The Gifted Underachiever
Sometimes the fall and winter school seasons can present the dilemma of gifted students beginning to manifest signs of underachievement in their studies. While we hope you are not finding yourself, and your family, in this position, we thought this would be an appropriate time to share some thoughts on the topic.
First, let’s define what we mean by gifted underachiever. A simple definition would be that the student is performing under the level at which he or she seems capable of achieving success. An operational definition considers that there is a significant difference between potential and actual performance, however measured, and generally would be the difference of one or more years. Any useful definition will include the need for early identification and intervention to prevent loss of productive activity.
Underachievement should be considered specific to individual courses and academic disciplines, and we must be careful not to generalize students as all-around “underachievers.” This type of labeling ignores students’ positive aspects, and may damage their pride and inspiration to persevere in challenging areas. Such inspiration can help blaze pathways to academic confidence and ultimate success, and we can foster it by encouraging students both when they are experiencing difficulties and when their attitude and/or performance shifts in promising directions.
Gifted children usually flourish in mutually-respectful environments supported by practical, fair rules and systems, featuring encouragement and feedback. Many such children benefit from adults willing to listen to their questions without commenting quickly, as such questions are often followed rapidly by children’s opinions, and immediate adult answers may inhibit their willingness to offer them. To foster confidence in their academic and other thoughts, and a generally inquisitive spirit, make sure to listen carefully to such questions and be enthusiastic about your children’s observations.
Gifted students may be more interested in learning than in obtaining impressive grades. They might spend days on academic pursuits unrelated to school and ignore required work. While such students should be encouraged to pursue their passions, they must know that teachers may not be as accommodating as others when required work is not submitted. Sometimes, making explicit the connection between completing assignments and achieving future career aims can help inspire further interest in school-based success. Providing authentic experiences in areas of potential career interest may also motivate improved school-based academic engagement.
Provide your children with many opportunities (both school-based and entirely apart from school) to succeed, foster a sense of accomplishment and belief in themselves, and guide them toward activities and goals that reflect their values, genuine interests, and needs. Counterproductive pressure may occur when exclusive emphasis and praise is placed on winning awards and obtaining exemplary grades. Make sure to offer your children encouragement that emphasizes effort and highlights steps taken toward accomplishing goals, and tell them when you are proud of their efforts. Finally, make sure to help involve them in social activities they will enjoy. Like everyone, gifted children need to feel connected to others who are supportive.
Gifted students who appear not to be achieving at their optimum come in all varieties. Some learn well in highly structured academic environments, but may underachieve if they can’t establish priorities, focus on a few key activities, or set long-term goals. On the other hand, some students who seem to be underachieving are not uncomfortable or discouraged. They may feel uneasy in some learning environments, but happy and successful in others with different structural organizations. Some may handle independence quite well, others may not. Underachievement often involves an intricate structure of circumstances, but ultimately can be turned around by those who consider students’ individual strengths and talents, and take them into account when strategizing to help develop their confidence and inspire their interest in school-based learning.
If you feel that your child is underachieving at school, here are a few suggestions you might want to consider:
- Collaborate with your child’s teacher(s) to arrive at a learning plan that will capture your child’s individual interests. Such a shift may help increase academic engagement.
- Speak with your child about their career and other personal interests, and work with them to create opportunities inside and outside of the school curriculum to explore them, emphasizing the importance of school achievement in reaching objectives.
- Focus on, and celebrate, your child’s academic successes rather than excessively or exclusively on areas presenting difficulties. Boosting self-esteem is a key ingredient in fighting underachievement.
- Involve your child in healthy, stimulating social activities, to help develop and maintain a network of peers and other individuals that can provide support and understanding.
- Be patient. Underachievement may take time to reverse, and an expectation of immediate results will likely place more pressure on your child, potentially creating an increasingly difficult situation.
Until next time,