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.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why do smart women forego success?

Smart career woman
Gifted girls show exceptional promise, typically surpassing boys on most measures of success. Their language, attention and fine motor skills are often 1 1/2 years ahead when they enter school, and their social maturity and relational skills help them thrive in most academic settings. Confident in their abilities, they excel throughout school, receiving higher grades on average than boys. They are also more likely to graduate from high school, college or graduate school.

Despite their relative success, many bright, talented women no longer maintain their confident youthful enthusiasm. Criticized by high-profile authors like Sheryl Sandberg for not climbing the career ladder, women are often reluctant to promote themselves in the workforce or pursue higher paying careers, such as those in engineering or computer science. Some even feel like impostors, tormented by self-doubt and insecurity.

Why do gifted women lose confidence?

The self-doubt and insecurity start out gradually...

Those bright, energetic gifted girls often start to downplay their talents by middle school in an attempt to fit in. They mask their abilities and "dumb themselves down" to appeal to boys, fit society's image of an attractive woman, and avoid conflict with friends. Their self-esteem starts to decrease, and they begin to lose confidence in their abilities, especially in math and science. They may steer clear of the more difficult math courses, believing that boys are intrinsically "more gifted."

Insecurity and self-doubt often persist throughout high school. One study, for example, found that feelings of hopelessness, discouragement, emotional vulnerability and perfectionism increased for gifted girls from 1st through 12th grades. In another investigation, 3/4 of girls who graduated from a school for the gifted did not think they were smart.

Women in college continue to doubt themselves. Many gifted women are challenged for the first time once they arrive at college, and rather than embrace this opportunity, they view it as confirmation of their inadequacies. One study found that female valedictorians lost confidence in themselves when they were in college, despite getting good grades, and that their insecurity increased as they got older.

What are some reasons gifted women hold themselves back?

1. Impostor syndrome: 

Women may doubt themselves and think they have fooled others. Talents and accomplishments are denigrated. Women who feel like impostors assume that it is only a matter of time before their "actual" incompetence and lack of intelligence will be revealed.  Social psychology studies have shown that men consistently overestimate and women consistently underestimate their abilities and subsequent performance. As long as they view themselves as impostors, they will continue to doubt and disparage their accomplishments.

2. Attribution error: 

Women often attribute their success to luck or effort, and any failure to lack of ability or an internal flaw. There is a widespread assumption that gifted men are intrinsically "smarter" and that women's success is due to hard work.  In one survey of professors, presumed brilliance was identified as the reason why women were underrepresented in certain fields in both science and liberal arts (e.g., STEM, philosophy, economics), and their prevalence in other fields (e.g., molecular biology, neuroscience, psychology) was attributed to hard work.

3. A higher standard:

Women often hold themselves to an unreasonably high standard. They expect themselves to perfect a skill, have complete knowledge of the facts or master an argument before they assert their authority. Women often lack confidence, hold back on asking for a promotion, expect to earn less, and ask for less when it comes to salary. 
According to Kay and Shipman:
"Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels."
4. Identity conflict:

Adult women also doubt their right to engage in focused, competitive goals. They don't want to be labeled as "bitchy" or bossy, and worry that success will be seen as a threat to friends, family or men. Women have been raised to focus on relationships and to put others first, and a single-minded emphasis on career is in conflict with their sense of self. Even self-identified feminists may feel guilty winning an award, surpassing colleagues for a promotion, or being the breadwinner in the family.

But, sometimes, it's not about confidence...

Self-doubt, sexist stereotypes, prejudices, an absence of workplace support (e.g., no child-care or family leave), and the glass ceiling all impact women's progress; yet one of the greatest dilemmas many gifted women face involves finding a meaningful work-life balance. This not only includes an ability to combine work, relationships and child-raising, but also pursuing a career that is both meaningful and challenging.

Many women feel torn between pursuing a career that is personally meaningful (such as one focusing on social justice) and a job in a lucrative or competitive field.  A challenging career may be compelling, but women also want flexibility, autonomy, the ability to make a difference, and options for including family needs in the equation. 

Rosenbloom reported that interests and preferences explain 83% of the gender differences in choosing a career in information technology - not confidence or math ability. Women were identified in this study as being less interested in inanimate systems, and more concerned with plants, animals and people.

Pinker also concluded that women made an active choice to avoid STEM careers, suggesting that women may not want to sacrifice personal interests for salary, are less willing to tolerate the relocations often required in these jobs, and may want to focus on people and the arts rather than objects.

Mohr referred to a frequently quoted Hewlett-Packard internal report indicating that women applied for promotions only when they thought they met 100% of the qualifications, whereas men applied as long as they assumed that they met 60% of the criteria. Mohr claimed that women's lack of confidence was not the only interpretation to consider: fear of failure, a tendency to strictly follow rules, and lack of familiarity with the hiring process also hold women back.

In the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youths, those who scored in the top 1% were tracked down in their 50's. While most were highly satisfied with their lives, earned more than others, and were more likely to have doctoral degrees, gender differences were identified. Men were more likely to be CEO's, work in IT or STEM, to have pursued higher pay and freedom as career goals, and earned more than the women in the study ($140,000 vs. $80,000 on average); the women were more likely to work in health sciences, arts or education careers, and sought fewer work hours and greater flexibility in their work.

What smart women need to know...

Smart women need to appreciate their talents and recognize their right to accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves. Negative stereotypes and expectations that either they or others impose need to be challenged and relinquished. Decisions based on values, needs and personal goals rather than conformity, external pressure or a desire to please others is critical. Women do not have to pursue a highly competitive career; they just need to know that they are entitled to choose that path, or to turn it down for something equally meaningful. 

In addition to my work with gifted individuals, I have specialized in women's issues and eating disorders for over 30 years. This blog post is one in a series about gifted girls and women.

Other posts about gifted girls and women include:

Key relationship dilemmas for gifted women
Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths
What keeps women from STEM careers?
Why do smart girls develop eating disorders?
Difficult passage: Gifted girls in middle school
Gifted women, gifted girls and mental health
Gifted or pretty: What do parents want for their daughters?
What stops girls from learning math?

Articles and books worth reading:

American Association of University Women. (2015). Solving the equation: The variables for women’s success in engineering and computing. Washington, D.C., author.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory of women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. American Association of University Women. 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC. 

Jensen, F. & Nutt, A. (2015, January 3). Teen girls have different brains: Gender, neuroscience and the truth about adolescence.  Retrieved from

Jordan, J., Kaplan, A, Miller, J. Stiver, I. & Surrey, J. (1991). Women’s growth in connection. New York: Guilford Press.

Jordan, J., Walker, M. & Hartling, L. (2004). The complexity of connections. New York: Guilford Press.

Kanazawa, S. & Perina, K. (2009). Why do so many women experience the “imposter syndrome”? [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Kay, K & Shipman, C. (2014, May). The Confidence Gap. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Lubinski, D., Benbow, C., & Harrison, K. (2014). Life paths and accomplishments of mathematically precocious males and females four decades later. Psychological Science, 25, 2217-2232.

Pinker, S. (2010, April, 19). Women, computers and engineering: It’s not all about bias. [Blog post]. Retrieved from:

Russell Sage Foundation. (2013). The rise of women: Seven charts showing women’s rapid gains in educational achievement. New York, author.

This blog is part of the Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Ages and Stages of Giftedness. To see more blogs in the hop, click on the following link: