Gifted Children
26 Jun 2024

Slipping Between The Cracks, Why Gifted Children Underachieve

Here is the first in a series of articles from Ian Cox, ICHAS Lecturer.

At the age of nine, I unexpectedly found myself in Siberia. Not the frozen wasteland between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, but a glass corridor that connected my classroom to the gymnasium, so named both for the biting cold and its isolation from the other students. As a child, I asked too many questions, raised my hand too often and was bored, frustrated and disruptive in class.

Many gifted children experience similar difficulties within the school system. Some have found schools that are willing to accommodate their abilities, and some are home-schooled. There are children who have learned to hide their gifts and slip through the school system unnoticed while others fall into delinquency. Some researchers (Solorzano, 1983) even claim that up to one-third of high school dropouts in the US are gifted students. It is to these children that we now turn our attention.

Attitudes Towards Gifted Children

In 1987 Susan Morris and Del Siegle surveyed a cohort of teachers and principals in the US regarding their attitudes towards gifted children. The results found that more than 40% of teachers held negative attitudes with many describing the topic of gifted children as ‘elitist.’ However, many parents of gifted children describe it as a double-edged sword, as fraught with peril as it is with potential. Indeed, Valerie Jelley (founder of the Irish Association for Gifted Children) stated that there was a fine line between success and delinquency among the gifted. So, why do some of these children adapt well to the education system while others fall into delinquency? Research seems to indicate a combination of psychological, educational and domestic reasons.

Reis & Mc Coach (2000) and Neihart et al (2002) identified several psychological factors that contribute to negative outcomes in gifted children. Low self-concept, low self-motivation and low goal-valuation as well as negative attitudes towards school and negative attitudes toward teachers all seem to have a bearing on outcomes among gifted children. However, children’s negative attitudes towards school and teachers are unlikely to develop in isolation. Rather, they are most likely influenced by an accumulation of negative experiences in school.

A recent study by Ivarsson (2023) found that while most teachers had a positive attitude towards gifted children on a personal level, over a third of those surveyed nevertheless felt that gifted children threatened their authority in the classroom. Dabrowski (1972) suggested that the relationship between some gifted children and their teachers might be further aggravated by children who have passionate interests (or excitabilities) rather than those who have broad intellectual abilities. So, based on these studies it does seem as if some types of gifted children have an easier passage through school (and life) than others.

Types of Giftedness

The notion that there are different ‘types’ of gifted children may come as something of a surprise. In fact, there is no generally accepted definition of giftedness at all. For some, it represents broad intellectual ability across multiple domains. For others, it is defined by exceptional performance in a few select domains (such as mathematics or languages). In recent years terms such as talented or exceptionally able have been used to describe gifted children. However, this kind of woolly and imprecise language does little to further our understanding of an already complex topic. What does seem to be emerging is an understanding that gifted children are not a homogenous group. Renzulli (2004) suggested that there are two distinct types of giftedness: scholastic or academic giftedness and creative-productive giftedness. There is a consensus forming among the leading researchers in the field that the creative types are more likely to go unnoticed in school and to fail standardized IQ tests. They are also considerably more prone to underachievement and delinquency. So why might this be?

The answer, for once, is relatively straightforward. First of all the scholastic types fit in naturally with the school system. They also tend to have a more even development than the creative types with a broad set of abilities across multiple domains. This means their grades tend to be of a consistently high standard. They test well both at school and on standardised IQ tests. Creative types tend to have a more uneven intellectual profile, displaying exceptional abilities in some domains (English, History and Art for example) and massive deficits in other areas (such as Maths and the Sciences). This means their grades tend to be uneven and they test poorly in standardised IQ tests. These students frequently slip through the net, becoming bored and frustrated, leading to underachievement and, in some cases, delinquency. It is quite common for these students to be admonished for not trying hard enough or for only trying in subjects that interest them. Which of course, is true. However, many gifted children have little or no control over their passions and even less control over their emotions. This brings us to the issue of asynchronous development.

