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Underachievement: A Complex Phenomenon

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1 Underachievement: A Complex Phenomenon
Vickie Mohnacky West Virginia Department of Education

2 Defining Underachievement Identifying Underachieving Gifted
Outline Defining Underachievement Identifying Underachieving Gifted Underlying Causes Interventions Future Steps

3 Levels of academic success
3 Learns with satisfaction and joy (student is on the way to becoming a lifelong learner) 2 Earns high grades on assignments that challenge (completes assignments that require effort) 1 Gets good grades with ease (completes assignments with little effort) Julia Roberts in The Challenge, Summer, 2008

4 Defining Underachievement
Three General Themes Discrepancy between potential (ability) and performance (achievement) A regression involving potential and performance Failure to develop potential or latent ability What is underachievement? There is no universally agreed upon definition of underachievement. However, three general themes emerge. (Reis and McCoach, 2000)

5 Defining Underachievement
1. Discrepancy between ability and achievement Requires defining ability. Requires defining achievement. Most commonly used method of defining ability involves the use of IQ tests such as the WISC-IV and the Stanford-Binet IV. But the percentile rank used as the criteria for defining giftedness varies from state to state. Some describe this as “geographic giftedness.” But no test is 100% reliable, so confidence intervals are used. WV’s is at the 68% confidence interval. Psychologists can never determine with 100% certainty a student’s true score (Reis and McCoach, 2000). Then we have the problem of defining achievement. Standardized achievement tests can be used, but they also are not completely reliable and subject to errors of measurement of the criterion. Also, the correspondence between the state’s adopted curriculum and the standardized test is usually imperfect. If one uses performance in the classroom defined by course grades, it is impossible to compare grades across subject areas or even across students because of the variability in content and presentation by different teachers. Grades are not standardized across the state or even across a county school district.

6 Defining Underachievement
2. Discrepancy between predicted achievement and actual achievement If a student performs more poorly on measures of achievement than one would expect based on measures of ability, then he or she is underachieving. A smaller number of authors use this definition. A lesser used definition. For example, a student scored at the 97th percentile on a comprehensive test of intelligence, but performs at mastery or below on the state’s standardized achievement test (WESTEST). Again, neither the standardized achievement test nor the intelligence test is 100% accurate.

7 Defining Underachievement
3. Failure to develop or utilize latent potential without reference to other external criteria. No attempt to define or measure potential. Underachievers viewed as individuals who fail to self-actualize Difficult to define this. Dr. Sylvia Rimm (1997) believes that if students are not working to their ability, even if they are making As in class work, then they are underachieving. This definition could include most gifted students.

8 Defining Underachievement
Discrepancy definition requires defining ability and achievement Ability: IQ test: WISC-IV or Stanford-Binet IV. Criteria for giftedness? Achievement: Standardized Tests - 1 year below grade level? Should gifted students be above grade level? Classroom grades – failing grades? Time Period: Any drop over a short time period? Achievement that has declined 3 years in a row? “Criteria for identifying gifted underachievers should include a method for determining observable discrepancies between ability and achievement.” (Reis and McCoach, 2000). In order to do this, we must define ability and achievement. Testing ability is problematic. No test is 100% reliable. Difference in scores arise as a result of sampling errors, student mood and health, environmental influences, and personal experiences. Errors of measurement, psychologists can never determine with 100% certainty a student’s “true” score. So, they use confidence levels. Testing achievement is even more problematic. Using a test presents the same problems as the IQ test. However, they are more standardized than classroom grades. Classroom grades, though unreliable and teacher dependent, are used more often as a measure of classroom performance. However, it is impossible to compare grades across subject areas or even across students because of the variability in content and presentation, different teachers’ curricular emphases, grading policies, and assessments.

9 defining underachievement
Type and Severity Chronic?  Episodic - temporary, situational?   Mild? Moderate?  Severe? In all areas? In only some areas?  Coincidental with increased homework? 

