The perceived rejection of knowledge and authority is seen as rejection of the school, and, typically, the student is punished - by low grades, diminished and negative expectations (Whitmore and Maker, 1980). Other punishment might include behavioral restrictions, and, potentially, placement in special education classes, grade retention, suspension, or expulsion. (Holt, 1969; Plucker and McIntire, 1995) These systemic responses are designed to correct the behavior by showing the student the error of his/her ways. Unfortunately, not only does the punishment fail to teach the underachiever to change his/her behavior, but it also does not address the underlying causes of the behavior and therefore exacerbates an already threatening situation. (Seeley, 1993; Delisle, 1994)
Students who are punished for behavior which stems from their innate nature are likely to become sullen, angry and/or desperate. They are also likely to develop distrust the system that has treated them inappropriately. (Kos, 1993; Peabody, 1991) If, when you walked into a hospital emergency room with a fever of 103°, the doctors put you in a refrigerator and then, when your fever didn't go down, threw you out, would you crawl back inside to try again? If the same treatment were repeated, would you readily trust another doctor?
Effective teachers of underachievers frequently spend more time unteaching learned negative attitudes and behaviors than teaching academic subjects. (Supplee, 1990) Each student's issues vary, as one would expect, but these students tend to have two important characteristics in common. "A child can be pictured in the center of a field of forces all exerting pressure, from within and without, to shape a self-concept, self-esteem, and behavior." (Whitmore and Maker, 1985) Underachievers do not hold themselves in high regard. (Supplee, 1990) Through their behavior, they "announce" the underlying causes of their situation. It is left to us to learn to hear that announcement.
What would have happened if DC Comic's Superman had been raised by a less sensitive and aware person than Pa Kent? Picture Superman shuffling along the street, with his eyes shut and his hands in his pockets.
o He doesn't shake hands with people, because he would hurt them.
o He takes only small steps. Otherwise, he tends to leap the buildings in a single bound, and everyone makes fun of him.
o He claims to hear voices and sounds that no one else can, and it makes him seem and feel more than a little crazy.
o The worst of it is when he opens his eyes. Part of the time, he sees things others don't, or things he's not supposed to, and nobody will believe him. Once, when a teacher said, "Look at me, young man!" he opened his eyes and she burned. He tried to explain how it happened, but the police just ignored him, and tried to solve the mystery. He couldn't or wouldn't prove it, as he was too ashamed of what he'd done. He almost never opens his eyes, now.
Concept of Power
Any power can be used well or misused. The star quarterback and the neighborhood bully serve as easy examples of that. Less often discussed, and less well understood, are the ramifications of not identifying and therefore not nurturing the unplumbed power within the child. The trick, or, rather, the need, in working with gifted people with negative behaviors, is to identify the unnurtured ability. This is frequently the gateway to a program of helping that individual to change his or her life for the better.
vs. Positive View - Syndrome or Potential
The first is an easy question to respond to, at face value. Each of us knows from personal experience that when we feel good about something, or feel appreciated or respected, going forward is easier. Likewise, when we know that a problem we are having is a common issue, rather than a result of some "unique" inadequacy on our part, we feel a sense of relief.
Unfortunately, with negative behaviors it is more customary to seek a problem which causes the behavior. This leads to causal determinations such as attention deficit disorder, bi-polar disorder, hyperactivity, and suicidal tendencies. (Crow, 1978; Kos, 1993) This is not to suggest that such diagnoses are always wrong, but, rather, that the diagnosis is based on a symptom rather than the causal factors.
Whether such behavior is attributed to underlying chemical balances or psychological causes, the view is that the individual is flawed: "there is something wrong with you, but we can overcome it." This dictum serves as a relegation to second-class citizen status. To approach, instead, from the Power perspective tells the person: "there is nothing inherently wrong with you; you've just been inappropriately taught." There is then no stigma attached.
It feels a lot better to be taught to use an ability than it does to be taught to overcome or cover up a disability. "You could do extraordinary things!" "You could live a normal life." Which would you rather hear?
In examining the literature on giftedness, there is ample discussion and evidence concerning the sensitivities of gifted children, especially in their emotions. (Harms, 1947; Whitmore and Maker, 1985; NAGC, 1995) In recent years, there has been increasing awareness of physical sensitivities as well. (Gross, 1993) One theory seems to address the various components of this issue most effectively.
