Saturday, September 1, 2018

When gifted students feel disconnected from school

There is a widespread assumption that gifted children love going to school - a place for indulging their intellect and where their talents can shine. But far too many become disengaged, frustrated and bored, as they endure watered-down instruction, and wait while their classmates learn information they already know. They often mask their abilities to gain acceptance from peers, and count the days until graduation.

In other words, many gifted students feel disconnected from school.

Of course, they don't start out like this. Most gifted children burst onto the scene with enthusiasm to spare. Eager to learn, explore, create and engage in meaningful dialogue, their intensity may be too much for teachers or other students to tolerate. They receive both straightforward and covert messages to quell their excitement, slow their pace, and conform to their peer group. Inherent in this is the painful awareness that the school culture does not fully accept them.

Parents sometimes intervene when their child's motivation lags. They attempt to advocate within the schools, pleading for some enriched or accelerated learning options, or supplement on their own with extra-curricular activities. While this might rekindle some of the spark, it cannot fully repair the trust already breached by the school.

Gifted students who believe they have been marginalized and ignored, who realize that they can coast through school and remain "under-the-radar," and who lose respect for teachers and administration, often become cynical and angry. When students feel disparagingly toward their school, they may lose all motivation to achieve.

Engagement with school is essential

Siegel and McCoach (2005) highlighted this dilemma among underachieving gifted students. Their Achievement Orientation Model outlined several factors necessary for success, and included: 1) a "positive valuation" of the school's goals; 2) viewing the school environment as supportive; and 3) finding academic tasks meaningful. According to this model, unless these factors are present, students are unlikely to feel motivated to achieve. Landis and Reschly (2013) also identified the importance of student engagement in the prevention of gifted underachievement and dropping out from school. It would follow, then, that finding a means for engagement with school, and some connection with teachers and the school community is essential for gifted students.

How can gifted children develop a sense of connection to their school?

With some changes in how they are treated, disengaged gifted students may start to feel more connected and involved. Matthews and McBee (2007), for example, noted that gifted underachievement is "relatively malleable and may change rapidly following a suitable modification to the academic and social environment (p. 176). Some options for increasing engagement with school might include the following:

1. Allow gifted students to work and play together

Gifted students benefit both academically and socially from ability grouping, or at least clustering with gifted and high ability peers. Vogl and Preckel (2014), for example, found that gifted students who attended gifted classes had better relationships with their teachers and more interest in school than those placed in regular classes. Ability grouping lets gifted students engage in like-minded dialogue and creative exchange, without the fear of criticism for being "too smart."  Even though they still may view themselves as different from most of the school population, they can identify with and relate to a niche of peers who understand and accept them. And they can invest their energy into challenging academic work.

2. Engage their need for meaningful learning

While all students deserve an opportunity to discover their passions and interests, gifted students, in particular, will quickly resist the meaninglessness of rote learning. Siegle and McCoach (2005) have emphasized the importance of helping gifted students find what motivates and interests them. McCoach and Siegle (2003) found that students had little motivation to exert effort if they could not find any value in the identified academic goals. Gifted students are too "smart" to buy into learning that seems pointless; they need to believe that it has some value, purpose and greater meaning. When rote learning or a routine task is necessary, though, they will cooperate if they understand its value. Gifted students will readily work on memorizing multiplication tables, for example, if they appreciate that it serves a greater purpose.

3. Appeal to their commitment to social justice

With their strong sense of social justice, gifted students long for a meaningful expression of their caring nature. Help them identify a cause, interest, concern or volunteer activity at school where they can invest their energies. This will not only help them feel pride in their efforts and their school's commitment to change, but mitigate any lingering disengagement from the majority population of the school. For example, while most students are attending a pep rally for the big game, your child might feel more engaged working on the school newspaper or planning a fundraiser for an environmental issue.

4. Encourage their social-emotional imagination

Gottlieb, Hyde, Immordino-Yang, and Kaufman (2016) have combined psychology, neuroscience and education research to propose a model emphasizing the importance of social-emotional imagination as an educational tool. They point out that:
"students' social-emotional imaginations - their capacity to consider multiple cognitive and affective perspectives, courses of action, and outcomes for themselves and others - are an essential, yet regularly omitted, component of identifying and educating gifted students" (p. 2).
 According to Gottlieb and colleagues, students become more intrinsically motivated when they feel personally engaged with their learning, are able to imagine their futures, see themselves within a social context and can empathize with others. When they see an association between what they are learning and a larger purpose, they will feel more excited and engaged. The authors emphasize a "shift from knowledge transmission and regimented evaluation to creative exploration, intentional reflectiveness, and mindful switching between task focus and imagining" (p. 1). In other words, gifted students thrive when schools tap into their creativity, imagination, empathy and social awareness.