10 Defining Underachievement
Working definition: Underachievers are students who exhibit an observable discrepancy between expected achievement (as measured by a comprehensive test of cognitive or intellectual ability and actual achievement (as measured by class grades, teacher evaluations or standardized achievement tests). Must NOT be the result of a diagnosed learning disability and must persist over a one year period. Although imperfect, this is the definition that we will work with today. “Ideally, the researcher would standardize both the predictor and the criterion variables and would identify as underachievers those students whose actual achievement is at least one standard deviation below their expected achievement level.” (Reis and McCloud, 2000). Any system of defining underachievement should include students whose classroom performance falls significantly below their standardized test performance. For gifted, exhibit superior scores on measures of achievement and who actual achievement is at least one standard deviation below their expected achievement level. In reality, the standardization of classroom grades may be neither feasible nor meaningful. May consider classroom grades, but must also be at least 1 standard deviation below as measured by a standardized achievement test. Grades are not standardized across different schools, different teachers. The student may be making failing grades but be at or above grade level achievement. A student may read extensively but fail to complete mundane homework assignments. Is this underachievement or a personal decision to use time wisely.

11 Identifying underachieving gifted
Special Populations Distinguish between a chronic underachiever and a gifted student who has processing deficits, learning disabilities or attention deficits. Interventions that are appropriate for these subgroups are radically different. High ability students can have learning problems or attention deficits of various types that affect or cause underachievement. Need to distinguish between a chronic underachiever and a gifted student who has processing deficits, learning disabilities, or attention deficits is crucial because the interventions that are appropriate for these subgroups are radically different. (Reis and McCloud, 2000)

12 Identifying underachieving gifted
The non-compliant The working-hard-at-being-different The challenging-authority The angry/discouraged/frustrated The social/nonsocial The divergent “outside of the box” thinker The complex

13 Underlying causes Social Factors Culturally Diverse Family Dynamics Instructional/School Factors

14 Underlying causes Social Factors Peer influences?
Socio-economic factors? (Not an “achievement environment”) Gender? The only thing a child can control? Few professional jobs that require higher education in the area.

15 Underlying Causes Individual Factors Problems with competition?
Passive resistance? Hypersensitivity/intensity? Low cause/effect ability? Inability to delay gratification? Low self-esteem? Dominant or dependent personality? Developmental arrest? (leading to internal conflict) Early power and attention (the only thing he/she can control?) Perfectionism? (Yes, perfectionism) Hypersensitivity – To developmental transitions To family transitions (moves, other events) Response to stress To grief/loss - depression Changing relationships Response to classroom, teachers, curriculum, justice/fairness, cruelty to others Dominant personality – If can’t be the best, dominant over others, then don’t even try or belittle the activity. Dependent personality – Always someone else’s fault.

16 Underlying causes Family Factors Lack of home enrichment
No educational values Anti-school attitude   Do not value education.

17 Underlying causes Family Factors Economic pressure Parental depression
Parenting behavior Disruptive events Parental attitudes toward work, school (models) Trust issues Negative messages Family Tension Upset hierarchy Substance abuse Indifference Health Issues Conflict

18 Underlying causes The Function for the Child
Helps a peripheral parent to be involved Represents loyalty to someone Distracts parents fighting w/each other or contributes to the fighting Can help to unify parents to work with each other Can communicate distress about a transition or event or circumstance Can help to involve outside help/open up a “closed” family by engaging others The child becomes a handy “other” for family to focus on.

19 Underlying causes Family Factors: The “Family Dance”
The "peripheral parent"-allies with child   Parent(s) live(s) through the child   Parent hostile to the child who "mirrors" them   Parent protects child against "ogre"   Parent threatened by "achievement"   Parents model anti-school attitudes   "Achievement" theme dominates family    Parents' success "paralyzes" child High expectations generate rebellion    The peripheral parent allies with the child to become involved or not involved. Parents model emotional distance. Cannot give emotional support. Finally, when the child is old enough, the child may realize that their underachievement was a symptom of parental issues, but by then it may be too late. The damage was done. Through counseling, the child may be helped to realize the function of his underachievement.

20 Underlying causes Culturally Diverse Achievement defined differently
Attitude-achievement paradox Minority language background Different value systems Low expectations Inequity in educational opportunities Intimidated by majority culture Sometimes an attitude achievement paradox; they report positive attitudes toward education, yet they evidence poor academic achievement; low expectations for themselves.

21 Underlying causes School Factors If no "environment for learning“
If low expectations   If no differentiation (interests/abilities)   If no support for special needs of child If no support for teacher  If teacher hostile or indifferent   If focus is on weaknesses   If curriculum inappropriate   If experiences negative   If inflexible methods   If poor rapport with parent(s) 

22 Two categories: Interventions Counseling Instructional
Research on effective intervention models remains scarce. Although there have been many case studies and articles, few actually use an experimental design. This may be because there would be ethical issues in using a control group and withhold treatment that would be valuable for underachieving gifted students. Interventions aimed at reversing gifted underachievement fall into two general categories: counseling and instructional interventions (Reis and McCloud, 2000)

23 Counseling Interventions
Goal is to help the student decide whether achievement is a desirable goal. If so, then help reverse counterproductive habits and cognitions.

