Gifted Children and Under-Achievement at School

Dr. Jerry Schecter is a educational psychologist, whose talk concentrated on identifying the factors within the child, the family, and the school that contribute to underachievement. For Schecter, giftedness is an asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. A gifted seven year old may be able to function cognitively like a much older child, but may act socially and emotionally like a typical second grader. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. Asynchrony within the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable to achievement problems, and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.

Perfectionism is a characteristic of gifted children which can cause problems at home and at school. Once a child has succeeded in a task, the responsibility to maintain a very high level of achievement is often overwhelming. An example of this is the child who completes an assignment but doesn’t hand it in. The child may have looked over the assignment again and decided it wasn’t good enough. Because assignments become so tied to the child’s sense of self worth, he or she may tend to procrastinate, do work at the last minute to excuse mistakes, or not hand in assignments at all. This kind of self-defeating behavior removes perfectionistic children from the threat of not quite doing well enough.

Another area of anxiety for gifted children may center around their own unmet goals. These may loom telescopically large to them, while those they’ve already met appear pretty small. The other side of this problem is that gifted children may be unwilling to accept what they consider to be the inferior work of others or to share responsibility with others. The end result is that children either end up feeling superior but lonely, or interior because they have not met their own expectations. Some gifted children are characterized by a relentless self-criticism and a fear of failure, which can lead to a lack of production, underachievement, and feelings that others control them or are the cause of their problems.

It is common to find parents becoming over-involved with their gifted child because they are attempting to vicariously relive their own childhood’s through their children. Often when parents have unmet achievement needs, they push them onto their children. Children whose parents overemphasize performance and achievement are in danger of feeling that their only worth is in what they produce and not in who they are. This often results in a child become passive-aggressive. The child can also start to withhold achievement, may become depressed, and can become suicidal as a result of not knowing what to do with all those intense strong feelings. Over-involvement on the part of parents is certainly something that needs to be avoided.

Sometimes, underachievement is also the result of the fear of success/fear of failure syndrome, which parents can cause by unconsciously setting up too high expectations for their children. Such children can develop a fear of success because once they have accomplished something, it’s expected that they will accomplish it over and over again. Parents often don’t realize how high their expectations of their child are. The child who wins the Science Fair one year, for instance, may be pressured to repeat this performance the following year. Even if that child did a wonderful job on this science project in the second year, but only came in second, the remarks from family and friends are almost like condolences rather than congratulations. The other problem with succeeding and winning is the attention it brings, attention which the child may not need or want, particularly if it includes negative reactions from peers. And, finally, success may bring additional responsibilities as a “reward,” e.g. managing next year’s Science Fair.

Family stress is immensely disruptive to school achievement. Family events like frequent changes in jobs and relocation, abuse, or alcoholism will likely affect the child’s ability to function and achieve.

Also, families will give mixed messages about the importance of being in a gifted program and achieving. Parents may be proud of their child’s involvement and participation, but may also want the child to spend time with family and pursue sports or other leisure activities, often precluded by the work load of the gifted program or advanced classes. Parents need to be clear about their messages to their children.

Parents also model certain behaviors for their children. Modeling is certainly one way that children learn about achieving. If adults talk about the boss in a very negative way, express attitudes like not needing to be on time to the office, or just model a dissatisfaction with work, the message the child gets is that work isn’t of value. It may be hard for children then to take school seriously.

The other kind of parent who can do harm even though well-intentioned is the rescuing parent. All children must struggle through things in order to learn how to resolve problems. Parents who rescue their children from frustrating experiences are denying the child the opportunity to learn emotional coping strategies and problem-solving skills. Parents who always rescue their children from struggling are also robbing them of a chance to succeed. To achieve, you have to be task-persistent, and able to get through the tough times. For parents, knowing when to intercede and when not to is very difficult.

The changes that occur socially, physically, and emotionally during adolescence can also affect achievement. Many gifted adolescents experience a phenomenon called “negative acceleration.” When students have not had challenging courses which require them to study and develop good work habits, they can be very overwhelmed by that first difficult high school course. They may respond by questioning whether they are still bright and reassessing their entire identity. They may refuse to take challenging courses, ones needed for entrance to more selective colleges and universities, opting only for “easy as.” They may become generally disenchanted with the school environment and disengage.

Finally, some students experience what Schecter refers to as the big fish-little fish syndrome. In elementary school, they may have stood out as the brightest, but in high school they may be one of many exceptional students. This readjustment in self-image and self-worth may be difficult for some gifted students to make without some assistance from adults.

Drawing on the work of Sylvia Rim, Schecter suggested ways that parents can help their children escape the underachieving trap.

First, children are more likely to be achievers if their parents join together to give the same clear, positive message about school effort and expectations.

Second, children can learn appropriate behaviors more easily if they have effective models to imitate.

Third, what adults say in each other about a child (e.g. to a grandparent) within his or her hearing can dramatically change a child’s behavior and self-perceptions and is more effective than making comments to a child directly. Relating positive comments about a child’s achievement to grandma can be more effective than making a direct compliment to the child.

Fourth, if a parent overreacts to their child’s successes and failures, the child is likely to feel either intense pressure to succeed or despair and discouragement in dealing with failure. Parents need to control their reactions and not overreact.

Fifth, children feel more tension when they are worrying about their work than when they’re doing their work. So, it’s important to get the kids involved in doing their work rather than worrying about doing their work.

Sixth, children develop self-confidence and an internal sense of control if they are gradually given more power as they demonstrate increasing maturity and responsibility.

Seventh, children become oppositional if one adult allies with them against another.

Eighth, adults should avoid confrontation with children unless they are reasonably sure they can control the outcome. If you threaten something, you must make sure that it’s reasonable and you must follow through.

Ninth, children will become achievers only if they learn to function in competition. Some competition is okay; it’s only excessive competition and pressure that are harmful.

Finally, children will continue to achieve if they usually see the relationship between the learning process and its outcomes. Children need to see that their effort will lead to something practical.

Schecter concluded his talk with this valuable advice. He said that what our children really need is to be valued for who they are and not for what they produce. They need to be able to explore and be challenged to the limits of their abilities. They need to be able to sample safely different potential identifies without significant risk, and they need to have appropriate expectations of themselves and others. If they have all that, they’re going to be achievers.

April 8th, 2010

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