By Kim Servia, M.A.Ed., DCSD GT Facilitator, and Parent
Our son’s underachievement surprised us. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did. Through study and reflection, I understand more about how parenting, school, and mindset unintentionally contribute to the perfect storm of underachievement. As it turns out, underachievement is learned behavior. Fortunately, when we understand and intentionally adopt constructive practices, underachievement can be prevented, and even reversed.
Parenting and Achievement
Parents unwittingly foster underachievement through contradictory parenting styles, authoritarianism, overprotection, excessive permissiveness, and inconsistency. Parents can intentionally foster high achievement by implementing the strategies described below.
Parents need to spend time with and nurture their children, especially their same-gender children. Children look to parents to decide the type of adult they would like to become. When a parent is absent or disengaged, children are left to figure it out on their own, floundering without a role model.
A consistent dynamic that exists between parents of underachievers is that they unintentionally compete with each other believing that their parenting method is better than that of their partner. Examples include: Father is an Ogre, Daddy is a Dummy, Mother is an Ogre, and Mother is the Mouse of the House (Dr. Silvia Rimm). Parents must be united to avoid over pressuring or protecting. When parents share reasonable and appropriate expectations, the child can accept positive challenges and please both parents. Ideal role models are parents that view their own lives as interesting and successful and who model equal respect in the husband-wife relationship.
Seek to understand and support the needs of the child. Helping the child understand him or herself and how to navigate challenges will be a gift used repeatedly throughout life. Children that continuously score in the 98 and 99th percentile on nationally normed tests are outliers. Seek professional advice from a doctoral level psychologist that specializes in working with gifted children.
Parent expectations should be high enough to challenge but also reasonable and attainable for the child. This sends a strong “we believe you can do it” message and nurtures self-confidence. When important-others believe, it’s easier for the child to believe in him or herself. High parent expectations must be paired with expectations of hard work. “You can do anything you want as long as you are willing to work hard enough.”
Insist that children assume responsibilities appropriate for their age. When parents do too much, the children become reliant for things they could do independently. This sends the message that they are not capable, lowering self-confidence.
Maintain an appropriate level of power. Too much power can inadvertently be given to gifted children because they often act older than their years. They can fall into a pattern of manipulation to avoid ordinary tasks. This robs them of skill-developing opportunities and again, self-confidence suffers. To break this pattern, put agreements in writing for reference when manipulation is attempted again.
School and Achievement
Don’t fall into believing the common myth about gifted kids: “They’ll be fine”. Most do not realize the extent of the damage that boredom can cause. Without daily challenge and engagement, children often lose trust in their teachers, the educational system, and even their parents (for not helping them find a more suitable situation). Disengaged students will find something other than the curriculum to engage in. Tuning out teachers and missing instruction, they turn to their own thoughts and behaviors. They daydream, draw, make classmates laugh, or take apart pens and create something new with the pieces. These non-curricular activities result in missed skill development which catches up with the child and chip away at self-esteem.
You can change the environment or change the child. (Hint: You can’t change the child.) Don’t be afraid or too busy to explore alternate school options. The traditional school setting may or may not be the best fit for your child. As wonderful as our elementary school was for most children, outliers like ours did not fit in the box they were prescribing.
Children who have been underachieving for a time, often have some deficits due to factors already described. It’s important to assess strengths, deficits, and creativity. Build on strengths, invest in interests, and support deficits. Cultivate creativity. Learn more about the child. Listen and meet them where they are.
Ideally school and home work together for the benefit of the child. A student that seems to not pay attention, doesn’t complete homework, but still aces tests can be annoying to teachers. Gifted kids will pick up on this dislike and internalize it as confirmation of their already established poor self-perception. Help your child be understood. Volunteer at the school. Offer to provide materials and resources to extend learning for your child or the entire class. Bring coffee or lunch. Support teachers in their efforts.
Mindset and Achievement
Perfection, sportsmanship, resiliency.
Children need to be taught how to recover from failure experiences. Underachievers will avoid competitive activities unless they perceive themselves as highly likely to win. Instead of viewing the loss as temporary, the child is likely to view himself as a loser and quit.
Self-efficacy and the growth mindset.
Self-efficacy is the belief in a person’s ability to succeed or accomplish a task. It plays a major role in how we approach goals, tasks, and challenges. A growth mindset is the belief that through effort and perseverance we can improve at something. Engagement, motivation, choice, ownership, and a growth mindset are intimately related. Think about it. To stay motivated, people of all ages need to believe in their ability to impact an outcome. They must also put in the necessary work.
Smart ≠ Easy.
Praise effort, not achievement. When children are told they are smart, they hear “smart = easy”. When work becomes difficult, they may be left believing they are no longer smart. This is terribly confusing and scary for a child whose identity may be wrapped in being smart. They will use avoidance, rebellion, humor, and more to protect themselves from showing others they lack ability in certain areas. Children need to be reassured that with hard work, they can create a positive impact on the outcome they are seeking.
Underachievement is not predestined, nor does it have to be permanent. With intentionality, parents, schools, and a healthy child mindset can cultivate the road to a successful launch into a rich, productive, and satisfying future.
This article is based on personal experience and the underachievement chapter of Education of the Gifted and Talented, Pearson New International Edition. G. Davis, S. Rimm, and D. Siegle
References and Resources