The Catch-22 of Gifted Underachievement

by Emily VR

Imagine you’re a school counselor, and you have parents sitting in your office.  They say their child isn’t being challenged in school.   They ask you to arrange higher level differentiation, enrichment, or subject acceleration.

At home, they say, the child shows ability far above her grade level.  Prior testing identified her for gifted services.  You agree to investigate options, and you speak to the child’s teacher… who shows you the child’s work.  It’s full of careless errors, some of it is incomplete, and the child’s grades have dropped this year.  In the teacher’s opinion, the child should not try challenging work until she gets her act together.  In the past, the child produced above-level work; now, she daydreams, distracts classmates, and occasionally, even corrects the teacher.  The teacher agrees the child is bright, but feels the child should work harder on behavior and grade-level work.

What do you do?

If you haven’t received training in gifted education, the teacher’s perspective might make perfect sense.

If you’re familiar with the characteristics and outcomes of gifted students, the situation may ring a warning bell.  You see a student who might qualify as gifted, who has likely lost motivation, and who, if the situation continues, could be considered at-risk for a negative academic outcome.  You want to help, but you face a problem:  now that the student is underachieving, she is no longer producing work which allows easy assessment of content mastery.  You don’t know what material she already knows, and you don’t have classroom evidence showing that a higher level placement is likely to be successful.

This is the catch-22 of gifted underachievers.

A “catch-22” is defined as “a dilemma from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.”  The term was introduced by Joseph Heller’s World War II novel of the same title: in the book, the main character, Yossarian, desperately wants to stop flying bombardier missions.  He discovers that under a fictional military policy, a bombardier can be grounded for being “crazy” – but the bombardier must first request to be grounded, and since the desire to avoid death during missions indicates sanity, the request can never be granted (Heller, 1955).

Students suffering from a loss of motivation may find themselves trapped by policies which require them to excel before they can be challenged, though challenging work may be necessary to motivate them to excel.  Educators bound by state testing requirements can feel equally helpless.  School factors have been studied as a cause of underachievement in gifted children (Webb, 2007), in children assessed as highly to profoundly gifted (Gross, 2000), in creative-type gifted children (Betts & Niehart, 1988), and in twice-exceptional children (gifted with a disability).   Insufficient challenge in the classroom can lead to problem behaviors in gifted students (Webb, 2005).  Even when a child has been identified with gifted needs, our counselor is still faced with schoolwork which does not reveal the mastery needed to skip material and immediately tackle higher level content.

All is not hopeless:  with training and/or aid from a gifted specialist, underachieving gifted students can get help.  How?

1)  Look for other forms of achievement.

If a child is believed to need acceleration, information other than grades may help in decisions.  While students are considered better candidates for a grade skip if they are “already motivated to perform well in school,” according to the manual for the Iowa Acceleration Scale, “[t]eam members responsible for making an acceleration decision for a student must take into account not only how motivated the student is at school, but also how motivated that student is in other learning situations.  Parents or guardians are good sources of information about the learning activities that their children have been involved with outside of school” (Assouline et al., 2009).  A gifted child who is currently underperforming may still show higher subject level needs through an achievement test, such as the WIAT.  Tests used for credit by examination can also be useful in determining readiness for full-grade or subject acceleration.  Scores indicating readiness to accelerate may range from 80% to 90%, depending on state or local rules.

2)  Try other interventions.

When acceleration is not a current option, other interventions may help gifted students.  Unit pre-testing and curriculum compacting can be implemented without skipping grades (Reis & Renzulli, 2005).  These strategies allow a student to pursue either higher-level work or projects of interest instead of grade-level work; requiring students to complete grade-level work first is rarely successful (extra work is unlikely to motivate).  Successful strategies may differ depending on a gifted student’s personality and strengths.

Training or assistance from a specialist may be necessary to provide teachers with a nuanced understanding of challenges faced by gifted students, and to help implement in-classroom solutions.

3)  Collect objective data; seek expert advice.

To reach the best possible solutions during negotiations, the authors of the bestselling book Getting to Yes recommend using objective criteria (Fisher and Ury, 1991).  Information such as testing reports and work samples in a child’s areas of strength or interest, when considered with research on gifted learners, may help facilitate next steps.  If a specialist, teacher, or administrator has training in gifted education, he or she may be able to assist with problem-solving.

4)  Practice listening and empathy.

School challenges are frustrating for parents, educators, and the students themselves.  Parents and educators may find common ground by seeking to understand the situation from other perspectives.  Fisher and Ury recommend that negotiators “focus on interests, not positions.”  If parents and educators can share and listen to the concerns behind others’ positions, better communication can facilitate better problem solving.

5)  Learn about gifted motivation.

