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  • Writer's pictureThe Knox School of Santa Barbara

Who is the Gifted Underachiever?

Four types of underachievement in gifted children. by Gail Post

Who is the gifted underachiever? 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 Delisle and Galbraith, 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.

Gail Post, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who, in addition to her practice, writes a blog about social and emotional challenges faced by intellectually and musically gifted children, adults and their families.

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