Using Cognitive Behavioral Counseling Strategies to Reverse Underachievement
Strop, J.
Understanding Our Gifted
Open Space Communications LLC

In this article, the author provides numerous tips on preventing underachievement among gifted students.

Underachieving students continue to be an enigma to parents, to educators, and sometimes, to themselves. Often these students vow to perform better on the next unit, the next test, or the next quarter report card, only to fall back into old underachieving patterns. Current brain research explains why, despite the best efforts of all involved, underachievement persists. The longer a person remains in a state (depression, procrastination, underachievement, etc.), the harder it is to change. It essentially becomes more comfortable to remain in the familiar state. To effectively break a negative cycle, psychologists often suggest that it is necessary to change an individual’s thought patterns before attempting to develop more productive behaviors.

Underperforming students benefit from knowledge about learning theory. They need to know that education is most effective when engagement is high, and stress is low. Understanding this, they can then learn how to recognize when they are having difficulty engaging in assignments and identify when/if they are under undue stress. Once they are able to recognize these barriers, they can learn to mitigate them through positive self-talk, visualization, biofeedback, etc. Both the ability to engage and management of stress can be taught directly.

Repeating Affirmations
Affirmations are positive statements that an individual says (either aloud or to himself) several times during the day. These statements empower and encourage. Repetition can become second nature, and they can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. Affirmations can be kept in places of prominence (on mirrors, on dashboards, on desktops, in pockets, on computer screens, etc.). Examples are as follows:

  • I am a capable person.
  • I can do the homework if I decide to do it.
  • School is as meaningful as I make it.
  • Grades allow me to reach my personal goals.

Recognizing Negative Thought Patterns
Many underachieving students find they have intractable (automatic) thoughts that are negative – especially about homework and grades – freezing them into inaction. Therefore, it is important to stop this pattern. The student first has to identify what interferes with performance, and then she needs to learn to say, “Stop” (aloud or in her mind), to put an end to this train of thought. More concrete learners find a specific action works better, such as wearing a thick rubber band on one’s wrist. When the self-defeating idea occurs, she snaps her wrist with the rubber band, utilizing behavior modification to decrease and eventually to eliminate unwanted thinking patterns. Once the young person is astutely aware of this negative habit, it is time to employ a strategy for changing/substituting to a more positive, productive behavior.

Gifted students often benefit from direct coaching. With the assistance of an adult facilitator, these young people are able to pinpoint and verbalize the exact thoughts that they experience when they begin the underachieving cycle. They are then encouraged to practice substituting more positive thought patterns/selftalk. If this is practiced frequently, the positive self-talk becomes automatic.

Following are examples of how to change negative thought patterns to more gentle, positive self-talk:

Raising Energy/Ability to Attend to Tasks
Students can raise their energy levels by stretching, moving around, eating high-protein snacks, working under self-imposed time limits (using a timer), etc.

Practicing New Behaviors in a Safe Environment
To learn the complex process of behavioral change, students need frequent practice with feedback. To teach a new skill, three steps (to be practiced in a safe environment) are key: visualization, role-playing, and feedback. Just as athletes mentally visualize complex physical movements, underachievers can picture themselves sitting at a desk, reading the entire assignment, completing homework, and performing well on tests. They can mentally practice these tasks, talking aloud to show how they will encourage themselves to be successful and to counteract negative thought patterns. The facilitator (teacher, counselor, or parent) then suggests how to alter the selftalk to increase effectiveness. After this role-playing and feedback, the young person is ready to move to the next step, homework in the real world.

The student next tries the new behavior and monitors his self-talk, reactions of others, and effectiveness of the strategy. He keeps a journal and reports back to the adult facilitator. At this point questions are asked, and feedback is given about ways to increase effectiveness.

Setting Realistic Goals
Students who under-perform often fail at realistic goal setting. They either set goals that are too easily attainable (lacking the self-esteem to take academic risks), or their goals are nearly impossible to reach (as a face-saving mechanism in case of failure). When they learn to utilize affirmations, to substitute self-defeating self-talk with positive and encouraging self-talk, and to realistically assess their performances while practicing more productive academic behaviors, they are better equipped to set and to meet realistic academic goals.

Since learning comes so easily for gifted students, we (and they) often believe that the ability to achieve is intuitive and natural. However, for many gifted youngsters, negative thinking and low academic self-esteem take an intractable hold on their psyches. With direct cognitive behavioral intervention, they are able to break this pattern, allowing them to achieve.

Jean Strop, long-time psychologist, gifted resource teacher, and counselor, is currently a consultant and writer in affective education and college planning for gifted students.


Understanding Our Gifted, 21-2. The Affective Side: Using Cognitive Behavioral Counseling Strategies to Reverse Underachievement, Jean Strop, pp. 29-31. Reprinted with permission, Open Space Communications LLC, http://www.our-gifted.com/.

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