According to A Love for Learning, a number of factors can impact motivation, including a lack of school challenge (the “turn-off effect”), learning disabilities, and physical, emotional, or social factors (Whitney & Hirsch, 2007).  A child’s social or classroom environment, perfectionism and fear, asynchronous development, and rapport with his/her teacher can all impact the desire to achieve.

6)  Don’t try to oversimplify.

There’s a reason educators pursue graduate degrees specializing in gifted education!  Like other special needs, gifted needs can be complex.  A student may need a dedicated, open-minded team of educators and parents to problem-solve and find a successful solution.

In some cases, parents and educators may need to dig even deeper.  Creative-type gifted learners often have strong interests outside school, and these can sometimes be brought into the classroom.  Underachievement is not uncommon in students evaluated as exceptionally to profoundly gifted, and acceleration is cited as reversing underachievement in this population (Gross, 2000).  Undiagnosed learning or attention disorders can also cause school difficulties: a gifted child with another special need is known as twice-exceptional, or 2e (Webb et al., 2005).   Further complicating matters, some typical gifted characteristics look like symptoms of other conditions, creating a possible increased risk of misdiagnosis.  When evaluating a child for possible disabilities, parents may wish to seek a practitioner familiar with research on children identified as gifted (Webb et al., 2007).

7)  Don’t write off public school.

In some situations, especially in states without gifted education laws, parents may be forced to consider alternatives to public school.  A number of states have gifted education requirements and laws permitting acceleration, however, for good reason:  as with students with other special needs, gifted children can suffer harm if adjustments are not made for extreme learning differences.  Students with gifted needs exist in all populations, and not all families of gifted children can afford other alternatives.  Many public schools do work hard to meet the learning difference needs of all students.  In some states, gifted children qualify for an IEP (Individualized Education Program), just as children served by Special Education.

8)  Don’t give up on a student.

If a single approach worked in every situation, fewer books would be published in the field!  Fortunately, in addition to learning about differentiation, enrichment, and independent projects, educators can access research on twenty types of gifted interventions through A Nation Deceived and A Nation Empowered, available through the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa.

Contrary to myth, many gifted children will not be fine on their own (NAGC).  According to the research of George Betts and Maureen Neihart, gifted students with certain problem behaviors “may be ‘at risk’ as eventual dropouts for drug addiction or delinquent behavior if appropriate interventions are not made by junior high” (Betts & Neihart, 1988).  Betts and Neihart offer specific recommendations for challenging/creative and “at-risk” students.  To prevent gifted dropouts, researchers have noted the importance of improving student-teacher relationships, as well as students’ attitudes toward school and teachers; one researcher found that fewer students drop out when their teacher is “flexible, positive and creative” (Renzulli & Park, 2002).

 

Unfortunately, there is no magic motivation wand.  Finding solutions may take some teamwork – but both research and personal stories show it can happen.  Returning to our school counselor:  if she consults the school’s gifted specialist, has attended gifted training, or investigates material provided by parents, she is less likely to miss potentially critical information.  Prepared now with a more complete picture, the child’s team can explore to find causes, to make a plan, and to inspire the child.

Are there strategies you’ve found successful with your students or your child?  Please share your comments below!  We would love to hear them.

 

We are proud this post is part of the Other Achievement Blog Hop on Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page!

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Blog Hop graphic by Pamela S Ryan – click above for more Blog Hop posts!

Sources and Further Reading

Assouline, S., Colangelo, N., Lupkowski-Shoplik, A., Lipscomb, J., and Forstadt., L.  The Iowa Acceleration Scale: A Guide for Whole-Grade Acceleration K-8.  Manual.  Scottsdale: Great Potential Press, 2009.

Betts, G. and Neihart, M.  Profiles of the Gifted and Talented.  Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Reprinted from Gifted Child Quarterly, National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) 1988.  Web.  Jan. 2016. http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10114.aspx

Delisle, J. R.  Parenting Gifted Kids: Tips for Raising Happy and Successful Children.  Waco:  Prufrock Press, 2006.

Fisher, R. and Ury, W.  Getting to Yes.  New York: Penguin Group, 2011.

Gross, M. U. M.  Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Students:  An Underserved Population (section on “Reversing Underachievement”).  Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page; originally published in Understanding Our Gifted, Winter 2000.  Web.  Jan. 2016.  http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/underserved.htm

National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).  Gifted by State.  Web.  Jan. 2016.  https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/gifted-state

National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).  Myths about Gifted Children.  Web.  Jan. 2016.  https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/myths-about-gifted-students

Reis, S. M. and Renzulli, J. S.  Curriculum Compacting: An Easy Start to Differentiating for the High-Ability Learner.  Waco: Prufrock Press, 2005.

Renzulli, J.S. and Park, S.  Giftedness and High School Dropouts: Personal, Family, and School-related Factors.  University of Connecticut.  The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, Dec. 2002.

