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Tips for Parents: Doing Poorly on Purpose: Underachievement and the Quest for Dignity

Gifted Parenting and Strategies

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Jim Delisle, who offers considerations to remember and suggestions for addressing underachievement.

One of my favorite quotes is from English author George Eliot: “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” It seems this truth is especially appropriate for gifted kids and teens who are said to be “underachieving” when they don’t meet a level of expectation that others expect them to reach. But consider these questions:

* where does “underachievement” end and achievement begin? Is a grade of “B” low enough to qualify a gifted student as underachieving? Could a grade of “C-” be considered “achievement” because it is still a passing grade?

* the term “underachievement” is often applied to a child in his/her entirety, as in “My son/daughter is an underachiever.” But does said child really underachieve in every domain, or just in selected ones?

* The usual knee-jerk response to teenage underachievement is to take away what the adolescents love to do until they begin to achieve again. But how often does this actually work? And if it doesn’t work, why not?

These and other issues are the main reasons that underachievement remains a conundrum for teachers, parents and the so-called “underachievers” themselves. So, to try to get our collective heads and hands around this issue, here are some important considerations to remember…and a few suggestions for addressing this quandary:

  1. No one wants to be an underachiever. As human beings, we seem hard-wired to seek put pleasure, not pain—and being an underachiever is not a pleasant thing. However, for children and teens who do not get recognized for anything less than perfection, they may choose to underachieve to get themselves away from the pressure to always be #1. Hey, if you can’t be “first best”, you might strive to become “first worst”. In either position, you tend to get a lot of attention from others—which is better than being in the middles and getting ignored.
  2. Underachievement tends to be an issue of dignity not curriculum. If a gifted child is required to complete work that is tedious or repetitive, or loses credit for refusing to do homework that is pointless, s/he will begin to question the value of high grades. If teachers don’t seem to care how high a child can jump, academically speaking, and focus instead on whether s/he can jump at all, the capable child often begins to feel that his or her intellect is being both denied and disrespected. Without this intellectual dignity being afforded, grades lose their significance, be they “As” of “Fs”.
  3. Every “underachiever” is good at and passionate about something. Sadly, despite a gifted underachiever’s interest and knowledge of game design, cloning or poetic expression, if these areas are not part of a child’s curriculum, they are often considered less important than the content of a math or science class. Even sadder, if grades fall too low in school, these areas of passion or interest are frequently removed from the child’s repertoire “…until such time that you get serious about school.” This sets up more battles—not over “content”, but over “dignity”.

So, are there any solutions that always work to resolve underachievement? Sorry…no (kids are too unique for a one-size-fits-all approach to work.) However, in my 33 years of working with underachievement as a teacher and counselor, I find that the following ideas work more often than not.

  1. Compare where a child is succeeding in school and where s/he is not. The best way to address underachievement is through a positive, proactive approach. Thus, if you can determine the conditions in which a child succeeds, and with which teachers a child performs as expected, try to “tease out” the elements of why this success has been achieved. As much as possible, try to replicate these strategies/attitudes in situations where the child has not been successful.
  2. The underachieving child needs to be acknowledged for attempts, not just successes. If the only time a gifted child hears “Good job!” is when perfection is attained, the seeds for underachievement are being sown. However, if parents and teachers say things like “This is going to be a tough task, and I’ll be here to help in any ways I can. I simply want to thank you for taking on this challenge.” Now…to which statement would you respond better. Yeah…I thought so.
  3. Get away from questioning “who’s at fault” for underachievement and work towards resolving the situation where no one loses. In every case of underachievement, there is enough blame to go around. A meager curriculum? Perhaps. Parental expectations that are too high? Could be. Lousy, cantankerous attitude toward authority? Students have been known to be guilty of that. But if parents, teachers and kids themselves can agree to have an honest series of conversations about what is working and what is not working, the first seeds of resolution have been sown.

Above all else, parents and teachers (but parents, especially) need to remember that a short-term gain in achievement is not worth the price of a long-term dissolution of the adult-child relationship. Sometimes, this means stepping back, as a parent; other times it means listening to your parent not as a critic, but as a partner in problem solving. If this ongoing conundrum of underachievement gets resolved successfully, it is because all parties involved perceive they have a stake in the situation.

“It’s never too late to be who you might have been.”—how true this is for all of us, including those so-called “underachievers” who simply want their intellects and their interests to be taken seriously.

See Dr. Delisle’s book, Doing Poorly on Purpose: Strategies to Reverse Underachievement and Respect Student Dignity

Jim Delisle is a retired professor and teacher. The author of 16 books and more than 250 articles, Jim’s focus is on making school and life relevant and enjoyable for gifted children and adolescents.

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