24 What to Avoid Giving advice "That's nothing to be upset about."
"Fixing" them   Giving advice   "That's nothing to be upset about."   "You have no reason to feel that."   "Don't you think it would be better if..."   "When I was your age..."   "Rescuing" them   Ignoring them   Being angry at their underachievement   Being overly invested in their achievement   Being so invested in them emotionally that the ability to help, affirm them is lost  

25 Counseling Underachievers
Helping them become "unstuck"   Not judging, criticizing   Focusing on strengths, reframing   Helping them "make sense" of themselves, their situation   Helping them "live more effectively"   Working on empowerment   Helping them "be selfish" in the system   Standing beside them  

26 Counseling Underachievers
Change family communication   Alter family roles   Help parents understand self, child   Create an appropriate hierarchy   Clarify personal boundaries   Help strengthen family leadership   "Be selfish-get what you need from the system."  

27 Counseling Underachievers
Help family adjust to change   Help all members feel heard, affirmed   Help all members affirm strengths   Raise awareness of parental messages   Help parents "give permission" to achieve   Identify parent vs. child needs   Raise awareness of developmental issues Normalize family transitions Empower the underachiever-in new ways  

28 Counseling   Parent and teachers together “can adjust home and school environments to compensate for social impacts and can thus foster achievement within their children.” Sylvia B. Rimm, Ph.D. Underachievement Syndrome Causes and Cures (1995) Why Gifted Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It (2008) Great Potential Press A parent or teacher alone is likely to have little effect on the overall societal conditions, but together…they can adjust home and school environments…and can thus foster achievement within their children.

29 Counseling Underachievers
What can parents and educators do? Don’t rescue the child from a challenge. Instead support him/her. Help find and support interests outside of school as well as in school that motivate and develop a work ethic. Advocate for continuous progress and excellence at various levels of decision–making. Julia Roberts The first step is to support the child if she finds that a rigorous class takes hard work and time. Do not rescue a child from the challenge but support her in successfully reaching high academic standards. Help a child find interests in and outside of school and then encourage those interests. Deep interests and passions motivate young learners and promote lifelong learning. Advocate for continuous progress and excellence at various levels of decision-making at school and district levels. No one reaches excellence without hard work and persistence.

Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D.   Purdue University    

31 Counseling GIFTED underachievers
WHAT TO BE ALERT TO * Depression   * Suicidal ideation ("Should I worry about you--that you'll hurt yourself?")   * Thoughts of violence   * Our own feelings about achievement   * Responding only with a punitive approach   * Having only a simplistic view of a very complex, idiosyncratic phenomenon   * Questioning whether they are "gifted" (teacher, child, counselor, parent)  

INITIALLY… *Alert to, but not preoccupied with, pathology   *Active listening, reflecting; credible feedback   *Collaborative--client active   *Alert to themes, patterns, strengths, personal resources   *"Make sense" of emotions   *Here-and-now focus  

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING “KNOWN” and APPRECIATED As a child, adolescent   As a complex individual   As more than "achiever," "underachiever"   As a son, daughter   As worth the attention   As having intelligence  

34 Counseling GIFTED underachievers
REFRAMING PROBLEMS "It took hard work to get our (or someone else's) attention."   "You're a survivor." "You were smart enough to talk to someone." "You had the courage not to achieve." "Underneath you were very concerned about your parents." "It makes sense that you learned to manipulate people."  

FORMULATING AN APPROACH *Specific problem to be solved?   (Brief, solution-focused approach)   *Multi-modal? (longer involvement)   *Goal: More effective living  

FORMULATING A TREATMENT PLAN If brief, solution-focused: relationship is important. Ask "Miracle-question" early. “What would your life look like…?”  Explore how client could make problem bigger/smaller; ask who will notice change. Invite client to determine one small, concrete, feasible step toward more effective living (i.e., lessening the problem) and a definite time to make the step.  

determine whether individual only or individual and family   determine whether brief, solution-focused   *If long term:   collaboratively prioritize presenting issues, probably first working with the one with the best prospects of change or the one most critical to well-being

38 COUNSELing gifted underachievers
COUNSELOR ATTITUDES/BIASES *Self-reflecting re: biases, attitudes, & stereotypes related to giftedness *Being able to be poised, comfortable, and secure when working with gifted persons *Being able to refrain from "putting them in their place" or one-upping them with humor or expertise *Recognizing that gifted individuals may feel inept, inferior, uncomfortable--as well as guilty about gifts, power, attention.  