5. Ensure that the Five "Cs" of learning are present

In a case study review, Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) identified five factors that are necessary to alleviate the disengagement underachieving gifted students experience: control, choice, challenge, complexity, and caring teachers. It makes sense that these five factors would benefit all students, but they are particularly relevant for gifted students. If your child is struggling, try to identify which of these five factors might be missing. Does he feel that he has little control over his social interactions? Are there few class choices available? Does she feel that her teachers don't care much about her? Are classes lacking sufficient challenge and complexity?

What gifted students need

It seems clear that gifted students need to find a reason for learning beyond the acquisition of grades or awards. They want to feel engaged and proud of their school - but they often don't have any reason to care. As I commented in a book chapter about gifted underachievers:
"Gifted students learn best when they are intrinsically motivated, passionate, challenged, inspired, curious, and believe that what they are studying is meaningful and useful... If they feel truly 'seen' and understood, believe the school is investing its energy into their education as much as it does for other students, and wants them to excel, it will garner their respect" (Post, 2017).

What have you found that helps increase engagement with school?


Gottleib, R., Hyde, E., Immordino-Yang, M.H., & Kaufman, S.B. (2016). Cultivating the social-emotional imagination in gifted education: Insights from educational neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1-10.

Kanevsky, L. & Keighley, T. (2003). To produce or not to produce? Understanding boredom and the honor in underachievement. Roeper Review, 26, 20-28.

Landis, R. & Reschly, A. (2013). Reexamining gifted underachievement and dropout through the lens of student engagement. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 36, 220-249.

Matthews, M. S. & McBee, M. T. (2007). School factors and the underachievement of gifted students in a talent search summer program. Gifted Child Quarterly, 51, 167-181.

McCoach, D.B. & Siegle, D. (2003). Factors that differentiate underachieving gifted students from high-achieving gifted students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 47, 144-154.

Post, G. (2017). Gifted underachievers under-the-radar. In R. Klingner (ed.), Gifted Underachiever. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.  

Siegle, D. & McCoach, D.B. (2005). Motivating gifted students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Vogl, K. & Preckel, F. (2014). Full-time ability grouping of gifted students: Impacts on social self-concept and school-related attitudes. Gifted Child Quarterly, 58, 51-68.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Just the Facts. To read more blogs, click on:

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  1. The gifted term was wrongly chosen. It should be changed. I am so tired of hearing all these inflated parents telling me how gifted their kids are. What's wrong with accelerated? What's wrong with calling them Group Yellow in one school and Group Blue in another? "Gifted" is giving these kids a false sense of entitlement just as it does their parents. My kids are in gifted classes and one time I heard them speak about another kid who was in general education classes like he wasn't as good as them and I read them the riot act and told them they are no better than anyone. The fact that schools don't see the problem with the term "Gifted" is a sign of a larger problem in the US school system.

    1. Anonymous, I certainly appreciate your concern about the "gifted" word. Much has been written about this, as it instills an emotional reaction among both children and adults, and it is important to eliminate any semblance of entitlement. Ultimately, giftedness describes an individual's abilities and IQ above the norm, along with social/emotional characteristics that affect many gifted people - regardless of what label we use. In my opinion, it is a much bigger problem that gifted children's needs are ignored in our schools rather than the label that is used to identify them. It is our job as parents to help our kids understand that being gifted does not make them any better than others. For reference on this, here is a blog post about explaining giftedness to one's child:

  2. I've seen one of my sons struggle with this. He has hated school for the past two years. We had back to school night tonight for his first year of middle school. I wanted to jump out of my chair and hug the accelerated math teacher. She said they could pretest at the beginning of a section. They didn't have to do it if they had mastered the concept already. "These kids shouldn't have to do 25 problems on the same thing when they can get it in 5. " I can understand why she's his favorite teacher so far this year. I hope that his teachers who "get it" will help him be more engaged with school this year... or at least not hate it as much.

    1. Jen, I'm so glad your son has a teacher who understands. I hope that he finds more of them along the way. Good luck.