Specific Strategies for Classroom Teachers to Implement with
Underachieving Gifted Students
Studies show that, for a variety of reasons, gifted students do not achieve in school at the levels they should, based on test data regarding their intelligence and abilities. I began this inquiry with Dixie, an exceptionally gifted student who was frequently bored in class, but I soon determined to look more broadly at all students who are both gifted and at risk. My goal was to find specific strategies that I could use in my classroom to help all of my students achieve their potential. Thus, this review of the literature examines the definition of underachievement in gifted students as well as its causes. The research outlines specific, effective steps that may be taken by a classroom teacher to ameliorate the problem.
Who are the “Underachieving” Gifted?
Dixie sits in the back corner of the room, again. She’s not causing trouble, but she is certainly not working on the assignment. While everyone else slaves over the rhetorical analysis timed writing, Dixie is deep in the calculus book. Her timed writing—the kind of thing that other students spend 40 minutes sweating blood over—was done 10 minutes early. And it’s good—she understands the complex characters and can fully explain their motivations, which is more than most of her classmates can manage. So far this year I have not found a single activity that challenges this child.
Because Dixie is not working at her level and is not challenged, she is bored. She is also underachieving, and that fact puts her at risk.
Colangelo and Sunde (1996) define underachievement as a discrepancy between expected and actual performance. Such a discrepancy exists for Dixie, as it does for many students. They also note that 50 percent of gifted boys and 25 percent of gifted girls underachieve.
Research by Kanvsky and Keighley (2003) shows that boredom frequently leads to nonproduction in the classroom, a situation often followed by dropping out. They cite a lack of challenge as the most frequent cause of boredom.
Other students underachieve due to physical, emotional, or family difficulties. Colbert, Hebert, and Reis (2005) name several risk factors at work in underachievement, including older siblings who dropped out or used drugs, inappropriate early curricular activities, absence of challenge, negative interaction with teachers, family dysfunction, and minimal parental academic guidance and support.
Researchers also cite affiliation/achievement conflicts as reasons for underachievement.
Maureen Neihart (2006) says that such conflicts, common during adolescence, particularly affect gifted females, gifted minority students, and gifted disadvantaged students, acting as an eroding influence on their aspirations and self confidence. She cites a longitudinal study of more than 25,000 students in which researchers found that academic disidentification is much more pronounced among African American males than any other group. She postulates that peer influence plays a major role in the academic disengagement of minority and disadvantaged students; they associate achievement with the betrayal of their cultural group. Therefore, they underachieve.
What Can Classroom Teachers Do?
Once educators begin to understand why students underachieve, we can implement proven strategies to help them fulfill their potential. A wide variety of strategies have been tried, but the most effective may be grouped into five main categories, labeled the 5 Cs: control, choice, challenge, complexity, and caring teachers (Kanevsky & Keighley, 2003).
Control involves providing opportunities for students to take responsibility and make decisions regarding their own learning (Kitano & Lewis, 2005). Such control includes building a sense of self efficacy and agency within students. Teachers can help students set short and long-term goals and see the long-term benefits of classroom activities. They can also teach study skills and time management so that students have a greater sense of self control. To allow more student control and self-efficacy, teachers can also recognize achievement by consistently attributing it to the development of the student, to work and improvement rather than just “brains” (Siegle & McCoach, 2005).
For gifted students to have Choice, they must be given opportunities to work with other
students of similar abilities, interests and motivations; take advanced classes; and compact or accelerate curriculum (Reis & Renzulli, 2004; Colbert, Hebert & Reis, 2005; Neihart, 2006). According to Kitano and Lewis (2005), teachers can enhance this process by designing classroom projects that increase opportunities for teamwork, and build a sense of community and respect. In research on gifted students of color, Ford, Milner and Moore (2003), also note that students should be offered choices and learning opportunities based on their own cultural learning styles. Their research shows that teachers who understand and integrate different cultural needs and styles into the curriculum enhance student achievement. Whiting (2006) also supports a multicultural academic environment, stating that minority students will become more motivated and engaged when they have choices and see themselves affirmed in the materials and content. Additionally, Reis and Renzulli (2004), also advise building educational experiences around student interests.
