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Help For The Gifted Underachiever

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.

William Shakespeare
Everybody has known a  gifted underachiever.  In fact they're a sort of stereotype - the brilliant kid who avoids schoolwork like the plague and gets Ds or Fs despite a 140 I.Q.  What is going on with kids like that? 
For a long time in educational circles, the suspected cause of underachievement was always lack of challenge. If Johnny is smart, yet  doesn't do well in school maybe he's bored and just "too smart" for the work he's being given.  He should do well - the reasoning goes - if given more advanced, interesting subject matter and materials.  This was the explanation "du jour" during my time in school and the one  I brought into my teaching years. 
Now the focus has broadened to include the "twice exceptional" or, in other words, gifted kids with the complication of a learning disability. Regarding underachievement, this would explain why Johnny might not do well though he is very intelligent.  Maybe he's distracted due to an attention deficit or confused due to a  processing problem that makes the completion of assignments painful for him.  This was the case with a student I worked with who has Asperger Syndrome.  Though very bright, he complained about school tasks being painful and sought to avoid them.  From the outside it would be tempting to see his underachievement as "laziness", but his developmental issues truly made learning tasks painful for him.
But what if your child or student doesn't fall into the categories above?  What if you've succeeded at getting them accelerated at school, or at least gotten them advanced school work and paid for exciting outside classes but the truth is, they don't really seem to want to do anything academic, least of all challenging.  Maybe you even had them tested for learning disabilities because something still just didn't seem right.  Ds and Fs from a kid who formerly got all As and tested gifted across the board?  No learning disabilities.  So what could be going on?
Over the years I've worked with several kids exactly like this.  See if you can recognize the type.  Everything they're taught is "boring."  Every teacher they encounter is "stupid" and assignments are "ridiculous."   The best way I've found to work with this type of underachievement is from an emotional point of view.
For me it all started to come together when I looked at a few of  my students in light of Dr. Peter Sperak's book, Empowering Underachievers:  New Strategies to Guide Kids (8 - 18) to Personal Excellence.  Dr. Sperak describes this type of underachievement as an expression of emotional immaturity coupled with giftedness.  In his view, these kids' achievement problems are fueled by anxiety and stress and won't be helped by the typical  responses. 
So what does that mean?  Basically, Johnny - being very intelligent - can easily see a lot of the challenges, difficulties and shortcomings in the world around him and fears shortcomings within himself.  So what does he do?  He disengages - a kind of mental "sour grapes."  Rather than have to face that he might fail at anything or go through any difficulties causing emotional discomfort, he avoids engagement.  That way he feels good - at least for the moment.
Since Johnny is very smart, his excuses often appear solid to those around him.  Afterall, it is possible that Johnny could be bored with material below his level.  Assignments are sometimes ridiculous and yes, sometimes teachers say and do stupid things.
Buying into Johnny's reasoning, or heading off on a wild goose chase for good enough materials, teachers, etc. won't be good for Johnny in the long run.  What he really needs is someone to challenge his assumptions while keeping in mind that no matter how "smart-alecky" or "above it all"  Johnny appears to feel, his underlying problem is one of anxiety and avoidance.  He really needs reassurance that it's okay to take chances and okay to fail sometimes - no matter how smart you are.
Here are some strategies that work well to help these kids get over the emotional hurdles that are keeping them from reaching their potential:
1. Emphasize that getting things right and getting things wrong are BOTH important parts of learning.  This means you'll have to go ahead and let them get low grades sometimes without reacting in panic. Remember, learning is about a lifelong process - the marathon, not the success in every sprint along the way.  If they see that you really believe failures and successes all have something to teach us, a bit of the pressure will be off, freeing them to take chances.
2.  Point out the old adage "nothing ventured, nothing gained."  Share stories from your own life where you were a bit scared to take a risk, but found it was worth it.  This works especially well if you can point out times when you were glad you took a chance even if it didn't lead to any sort of recognition and was difficult.   Put your money where your mouth is by showing them that you try things that you have no real prospect of excelling at, but still put yourself out there - rock climbing anyone?
3. Don't jump on the "bash the teacher" or "bash the assignment" bandwagon.  It's tempting to join in with the student in an effort to let them know you understand how smart they are and understand their frustration.  Not bad goals - actually, but also not useful in these cases.  A better idea when they complain about a subject, assignment, class or teacher is to help them brainstorm a list of the best ways to deal with the situation just as it is. That's not to say that you should never test to see if a student really is mismatched with their current educational level.  You should.  But once you've gone down that track to no avail (the complaints keep coming no matter what you've tried) it's time to view things differently.   You're in "sour grapes" territory.
4. Expose your child/student to as many different types of people, places and ideas as possible.  Especially avoid getting caught up in the elitism of only participating in gifted and advanced activities.  These activities were developed in response to times when gifted kids were often isolated from intellectual peers, but now in many urban and suburban areas the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.
 Pressure cooker environments where everyone is alike - and probably also susceptible to perfectionism and fears of putting themselves out there and ending up wrong - are not great places to learn to step out and try new approaches.  Kids who have been exposed to all sorts of people, places and ideas will be less self-focused  and, overall, carry far less of an emotional burden on their shoulders - freeing them to take chances and grow toward their potential. 
Best wishes as you work with your student/child to reach their full potential!
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