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Gifted Underachiever

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D


Q: My high school student (son) scores really high on standardized test, but fails many classes? For example on the Terra Nova he scored above average in every subject area, 98% in reading .... total score 95%. What direction would you recommend for a bright 17 year old who may not graduate from high school? How much weight should I give to these test results?

A: Your son's case is typical of that of a gifted underachiever, one that scores high on standardized tests, yet fails school tests. There are many factors that contribute to underachievement, but I will discuss three main factors:

Firstly, these students do not find value in their school experience. School is not seen as meaningful to them. They do not believe that what they are doing will produce beneficial outcomes in the future. Next, they do not believe that they have the skills to be successful or achievers. Finally, they do not trust their environment and expect to fail. When students have negative attitudes in each of these three areas, they are more likely to produce non self-regulated behavior (self-regulated behavior has been researched to be essential for school success). These type of learners often set unrealistic expectations and implement inappropriate strategies for academic success, only to find themselves failing and being disappointed over and over again.

At 17, time seem a little short for immediate results (i.e., high school graduation), nevertheless, it's never too late. For now, you may want to do a few of the suggested modification that may increase his interest at school.

  • Try to encourage him in his areas of strength.

  • Help him see beyond the immediate results to something more long-term (how certain subjects can help him in future).

  • See to it that he has a set of realistic and attainable goals.

  • Constantly compliment him on his strengths and encourage him to overcome his weaknesses. Help him believe that he has the skills to do well.

  • Help him assume responsibility of his underachievement and not to assume (usually an unconscious belief) that it is the doings of events or individuals in his surroundings.

  • Help him with self-management strategies of time management and study skills. You may want to get an older cousin/friend of his to help him with that. (someone that he is fond of and achieving)

  • Help him to pursue excellence, not perfection.

  • Help him with his career planning. You may also want to see his career counselor for this purpose. Once he has a career that interests him in mind, he may strive to reach his goals.

  • Assist him in setting realistic expectations. This involves setting goals that are difficult enough to be challenging, yet not so difficult as to be unachievable and discouraging. Studies have indicated that learning occurs best when new material cannot be mastered without assistance, but can be mastered with minor direction from someone more knowledgeable (e.g., teacher).

Unfortunately, high school graduation is rather essential to pursue most courses at college level. Unless he has an exceptional skill in a certain area, graduation will be very helpful for him to pursue his journey in further education. But, it is still not a dead end. You need to find out from him on what he wants to do and if it needs him to graduate. Help him to see beyond the immediate feelings/interests for school and use graduation as a stepping stone for his future.

For now, I suggest you get him to see a career guidance officer at school to help him plan out a more realistic educational future for himself. You may also want to read the following book:

Bright Minds, Poor Grades: Understanding and Motivating Your Underachieving Child" -  by Dr. Michael D. Whitley


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