To incorporate Challenge, teachers must involve students in significant learning experiences; they must differentiate and extend what is taught to accommodate varied pacing and levels of development (Reis & Renzulli, 2004). Every child needs challenge. Without challenge, students become bored, a situation that kills learning. According to Kanevsky and Keighley (2003), learning is the opposite of boredom; learning is the antidote to boredom. In order to engage gifted students, teachers must provide challenging learning experiences.
Complexity naturally follows challenge. Teachers can provide meaningful projects, utilizing real world skills, that build knowledge on multiple levels. According to Kanevsky and Keighley (2003), complexity is defined as a function of unfamiliarity, and gifted students crave the unfamiliar. They add that complexity involves processes requiring high-level thinking and
questioning, students own emotions and interests, opportunities to develop sophisticated products using the resources of a professional and opportunities to work in professional contexts.
In the end however, the Caring shown by teachers plays the most significant role in preventing underachievement. Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) describe caring teachers as nonjudgmental, fair, flexible, and humorous and note that a caring teacher can enhance or overcome lack of any of the other 4 Cs. Caring teachers honor students’ need to talk, question, challenge, and dig deeper. They show concern for all students’ well-being and are enthusiastic about content and teaching. Reis and Renzulli (2004) add that such teachers model kindness, prohibit bullying, and maintain high academic and behavior standards.
The concern, and sometimes the intervention, of caring teachers can make life-altering changes in the life of a child. In comments from her 2002 study of school diagnostic records for more than 22,000 students, conducted over a seven year period, Elizabeth Nielsen encourages teachers to pay attention to and for their students, to look for discrepancies between performance on intellectual ability measures and performance on measures of academics. Such discrepancies are clues and should be examined carefully to see if children should be tested further. Gifted students need to be identified so that they can receive the help they need to avoid underachievement, and observant teachers can help. In another study, (Saunders, 2003) shows that when children are not identified as gifted and fail to receive the needed intellectual and social control, choice, challenge, and complexity, their gifted abilities may actually decrease, and opportunities for those children are lost forever. Caring teachers can make the difference.
And so, for Dixie and for all of my students, I will be that caring teacher.
Colangelo, Nicholas, & Peterson, Jean Sunde. (1996). Gifted achievers and underachievers: A comparison of patterns found in school files. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 399-407.
Colbert, Robert D., Hebert, Thomas P., & Reis, Sally M. (2005). Understanding resilience in diverse, talented students in an urban high school. Roeper Review, 27, 110-120.
Ford, Donna Y., Milner, H. Richard, & Moore, James L. (2003). Underachievement among gifted students of color: Implications for educators. Theory Into Practice, 44(2), 167-177.
Kanevsky, Lannie & Keighley, Tacey. (2003). To produce or not to produce? Understanding boredom and the honor in underachievement. Roeper Review, 26, 20-28.
Kitano, Margie K., & Lewis, Rena B. (2005). Reslience and coping: Implications for gifted children and youth at risk. Roeper Review, 27, 200-205.
Neihart, Maureen. (2006). Dimensions of underachievement, difficult contexts and perceptions of self. Roeper Review, 28, 196-202.
Nielsen, M. Elizabeth. (2002). Gifted students with learning disabilities: Recommendations for identification and programming. Exceptionality, 10(2), 93-111.
Reis, Sally M., & Renzulli, Joseph S. (2004). Current research on the social and emotional development of gifted and talented students: Good news and future possibilities. Psychology in the Schools, 41(1), 119-129.
Saunders, Carlyn. (2003). Case study: A gifted child at risk. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 14, 100-105.
Siegle, Del & McCoach, Betsy. (2005). Making a difference: Motivating gifted students who are not achieving. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38, 22-27.
Whiting, Gilman W. (2006). From at risk to at promise: Developing scholar identities among black males. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 17, 222-229.