“They’re Not Acting Like a Gifted Child”

Most children’s intellectual, physical and emotional development occurs at roughly the same rate. However, in gifted children, this development is often out of sync. It is quite common for their intellectual abilities to be far in advance of their chronological age, while their emotional development lags far behind. Many gifted children are simply not emotionally equipped to cope with their own intellect or the expectations placed upon them. if this wasn’t enough, creative types also tend to be highly sensitive. On the one hand, they are kind and empathetic, with a love of nature and aesthetic beauty. However, they are also prone to more negative emotions. Indeed, it is not uncommon for gifted children to experience existential angst from a very early age.

This inability to regulate emotions can lead to disbelief among teachers (and even psychologists) that the child may be gifted. After all, “they’re not acting like a gifted child.” This can result in the child being caught in a tug-of-war between their parents and the school and can have a devastating effect on the child’s confidence and enthusiasm, not to mention their trust in adults. Many children come to resent their intelligence. Some do all they can to hide it, while others become bitter and resentful. Because of this, underachievers tend to have problems with authority, including problems with teachers and school staff (Mandel & Marcus, 1988; McCall et al., 1992), and may exhibit hostility toward authority figures, including teachers (Mandel & Marcus, 1988).

Siegle and McCoach (2001) found that many gifted underachievers were falling behind in school because of problems at home. While a high IQ is generally considered to be a protective factor against negative life events, research found that when the problems at home were significant a high IQ offered little in the way of protection. If the child is creative and highly sensitive with poor emotional regulation, it is not hard to see how this will affect their conduct at school.

So, what’s to be done with the gifted underachiever? From a teacher’s perspective, know what type of gifted child you are dealing with. Do they appear to have generalized abilities or are they driven by their passions? Teachers want consistent scores for their students. This may not be important (or possible) for some gifted children. It’s not that they refuse to apply themselves to subjects they are not interested in. They can’t. While it goes against all your instincts as a teacher it is more important in this instance to maximize the child’s strengths rather than expend time and energy focusing on subjects that don’t interest them. I cannot emphasise enough that the child is not being petulant or strong-willed, nor are they challenging your authority. They simply do not know how to turn on that switch. This is why the underachieving gifted child and the education system are often a poor match for each other.

It is also important to understand that gifted children are more than their intellect. Get to know them. Find out what their hopes and fears are, what they enjoy, and most importantly what holds meaning for them. Unlike most other children in the classroom, gifted children are there for a reason. This could include access to library books, access to the knowledge in the teacher’s head, or the chance to immerse themselves in tasks that they enjoy. For the most part, they are highly motivated, self-directed learners who are struggling to fit into a school system that was not designed for their brains.

Third, gifted children, especially creative or highly sensitive children often attract the attention of bullies. Their intellectual abilities, combined with asynchronous emotional and physical development can effectively paint a target on their backs, not just with other children but with teachers as well. Despite being bright, gifted children don’t deal well with emotional situations and it is quite common for other children to run rings around them in social situations. This is often the final straw that turns the gifted child off school for good.

And lastly, be mindful of the fact that your idea of achievement may mean nothing to a gifted child. There is a lust for knowledge that is divorced from money or status or what we call success. For most gifted children, success means more books, more equations, and more experiments. There is no end goal, no payoff. The knowledge and the opportunity to expand it is all that matters. I will leave you with this short example:

Back to Siberia

I am back in school, sitting outside the staff room listening to an exasperated Valerie Jelley (from the Irish Association of Gifted Children) demanding to know why I have been placed in isolation for the entire year. I can feel the warmth from the staff room and I can smell the tea and biscuits. The principal replies that every time I am invited back into class I misbehave, and they have no option but to send me back to Siberia. Valerie steps just outside the staffroom and points to the library that stretches from the entrance all the way to my seat in Siberia. “That’s why he’s misbehaving,” she yells. “He just wants to read those books. And she was right.

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