When I give a presentation on the topic of underachievement, the audience members are often wanting me to provide a universal solution that will change their son or daughter into an overnight academic superstar. If only such a solution were available! But, then again, the individuality of human nature is such that there are as many reasons for "underachievement" as there are ways to reverse it. The only guiding principle that underlies all solutions that I've found is this one: respect the child.
What? Respect the child who is refusing to do homework that is so easy it could be completed in 10 minutes? Respect the child who lashes out at parents or teachers who claim that even irrelevant work still needs to get done? Respect the child who gets angry or belligerent when their Internet access is taken away until all late schoolwork is completed and turned in?
Yeah…respect that child.
Often, the child who is considered an underachiever is quite confused about the label. For example, if I'm a gifted kid and I receive "B's" on my grade card, is that underachievement? If I decide I want to focus my attention on becoming a professional musician instead of a physician, am I underachieving? If I want to take fewer honors-level classes in order to explore some electives that sound fascinating, am I an underachiever?
The line of demarcation between where underachievement stops and achievement begins is absolutely, totally an individual choice, yet we toss around the term "underachievement" as if we all agreed on its meaning. Take the word "potential", for instance. Often, gifted underachievers are told by adults they "are not working up to their potential." Think about this statement…and it's absurdity. Would any of you reading this article like to take a moment to declare to the world, "I have an announcement to make: I have reached my potential!" Absurd, right? For if you've reached your potential…what's the next step? To me, potential is a term that is used as a verbal weapon by adults who want to shame a gifted kid with low grades into becoming more productive. But without providing any direction into how this process takes place, and by ignoring the child who says, "I'd do the work if it had meaning, but it doesn't--and we all know it!", we are effectively telling this child that his/her opinions don't matter and that if they want to improve, they're smart enough to figure out how to do it.
So, what's the solution? As I mentioned earlier, it all begins with respect. So, instead of lecturing your child on the need to conform, listen to his reasons for not doing so. Instead of saying that everyone in life has to do boring stuff at some time, ask her opinions of what she would do differently in school if given the choice. Instead of downplaying the importance of courses or careers that "aren't very gifted", begin a dialog on what it is about carpentry or creative writing or game design that appeals to them. Instead of arguing about the importance of grades, ask them what they really value in their education. Instead of saying that you have to respect all teachers because of the roles they play, ask them how they know when there is mutual respect between a student and a teacher.
What these above suggestions have in common is dialog--an openness to listen instead of lecture; a willingness to see education from the child's side of the desk; a desire to unearth some of the underlying reasons for underachieving on purpose when succeeding would be the easier route to take. The other thing my suggestions have in common is this: they are focused on solution-finding rather than targeting who is to blame--and let's face it, when it comes to a gifted kid who is performing poorly in school, there is plenty of shared blame to go around.
Above all else, the dialog I recommend allows you to strengthen or rekindle something that you must never lose sight of: the relationship between you and your son or daughter. Underachievement is an important issue to address, but if you magically turn your underperformer into an academic superstar through punishments and coercion, the ultimate price for this success might be very costly, indeed.
It's time to look at underachievement from a whole new perspective. And it all begins with respect.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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