Sunday, July 21, 2013

Gifted children and the overachievement fallacy

"All it takes to be gifted is hard work. Those gifted children are such high achievers; that’s why they do so well in school. Their parents push them; that’s how they’ve gotten so far." Comments like these are pervasive, and overheard in schools, neighborhoods, and online discussions.

The accomplishments of gifted children are often falsely attributed to overachievement. The notion is that mastery primarily stems from overachievement rather than innate ability. These children are viewed as serious and goal-directed, their efforts driven by hard work, parental coaching or outside pressure. This view is held by both parents and teachers alike who fail to grasp the meaning of giftedness.

The media and recent bestsellers have perpetuated this belief. Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” described a parent’s effort to encourage achievement at all costs, and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” proposes that hard work and practice are more critical to success than innate ability. The backlash against ability grouping in schools further highlights the assumption that we are all alike; if we just try hard enough, are pushed relentlessly, or are exposed to an egalitarian classroom setting, we have an equal shot at excellence.

Yet, gifted individuals are different. With IQ scores at least two standard deviations above the norm, they not only acquire knowledge more rapidly, they think more divergently and with more complexity, and possess a range of emotional traits, such as heightened sensitivities. These are innate characteristics; they are unrelated to achievement or success. While many gifted individuals actually work passionately and diligently at what they pursue, this stems from an intrinsic desire to learn, create, or perfect what is meaningful to them. Internally motivated, if a topic sparks their interest, they will persevere. Otherwise, they may turn in a lackluster or even inadequate performance. In fact, many gifted individuals are underachievers who fail to live up to their potential. Confusing overachieving with giftedness diminishes the needs of gifted children, and overlooks the many underachieving or minimally challenged students misperceived as successful due to their adequate or even exceptional grades
So, what’s wrong with overachievement?

Some gifted children are overachievers, just like children who are not gifted. Highly motivated children and adults who strive to achieve their goals are driven, ambitious, and hard-working. They learn discipline and focus, and set high standards for themselves. These are necessary qualities in successful adults, and certainly admirable in children. Yet, the concept of overachieving implies going above and beyond what is expected and necessary. Overachievement in children often stems from outside pressure, a need to please others, or underlying insecurity. While they may experience a fleeting sense of accomplishment, when the excitement quickly fades, they feel compelled to pursue the next challenge. Their self-worth rests on validation from others, being the best, or gaining recognition. This may lead to burnout, extreme perfectionism, or feelings of despair when goals are not met.

The emotional burden that comes from overachievement is too high a price to pay. Although playing by the rules, healthy competition, and striving toward an external goal are all necessary learning experiences, they fail to instill an intrinsic drive. Harsh demands, unrealistic goals, and excessive coercion pressure children to achieve beyond what is developmentally appropriate. Encouragement to achieve in a supportive, challenging, stimulating learning environment is the most effective tool for enhancing any child’s academic success. It fuels intrinsic curiosity about learning, and avoids the pitfalls of achieving merely to conform, gain approval and bolster self-esteem. Finding this balance should foster continued academic success and interest in learning.

Chua, Amy. (2011). Battle hymn of the tiger mother. Penguin Group: New York.
Gladwell, Malcolm. (2011). Outliers: The story of success. Little, Brown & Co.: New York.


  1. As the mom of two highly gifted children I can attest - over achievement is currently not one of our problems! Gifted children are actually at a higher risk for not finishing high school. If that doesn't indicate that they are in need of some kind of service outside of the regular classroom I don't know what does. Today, while trying to get my son to finish a 4th grade science lesson we encountered the question - "does the sun ever stop shining?" The point of the question was to make sure kids knew that at nighttime the sun is still shining on the other side of the planet. My son was exasperated - "arg! of course the sun never stops shining." But then he half smirked half scowled at me and said "But they are wrong." And I asked why - I wanted to make sure he was understanding the concept that the sun is still shining when its nighttime. "Because in 5 billion years or so it will stop shining after it collapses under its own weight and dies." Oh. I guess he understood the lesson. And now I understand why he's always complaining that the schoolwork we do is boring. But we can't just jump straight to quantum physics (at least I don't think we can) so we carry on with the curriculum we have doing our best to accelerate it and waiting for the day when he is doing work that totally engages him. In the meantime he will do the barest of minimums as far as work goes, he is not interested or motivated and certainly would not be considered a high achiever. I can't imagine what his life would be like if he weren't homeschooling - if he was stuck in a regular classroom having to go at their pace.

  2. Jen,
    Thanks for your comments. Great example from your son, and so reflective of the complexity and depth of thought seen among gifted children.

    It would be astonishing to witness what might occur if these underchallenged and underachieving gifted kids actually WERE high achievers.


  3. Amen, and thank you. I'm going to post this on my blog, as well.


  4. Thanks for adding it to your blog.


  5. When our first child was born we tried every diaper at the store. We couldn't get a diaper to last him through the night without leaking. Only a few expensive diapers would not leak through night. But some would leave some gel looking residue on the baby's skin. We are now onto our second child and he just turned two. We still swear by Honest diapers.