Why Gifted Children Can Be At-Risk Too

by Todd Stanley

Often times people overlook the fact that gifted students can be just as at-risk as students we traditionally concern ourselves with. In fact, I would make the argument that gifted students are actually more at-risk because they have so much potential, and helping them reach that potential can be a challenge. One could argue that it is actually easier for a gifted student to underachieve than say one that has been identified in special education. After all, to achieve does not mean to succeed, it means you reach the level that you were expected. If a student with a learning disability scores a basic on the state assessment, this, in fact, might be an improvement from the year before when she scored in the limited range. A gifted student, on the other hand, may have passed the test at the accelerated level, but this is actually lower than the expectation of this student who should have been at the top of the scale in the advanced range. Even though the gifted student scored better on the test, he did not reach the level he was expected to and thus is viewed as having not met his potential.

Underachieving gifted students are at risk of not reaching their potential. Children identified as gifted do not always make for the best students. There are other factors that play into good grades, such as motivation, effort, interaction, participation, completion of work, being organized, and test-taking/study skills, among others. Just because someone is intelligent does not mean he will apply this to his academics either. In fact, he may use his intelligence to avoid schoolwork, getting by on his natural ability rather than developing the skills needed to be successful in a school setting. This type of student can be seen as underachieving.

The number of underachieving gifted students may be even higher as, in some cases, underachievement can be overlooked. An example would be a gifted student in a regular education classroom. The teacher typically focuses most of her attention on two areas; discipline and low performing students. As the teacher, she would want to make sure students are not falling too far behind. Thus if a student is getting Bs or even Cs, this is not as much a concern as a student who is on the verge of failing. However, if this is a student who has the ability to be achieving A’s, this child is underachieving. How does one address such a problem when there are students who are performing far worse, and the teacher only has so much attention to give?

Sometimes teaching is similar to a doctor in a field hospital. There are several people coming in with injuries. The attention is usually given to those who are injured most critically while the ones that are wounded but will most likely live are kept comfortable but not given the same amount of attention. If a gifted student never raised his hand or failed to participate in class but also did not stand out by disrupting the learning environment for others, the teacher might simply think the student is doing his best and achieving to the ability he has shown.

In reality, this student might be skating by using only the surface level of his abilities rather than delving deep into their potential. Because they are so clever, they can learn to play the game of school. You know the game where you do what you are told, turn in your assignments on time, and appear to be the model student? These students have developed the ability to coast through their classes and take shortcuts that enable them to get the work done, but not at its highest level. They are not identified as underachieving because they are able to operate under the radar, and the teacher may not even be aware that the student is not working to his potential.

Anytime this type of student can get by on minimal effort, he has, in effect, “outsmarted” the game of school. This student can definitely be overlooked because they are playing the game.

Gifted underachievers come in all shapes and sizes. Like any group of students, there is no one way to reach them. Different strategies need to be applied to different types of underachievers. The key is first identifying who is gifted in your classroom. Many times teachers are not even aware that a student has been identified gifted in the area they are teaching. With this knowledge should come a different set of expectations. No longer is mastery or proficiency the goal with these students. The goal is to find a way to get them to a higher level, the level they have the potential to achieve. That means moving their place on the learning target and developing strategies where the best learning possible takes place. This does not mean it should be more work; it means gifted students need to be challenged, especially in their thinking.

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