State Acceleration Policy: State List.  Acceleration Institute, Belin-Blank Center, College of Education, University of Iowa.  Web.  Jan. 2016. http://www.accelerationinstitute.org/Resources/Policy/By_State/State_List.aspx

Webb, J. T., Amend, E. R., Webb, N. E., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, F. R.  Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc., 2005.

Webb, J. T., Amend, E. R., Webb, N. E., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, F. R.  Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children.  Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted.  Web.  Jan. 2016.  http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/misdiagnosis-and-dual-diagnosis-of-gifted-children

Webb, J. T., Gore, J. L., Amend, E. R., and DeVries, A. R.  A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2007.

Whitney, C.S. and Hirsch, G.  A Love for Learning: Motivation and the Gifted Child.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2007.

Heller, Joseph.  Catch-22.  Laurel: New York, 1955, 1961 (p. 40).

“Catch-22.”  Def.  The Oxford American College Dictionary.  2002.  Print.

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Ode to a Rush-Free Childhood

by Pia K. Ruda

As parents, we are constantly playing catch up in several fields at once, trying to keep up with the others. Almost two months before the new school year started, I was already too late to sign up for library duty at my son’s school.  More efficient and organized parents had taken the shifts, on the first day of sign ups.  To get the optimal time slots for piano lessons, tennis, or art classes, you have to be on it.  I am an outcast in this game.  In fact, I am growing to celebrate it.

I’ve seen many kids pushed into too many activities by perky parents, but especially by parents of endlessly curious, high ability children (code for gifted).  These parents sigh that their offspring is “just so interested in everything.”  They say that their kids insist on being a part of all those activities.  Gifted children do often have natural abilities in several areas:  sports, acting, music, or art, to name a few. Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.  

Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.

Choosing the rush-free path can be especially hard with the multi-talented gifted child. What if he could be the next big thing in something that we rule out?  What if he misses out, if he doesn’t reach his potential?  Well, then, I guess we will never find out – and I choose to take comfort in that.  I believe that true passions are not so easily silenced, and that they will thrive even in less optimal conditions.  I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

Having moved to the U.S. a little over a decade ago, it has been interesting to observe parental roles and expectations in this country.  Here, filling a child’s life with as many structured activities as possible seems to be one of the key measuring sticks of successful parenting.  Families aim for perfectly planned and balanced schedules with a great variety of activities.  These tightly packed days start in toddlerhood.  I remember watching my boys’ classmates getting hastily transported to activities after Pre-K, shoving down a snack in the car.   They ran to karate, ballet, violin, baseball, art, or gymnastics – a different activity each day.   “You want them exposed,” parents would say.  “You want to give them all these choices.  You don’t want them to miss out.”

But what if they miss out on their own childhood?

A gifted child, especially one with the perfectionism monster lurking on his shoulder, can get anxious with the pressures and demands. Some gifted kids base their self-worth on their achievements, on what they measurably do.  Especially for these children, it can be beneficial to consciously shift the focus towards celebrating learning itself.  They need awareness of their own discoveries, their new connections and thoughts, and the feelings found within themselves, through the exploration of a new field. In order to give room for character development, I firmly believe in allowing our children breathing room.  They need space to discover who they are, and what is truly important to them.  They need unstructured time, to discover their inner world, without too much push-and-pull and direction.  

Social-emotional growth and well-being need both time and space.

Cultural reflection is where I spend a lot of my own time.  From my perspective, I see this game – scheduling and programming our children and youth – in the revealing Arctic light.  In my native country, little Finland, things are different.  We have no school sports teams, no cheerleaders, and no prom queens or kings.  In Finland, college admissions are solely based on academic success in high school, as well as subject specific entry exams.  As a result, the kids are not required to have inhumane numbers of recorded achievements from a variety of extracurricular activities.  In Finland, kids spend their afternoons playing, with a hobby of their choice, or sometimes just getting bored.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.  I see the rush-free childhood as a right, much like recess and school lunches.  These are children’s rights, not privileges.  For me, this is closely linked to “instinct parenting,” which gives the parents the right to follow their own safe instincts when parenting their own children, instead of religiously following the manual of the moment.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.

So, I’ve decided it is just fine not keeping up with it all, and I think we’re still going to be just fine in the end.  I have never heard an adult complain bitterly that he had too much time to play as a kid, or that he spent too many hours reading books and riding his bike.  I have, however, heard bitter adults share memories of parents making them play a certain sport, or practice an instrument for which they themselves felt no passion.  

Yes, my boys are missing out on so many activities in which they could potentially shine.  But I would rather have them not miss out on their own childhood.  I want to give them space to find themselves, and not force-feed the ingredients of the ideal overachiever. That is where my priority lies. With the long American school days, and excessive amounts of homework, it is hard — but I try to give my sons the leading parts in their childhoods. Now is the time, for there won’t be any dress rehearsals.