Affective Development of Gifted Students with Nontraditional Talents

By Richard Olenchak.

Manuscript submitted February, 1997. Revision accepted February, 1998.


Conceptualization of under-achievement continues to be as muddied as any phenomenon among gifted students; some even doubt its existence. However, there is general agreement among professionals that underachievement among gifted youngsters represents a significant discrepancy between a student’s school performance and some index of ability (Rimm, 1986). While underachievement among gifted youth is most frequently defined academically, the notion of underachievement must also extend to youngsters who fail to operate at a level commensurate with indicators of superior ability in any area of human pursuit. As eminence can occur within any of the realms of intelligence, underachievement or accomplishment disparate from indicators of ability, can similarly emerge in all aspects of human capacity. Yet, aside from studies of stress factors among artistically gifted young people (e.g., Kogan, 1995) and of blocks diminishing effectiveness among the creatively talented (e.g., Davis, 1992), there is little inquiry about under-achievement aside from that which is academic.


Regardless of its context, under-achievement eventually produces the same outcomes for gifted young people who experience it. Eventually, gifted underachievers, due to a cycle of disappointments, are placed at risk of self-doubt. A continuing spiral of failure faces even those gifted youngsters who have experienced years of tremendous accomplishment prior to their under-achievement; negative feelings about self-worth, doubts about self-efficacy, and questions about identity exacerbate the deteriorating situation. Underachievement interferes with sound affective development, yet social/emotional foundations likely are as critical to accomplishment as talent alone. For instance, the predictive value of the construct of hope (the social/emotional opposite of the pessimism that usually results from underachievement) has been demonstrated statistically by Snyder (1994). Snyder summarized the powerful influence human feelings have on achievement among otherwise talented people:


“…high hope may assure people of some success in reaching goals; high intelligence or a record of achievement only gives them a chance” (p. 24).


Differing Underachievement Patterns Based on Type of Giftedness When considering a broader conception of underachievement, allowing for discordant performance and ability in a wide range of gifts and talents, the purported precision in identification of underachieving gifted students all but disappears. In the academic domain, identification procedures usually compare student academic ability (often using IQ test scores) with academic achievement (often using standardized achievement test scores). Where significant discrepancies are noted, under-achievement has been diagnosed in spite of the limitations of such an overly simplified operational definition (Delisle, 1992). While the causes for such discrepancies remain undetermined pending more research, traditional identification processes are based largely on psychometric results.


Given the increasing research, however, supporting a multiplicity of abilities beyond those potentials that can currently be measured psychometrically, the issue of under-achievement has become more complicated than simply using test discrepancy formulae. To employ test scores to identify underachievement among students who possess significant spatial giftedness or interpersonal talent – both of which are distinct from the kinds of giftedness usually identified and served by schools – is as inappropriate as using IQ cut scores for placement of students in intelligence domain-specific programs (Ramos-Ford & Gardner, 1997). In the few schools that have implemented programs aimed at identifying and serving nontraditional giftedness (beyond the general academic or athletic varieties), comprehensive qualitative studies of pupils help to determine talent; feasibly, identification of under-achievement and its possible causes can employ the same ethnographic processes. Even in academic-only gifted programs, school attempts have increased in the collection of more detailed data than revealed by tests results alone, as these data have proved useful for placement and programming.


Consequently, professionals are confronted with the task of making educational judgments based largely on observable behaviors that usually cannot be measured empirically. The dilemma arises when professionals attempt to isolate behaviors and collections of behaviors to diagnose student needs. To wit, while giftedness of the more typical ilk addressed by schools (academic, intellectual, athletic) tends to have its own set of identifying characteristics (Silverman, 1993), behaviors associated with nontraditional talents are not necessarily as discrete.


By way of illustration, confusion of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with giftedness and creativity has emerged as a concern (Baum, Olenchak, & Owen, 1995; Cramond, 1994). Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) delineates ostensibly precise circumstances and traits for determining which individuals have ADHD, these same descriptors signal several other student populations: highly gifted youth who are unchallenged in school (Kearney, 1989; Silverman, 1989); creative youngsters who find few outlets in which to demonstrate their creativity (Cramond, 1994); academically talented pupils who have learning problems (Baum & Owen, 1988; Olenchak, 1995); gifted and talented young people who are culturally diverse and/or those from impoverished socioeconomic situations (Ford & Harris, 1991; Griffin, 1992); and youths who have gifts that remain unserved or underserved by the schools in which they are enrolled (Baum, Olenchak, & Owen, 1995; Vaughn, Feldhusen, & Asher, 1991).


In a recent study, a list of 18 social and emotional, 5 physical, and 10 academic characteristics was distributed to 285 teachers, counselors, and psychologists; participants were asked to attribute each characteristic to ADHD, giftedness, both, or neither (Kardaras, 1996). It was found that a small number of characteristics (11 of 33) were isolated and attributed only to ADHD or only to giftedness or to neither. Two-thirds of the characteristics were identified with both ADHD and giftedness. Kardaras also found no significant differences between professions in how they attributed characteristics. More critically, she concluded that significant training is critical for educators and other professionals before they can discriminate characteristics and attribute them accurately. Therefore, it is appropriate to conclude that the business of identification of giftedness, underachievement, or any other human need via behavioral manifestations is, at best, complex and, at worst, inaccurate.


If professionals have difficulty discerning characteristics of giftedness from those of ADHD, imagine the quandary when identification systems must account not only for talents aside from those schools serve but also for underachievement! Though Kardaras’ study did not examine underachievement specifically, all of the 33 characteristics included in her survey have been previously ascribed to under-achievers and particularly to under-achievers who are also gifted (Rimm, 1986). Such descriptors as “low self-esteem and unhealthy self-concept,” “inferiority feelings,” “unrealistic standards and goals,” “inability to sit still when situations demand,” “somatic complaints,” “lack of academic initiative,” “disinterest in competitive activities,” and “schoolwork consistently incomplete” appear in lists of characteristics often employed in the identification of underachieving gifted students.


Consequently, underachievement among gifted students, like giftedness and underachievement separately, is not a clearly defined construct. Although research results have shown that various intervention approaches are successful for transforming underachievement among gifted students into success, few generalizations can be applied across the domains of multiple intelligences (Delisle, 1992; Emerick, 1989, 1992; Rimm, 1986). One of the few research results that appears generalizable is the need for underachieving gifted youth to adjust their attitudes about their own abilities so that a more optimistic, hopeful affective realm develops (Olenchak, 1995; Silverman, 1991; Whitmore, 1980).


Differing Affective Development Based on Type of Giftedness The affective development of all gifted students has been profiled by a number of researchers. Silverman (1997) describes the social and emotional development of gifted children as asynchronous, or usually age-appropriate as compared with their advanced intellectual skills. Others conclude that gifted students often demonstrate their superior cognitive skills at an early age, yet affective development often remains comparable to or even occasionally behind that of their age mates (Jackson & Klein, 1997; Tannenbaum, 1992; Wright, 1990). However, these previous studies focused on students judged to be gifted according to traditional intellectual, academic definitions. What about the social and emotional aspects of students whose talents are less traditional in nature?