39 Counseling Underachievers
Recognize/Affirm Resilience to Foster Hope   Good problem-solving skills   An ability to gain attention from others   An optimistic view of their experiences   A positive vision of a meaningful life     A proactive perspective   Role models outside of the home--"buffers"   Positive self-concept   Don't blame self for family problems   Don't feel responsibility for fixing family   Social support   Intelligence  

40 Instructional Interventions
Part-time or full-time special classrooms for gifted Smaller student/teacher ratios Less conventional teaching strategies/ learning activities Affective education Most well known educational interventions for gifted student have established either part-time or full-time special classrooms for gifted underachievers. In these classrooms, educators strive to create a favorable environment for student achievement by altering the traditional classroom organization. Usually, a smaller student/teacher ratio exists, teachers create less-conventional types of teaching and learning activities, teachers give students some choice and freedom in exercising control over their atmosphere, and students are encouraged to utilize different learning strategies.

41 Students who achieve A’s based on what they have already learned are gaining daily practice in underachievement. Linda Silverman, “Do Gifted Students Have Special Needs? Julia Roberts (The Challenge, Summer 2008) Kentucky Why should a parent or educator care or be concerned as long as a child makes good grades even if challenged is absent from the picture? Underachievement sets in early when children are allowed to acquire high grades with little effort. To complicate the situation, underachievement is difficult to reverse. The first level of academic success is equated with “easy.” In fact, one danger is that the child with a history of good grades for easy work will doubt his ability when school work is not easy and effort is required. An individual’s definition of academic success will shape what she does in school and the academic goals that she sets - likely, transferring to many other aspects of her life. If a particular definition for academic success is “good enough now” will it be tomorrow?

42 Instructional Interventions More parental involvement Specific teacher
Curriculum changes Opportunities to pursue of topics of interest Involvement in extracurricular activities Rimm says that without parental support, unlikely that teachers will affect change.

43 Interventions - Instructional
Renzulli’s Enrichment Projects 5 Features: Relationship with the teacher Use of self-regulation strategies Opportunity to investigate topics related to underachievement Opportunity to work on an area of interest in a preferred learning style Time to interact with an appropriate peer group Curriculum Compacting Using Renzulli’s Type III Enrichment Projects, investigations showed some positive gains in either behavior or achievement during the course of the school year. 11 of the 17 participants showed improved achievement; 13 of the 17 students appeared to exert more effort within their classes; and 4 of the 17 students showed marked improvement in their classroom behavior. Curriculum compacting lets students get credit for knowledge and skills and buys time to pursue more challenging content or interest-based enrichment opportunities rather than more of the same.

*Discussion Group   for inclusion, support, comfort in school   * Sending messages of strength:   "You'll do what you need to when you're ready" (i.e., development!)   "You'll figure out how to get what you need."   "You have courage."   "You are a sensitive person."   " You're working at figuring out who you are---early!"   *Avoiding messages re:"defective"   *Resisting the urge to "fix" them   *Affirming them as they are   *Achievement not the most outstanding aspect   *Nonjudgmental   Renzulli also included affective instruction in his Enrichment Projects.

45 Interventions MOTIVATION
Extrinsic - Values the reward or outcome; not the activity itself. Intrinsic – Enjoys the activity itself. Neither too easy nor too difficult. (Computer games) Self-confidence – Believes that he/she has the skills to be successful. Safety – Trusts the environment. Expects to be able to achieve in it. The student values the outcome. It may be the grade. It may be that the student sees the utility of the task that is integral to his vision of the future. Help the student to see beyond the immediate activity to the long-term benefits it produces. Be able to answer the common question “Why do we have to study this?” In planning lessons, think about the Big Idea and Essential Questions that will be answered by the lessons or unit. Help students set short- and long-term goals. For younger children-short-term goals. For older students, long-term goals such as college scholarship, acceptance into a prestigious university, or a rewarding occupation. Help them to set short-term attainable goals and reward themselves once those goals are completed. Help student learn self-monitoring skills. Practice delayed gratification. As soon as I complete this homework, I will watch TV. Do the less preferred activity before the preferred activity. Example, doesn’t like to write, but likes to develop a photo story-board. Divide large tasks into small tasks and recognize performance at each step. Help set realistic expectations. Invite parents, community members into class to share how they have used various skills that they learned in school. Learn about the student’s interests and integrate into instruction whenever possible. Whenever possible, offer choices in how they learn and show mastery of the material. Plan activities that are just above the student’s skill range. One reason computer games are popular is that there is immediate feedback. Build opportunities for immediate feedback Help them to recognize past accomplishments. Success breeds success. Videotape students as they are engaged in school work. Periodically review the recordings to help the students realize how much they have improved. Keep samples of previous academic work and periodically review to show growth and improvement. Student portfolios promote this sort of self-reflection. (WebTop – Need for present-levels) Help them to chart progress.

