Addressing the Problem of the Gifted Underachieving Child

The gifted child is defined as performing at the superior level in general intellectual ability, creative or productive thinking, leadership ability, artistic ability, and ability in the performing arts. Researchers consider underachievement by gifted American children as one of the greatest social wastes of our culture.

While there is no precise definition of underachievement in gifted children, generally it means that there is a discrepancy between expected performance and actual performance as measured by a score on a standardized test or in tests of actual ability to perform a task. It is not known how many gifted American children are underachieving in school, but researchers estimate that as many as 15-40% of gifted students are not living up to their potential.

According to researchers, underachievement in school begins to be pronounced in middle school, particularly in grades 7 to 9. A number of factors seem to merge at this time, such as the onset of puberty, family problems, and the lack of accelerated opportunities in schools. Some studies have found that a mismatch of teaching approaches with the individual learning styles of students is one of the major culprits.

The side-effects of underachievement are self-doubt and disappointment. Researchers disagree how the downward spiral begins. Some believe that the student’s learning style does not match the teacher’s teaching style. Over time the gifted student loses interest, or finds that he or she receives more attention from talking or disrupting class than participating in class activities. These students often hide or deny their abilities. For some children whose talents are not matched in their environments because of cultural differences, poverty, or language barriers, or other underserved students, the negative feelings caused by little opportunity to excel create risks for underachieving that will result in their never fully realizing their potential throughout their life time.

Often gifted children are expected to excel in all activities they engage in, placing a tremendous pressure to be perfect in everything. Sometime well-meaning parents can give this message unconsciously. Children who are pressured to achieve beyond their capacity will become discouraged when they do not perform as expected.

Take the following case. Jim, a 7th grader, was identified for the gifted program by the school several years before and placed in the accelerated class. His standardized scores were at the top for students his age, his teachers recommended him, and he his grades were outstanding. During the past years, however, his grades have dropped, he doesn’t pay attention in most of this classes, and has gotten in trouble at school on many occasions. Recently, he was suspended because of fighting with an older boy. His teachers are less supportive of him and consider him a troublemaker. Coinciding with his school problems are family problems caused primarily by his father losing his job.

Jim’s situation is all too common. A bright, academically gifted child loses interest in school and begins acting out in various ways. His teachers begin seeing him in a negative frame and other students begin to keep a distance. Isolation, loneliness, and feeling out of place are common emotions of underachieving gifted children.

Are there ways to prevent this scenario? Once it has occurred, are there ways to get Jim back on track? Below are a few ideas:

First, underachieving gifted children feel discouraged and experience a sense of low self-efficacy. Like Jim, they may act as if they don’t care, when in fact they may care too much. They may have the feeling that they cannot achieve, or that their achieving has no merit. They may receive more attention from acting out than from achieving. Consequently, they give up hope of being recognized or appreciated. Sometimes it is easy for parents and teachers to react to their noncompliant or hostile attitude by being punitive. For children who have nontraditional or unrecognized gifts, parents and teachers should make an effort to identify the areas in which the child is gifted and create opportunities for success.

Second, stressors in the family beyond the child’s control can provide the background for their underachieving. Children in unstable families may act out their family’s stress by not living up to their potential. Their underachieving is a call for help. Reducing family stress may be an important factor in addressing underachievement in children.

Third, Jim needs an effective role model associated in some way with the school or family. Perhaps Jim has a teacher who not only sees his potential, but understands his struggles. This mentor should share his interests and be open-minded and accepting of his behavior, while at the same time encouraging adaptive and positive behaviors. Parents as mentors must first come to terms with their own disappointment in their child and try to understand their child’s frustration. This is difficult for parents because their natural inclination is to want their child to succeed and to keep pushing for success. As parents become more accepting and understanding of their child, they will create a closer bond and a more positive outcome will follow.

Fourth is providing opportunities for children to showcase their gifts. Science fairs, school projects, and other opportunities, such as drama, art, or music open doors for expression of children’s gifts. In addition, parents should allow for nontraditional ways for nurturing and showcasing their children’s gifts.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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