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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Digging beneath the surface of underachievement

by Benjamin Hebebrand, Head of School, Quest Academy

As a follow-up from my previous post on underachievement among gifted students and in anticipation of noted psychologist, author, and gifted education advocate Dr. Sylvia Rimm’s visit to Quest Academy on August 21,2014 (she will lead both teacher and parent sessions), we will outline several defensive psychological defense patterns that gifted students exhibit. Dr. Rimm has conducted and reviewed extensive research on this subject, also having published and presented on this topic within the gifted education community.

Before looking at detailed patterns, we would be wise to remind ourselves that causes for these psychological defense patterns can be both external and internal, meaning that external environments such as home and family or internal causes from within the child are the source of psychological defensive patterns – patterns that often become so engrained that they are difficult to reverse. Speaking of reversal, we would be equally wise to remind ourselves that evaluation and therapeutic solutions require a team approach – educators, counselors, psychologists, and parents are well-guided to work in close collaboration.

According to Rimm, the most frequent characteristics of underachievement one can observe on the surface include “disorganization, uneven skills, lost, unfinished, or carelessly completed homework, missing assignments, a barrage of excuses including forgetfulness, blame laid on teachers, parents, or peers, and, most frequently, the description of school as boring,” according to Rimm’s chapter on underachievement in the Handbook of Giftedness in Children.

In her book Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What YouCan Do About It, Rimm asserts that defensive patterns can be classified as dependent or dominant, or a combination of the two. When a child asks for more help than she needs, she is seen as dependent, avoiding to work independently. Signs of being overwhelmed such as frequent tears or complaining fit the dependent category. On the other hand, dominant underachievers are more likely to “argue with their teachers, blame them for their boredom, demand alternative assignments, or claim that school is irrelevant or a waste of time." (Teachers occasionally refer to these students as “lawyers”). In her book, Rimm lists several manipulations by dependent and dominant underachievers:

Dependent: Help me; nag me; protect me; feel sorry for me; love me; shelter me.
Dominant: Admire me, praise me, applaud me; do not criticize me; disagree with me; give me; be mine; see my difference; how far can I push?

At the root of underachievement most likely is a child’s lack of an internal locus of control, meaning that an underachieving child believes that success comes as a result of luck or the ease of a task but not as the result of effort. “If the child sees no relationship between efforts and outcome, he is unlikely to make effort,” according to Rimm (I often tell parents that instead of proclaiming that we are proud of a child’s results on tests and projects, the child may be better served by hearing how proud they must be of themselves to have worked so hard to earn that result – also see my previous post on Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset).

As concerns other underlying problems contributing to underachievement, scholars point to competition – especially relevant in an environment of gifted children, many of whom are highly competitive. It is a student’s self-efficacy – “the belief in one’s own capabilities to carry through a designated performance” – that is partially shaped when performance is compared to those of others. “Comparative success established self-efficacy, while early comparative failures diminished self-efficacy.” Should positive comparative (i.e. competitive) success be stressed and recognized too much, children will run the risk of a fear of losing their “winner” status by having too high expectations set for them. Children whose academic performance measures do not consistently compare well to others may pursue popularity, sports, music and drama as alternatives or even worse “state no preference, only that they are alternative kids or simply give up and remind parents and teachers of their boredom or complain that they are expected to be perfect like a younger sister or older brother.” Because gifted students understand that jealousy is not considered good character, they rarely recognize their feelings about competition.

Rimm also believes that school environments, specifically the curriculum, the teacher, peer pressure, excessive or misguided parental advocacy can be contributors to underachievement.

The Curriculum: An absolutely central component to offer a gifted student a proper curriculum lies in the notion of student boredom – research has shown that gifted students frequently already know half the curriculum at the beginning of each year. Repetitive curriculum (i.e. “I already know this!”) leads to student boredom – gifted students report the following five C’s to define their optimal learning: 1) control; 2) choice; 3) challenge; 4) complexity; and 5) caring.

The curriculum ideally should support each individual student’s self-efficacy (belief in one’s own capabilities). The circumstance of a gifted student investing little – if any – effort but yet accomplishing good grades and significant praise is common and quite frankly dangerously unproductive if not unhealthy. These students “learn to define intelligence as ‘fast and easy’ and do not experience the effort required of students with lesser abilities,” says Rimm. This will eventually change – either by middle school or high school or college for profoundly gifted students – and while some gifted students will accordingly adjust their effort in achieving, some will not. “Rather than admit that work has become more difficult and they must work harder, they hide their sense of inadequacy for fear that they will no longer be considered intelligent.” In essence, they may have lost their “sense of efficacy and no longer believe that hard work can deliver them to success.”

The Teacher: Obviously, the teacher is the central gatekeeper to adjust the curriculum to the abilities of a student. The underachieving student’s display of disinterest, inattention, and lack of producing work are attributes that do not fit a teacher’s preference to “teach those who want to learn.” Great teachers first take a look at their delivery of curriculum and their relationship with an underachieving student – “a truly talented, insightful teacher manages to build an alliance with a student who may have lost his or her sense of efficacy in the classroom.”

Peer Pressure: Popularity appears to be the highest priority by the time students reach the middle grades. Rimm reports on a 2005 survey of over 5,000 students in 3rd through 8th grade that popularity ranked highest among their worries, tied only with terrorism. Rimm reports that by third grade, 15 percent of the students reported that they “worried a lot about being popular with the opposite sex, and surprisingly, slightly more boys worried than girls.” Due to this peer pressure, gifted students may deliberately not turn in homework or refuse to study due to their preference for average grades. “A discerning adult can often prevent that from becoming a pattern, but once initiated, underachieving to be ‘cool’ can take on a life of its own,” according to Rimm.

Parent Advocacy Gone Awry: There is no doubt that parents should be able to communicate (and be heard) on the needs of their gifted students, for it is indeed most plausible that parents may indeed know more about specific skills their kids demonstrate. “Nevertheless, it is possible that parents’ legitimate advocacy can initiate an underachieving pattern. If the advocacy is conducted in a manner that shows disrespect for the teacher, it empowers the student to believe they can challenge the teacher and be victorious when they are expected to complete a task that they view as unpleasant. Thus, the power granted to the student initially to provide challenge can be easily misused by both parents and students if the student can make an argument for the irrelevance of the curriculum and material.” Teachers may be familiar with students who fervently argue that there is no useful role for tedious learning material such as grammar.

Rimm also points to factors of underachievement originating in the family. Specifically in the case of gifted students, parents assume that due to their child’s adult-sounding vocabulary and sophisticated insights, their child is capable of making independent decisions early in life – often confounded by the parental encouragement to think for themselves (and, therefore, think “differently than their parents”). It is as if gifted children may potentially be “set up” to argue; and “the arguing by over-empowered children easily becomes argument for the sake of winning rather than intellectual discussion.” Rimm further states that “once power is granted, it is not easily taken away. If children are accustomed to making decisions, they will not accomplish challenging or unpleasant tasks that are not of their own choosing.”