46 Motivation Tips Interventions Compliment the skill
Compliment specifics Be genuine in compliments A general compliment, such as “Good work,” does not tell the student anything. It does not let the student know what skill they displayed. Specifics such as “ You have learned to provide very good supporting sentences for the topic sentence in your paragraphs.” Or “Your beginning sentence really grabs the reader.” Be genuine. No undue praise. This diminishes trust.

47 Environment Interventions
Performance orientation – innate abilities Mastery orientation - acquired abilities Dweck (1999) found that students in elementary gravitate to one or the other orientation. Performance orientation. Students who believe that abilities are innate. That abilities are fixed. They view any mistake as evidence that they lack ability. Gifted students often develop a performance orientation. They believe that gifted is innate, and they had very little to do with their giftedness. They may have taught themselves to read or learned to read easily at an early age, but they still learned to read. Gifted students need to realize that the talents they possess are acquired that that they are capable of further developing these talents. In fact, some of these students may view peers who work hard at school as less intelligent. Mastery orientation. Student who believe that abilities are acquired. That they can improve their existing skills. More likely to tackle difficult tasks. Gifted student need to realize that the skills they possess are acquired and that they are capable of further developing these talents. Fine line to walk. The balancing factor is to acknowledge ability while recognizing that effort went into its development. Balance between acknowledging ability while recognizing that effort went into its development.

48 Environment Interventions Friendly intellectual environment
Engaging instruction Fair system Some teachers are threatened by the presence of gifted students in the classroom. The teacher must be involved in the process. If the teacher being asked to change is not involved in the process, then there is little that you can do to effect change in the environment. Student complaints such as “The teacher doesn’t understand” should be heeded. They may or may not be accurate. If they are, then try to change the environment. If not, help the student understand their misperception. If the problem is at home, the parents must be involved in the process. If no parent involvement or support, there is little a teacher can do to achieve change. Cultural and economic factors may limit students’ opportunities. Students’ perceptions about the “system” or society in general may affect their motivation. Discuss with students the obstacles they believe are keeping them from doing well and what options exists. What is in the student’s control and what is beyond his/her control. Teach about different viewpoints and different perspectives. Sometimes just listening to their concerns may help resolve their issues.

* Is academic achievement the most important thing?   * What do we tell parents, teachers, and coaches who are wringing their hands over an underachiever?   * How can we explain that the phenomenon is so idiosyncratic and complex that a single approach or intervention is not likely to be effective?   * How can we apply an appropriately systemic perspective?   * How can we convey respect? Non-judgment?

* How can we be embrace underachievers in programs?   * How can we stop "being like every other adult" in how we approach non-performing gifted kids?   * How can we avoid predicting the future on the basis of one developmental stage?

51 COnclusions Need for clear, precise definition of gifted underachievement. Further research and inquiry into interventions. 

52 Sources *Reis, S. and McCoach, D.B.; The Underachievement of Gifted Students: What Do We Know and Where Do We Go? National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), Gifted Child Quarterly Summer 2000 Vol. 44, No. 3, pp *Rimm, Sylvia B. “Underachievement Syndrome: Causes and Cures.” Apple Publishing Company. Sixth Printing, April (2008 now available at Great Potential Press.)

53 Sources *Roberts, Julia (2008, Summer) Multiple Ways to Define Academic Success: What Resonates With You? The Challenge, 21, *Peterson, Jean Sunde, Ph.D. Responding To Underachievement 2007 NAGC Convention, CD-ROM, Purdue University  

54 Sources *Seeley, K.: Gifted Talented Students at Risk. Focus On Exceptional Children, Vol. 37, N0. 4, December   *Siegle, D. and McCoach, D. B. “Making a Difference: Motivating Gifted Students Who Are Achieving” TEACHING Exceptional Children, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp Copyright 2005 CEC.

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