Gifted Underachievers

Perhaps we should stop trying to put square pegs in round holes. Both parents and teachers feel very frustrated by intelligent students who do not perform in school. They assume that the kids are just plain lazy or that the school personnel are not trying hard enough. We label these students gifted underachievers. Instead of everyone casting blame, perhaps we should look at this dilemma in a different way.

I recently ran into the former teacher of one such student. Mrs. Dignan said that Thomas was obviously very smart and a nice boy, but was not a producer. Now in his early 30s, Thomas is working hard and has a good job. He didn’t have problems in school because he was lazy or because his teachers were not trying; instead, he had problems because he has a style of learning that cannot be readily taught. He was, and still is, extremely visual-spatial and learns through experimentation.

Rather than beat our heads against the wall trying to fit this type of student into an imperfect   system, we should consider alternatives. What is the young person interested in, academic or nonacademic? There are many valuable careers that do not use traditionally academic subjects. As a young person, Thomas’s interests were in computers, film (both watching and making), and individual sports. He loved it when his parents read to him, but he did not enjoy reading himself (unless it was fantasy). He learned to play the guitar and did quite well with it. He seemed to be born with the skill to draw well and combined this with a well-developed sense of humor to create cartoons. He enjoyed being with peers who were deep thinkers who were also creative.

Adults need to foster and value the interests of young people, even when can’t foresee where these interests might lead. Explore together career possibilities that use the strengths of each child.

While Thomas did not do well in school, he did finish high school and also spent a few years in college. After that, he moved in and out of jobs trying to find something that would fit his interests. Finally, in his mid-20s, he landed on just that. He got back into computers where he could use his strong visual-spatial and excellent problem solving skills. At first he built and maintained computer systems. Then he moved into management and started a few side businesses of his own related to computers. Thomas thrives on complex problems much as a lawyer would welcome the challenge of a court scene. He makes a good salary, has lots of friends, and is a very caring person.

Today, Thomas is certainly not an underachiever. In fact, he has achieved far more than many of his classmates who were excellent students. But Thomas is pretty much self-taught. In fact, looking back on the situation, there is probably no way that anyone could have taught him. His mind does just not respond to traditional school methods. He used to be a square peg who everyone was trying to fit into a round hole. If the adults in his life had just allowed him to be the square peg, life may have been a little easier as he was growing up.

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