speechless. I can't even write, thats how shocked I am. The fourth type
    ... my god. It is .....

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