Kazamierz Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), which is a view of personal development, includes a component of five heightened potentials or sensitivities known as "Psychic Overexcitabilities" (OE): Psychomotor, Sensual, Imaginational, Intellectual, and Emotional.. These can go a long way toward explaining the roots of certain negative behaviors.As Michael Piechowski (1991) put it:
"(Dabrowski) took the intensity of (intellectually and
artistically gifted youths') emotions, sensitivity, and proneness to riding a
roller coaster of emotional extremes, as part
While there is another major components of TPD, the dynamisms, OE's are more central to the lives of these children, as they are at lower levels in their development. (Dabrowski, 1967; Jackson, 1999). The Overexcitabilities play "a fundamental role in the development of the dynamisms." (Dabrowski, 1996)
1. Jack was rocking in his chair again. No matter how often the teacher spoke to him, he wouldn't hold still. When she spoke sharply to him today, he slammed down his book, and ran out of the room. He didn't stop until he got home. He couldn't say why he ran - he just had to.
1. The Psychomotor OE is most often noted for its surplus of energy. Concomitant with that can be a pressure for action or acting out - especially under stress. Impulsive actions can frequently land one in trouble. The explanation of "I couldn't help it..." doesn't improve the situation.
2. The teacher asked Frank why he cut himself with the razor blades. Frank responded, "I was bored." The teacher persisted by noting that Frank could have done many things when he was bored. "Why cut yourself?" After some more discussion, Frank explained that it was the sensations that he received that prompted his cutting himself.
2. The Sensual OE can lead either to overindulgence of the senses of touch, taste, and/or smell, or to blocking out of or being overwhelmed by any sensual impact. The first type can be seen in some "fetishes," nymphomania, overeating, sniffing glue, or even injuring oneself. The second type may be represented by those who may find that classrooms are too noisy to think in, that television is impossible to pull away from, or that pictures may be too intense to look at without getting a headache.
3. Barry started avidly reading at an early age, and by the time he got to school he was reading books aimed at fourth and fifth grade students. It was easy to see why the teachers loved him. He was curious, analytical, and introspective. It was also easy to see that his age-mates didn't love him quite as much. He started getting into fights in the second grade, and while he said he didn't start them, his teachers were sure that he must be doing something to cause them, or he wouldn't be involved in so many.
3. While the intellectual OE may not directly include overt behaviors, endless curiosity, the refusal to break away from an activity, the insistence on getting answers to questions to which others see no relevance, and the moral thinking that frequently comes with this OE can give a child a reputation as a trouble-maker, and lead to other negative situations.
4. Meredith belonged to a wide spread inter-galactic religion, which required her to use her mental powers to kill anyone who challenged her. She had trouble making friends.
4. The Imaginational OE lends itself to ready misinterpretation. Isaac Bashevis Singer once noted: "When I was younger they called me a liar. Now they call me a writer." The concerns, dramatizations, and blendings of truth and fiction, which may abound with this ability, lead many a gifted youngster into the system's doghouse.
5. Mary had always been a moody child. The least bit of criticism or taunting would bring her to tears. Other students would be encouraged to tease her more, and nothing her teachers or parents did would stop either the teasing or her reactions. While she had always been an extremely good student, after she was placed in the special education program, as an emotionally disturbed child, she did less and less work, and, finally, stopped talking altogether.
5. Perhaps, the most difficult situations arise for the child with a strong emotional OE. Intense sensitivity can lead quickly to feelings of rejection, inadequacy, guilt, and loneliness. This is compounded by a combination of factors which arise regularly in almost any elementary school setting. In the classroom, the majority of the students must have their apparent needs met. This is pragmatic. An unfortunate ramification is that the sensitive child learns that he/she, as an individual, is not valued. While this may be a half-truth, it is a potentially devastating lesson. It is followed by the disapproval of the teacher and classmates for being too sensitive - which makes the seeming rejection even more real to the sensitive youngster.
Overexcitabilities are a result of heightened sensitivity. Heightened sensitivity leads to unease. (Tillier, 1998) Unease, if examined, might lead us to find areas of heightened sensitivity.
Unfortunately, tracing from "poor" behaviors to powers is rarely simple. Sometimes one needs to approach the mystery as a detective might, by looking for little clues. What are the most outrageous behaviors? What are the loudest arguments about? What sorts of situations does the student avoid, or seek out? Also, look at history - what positive anecdotes are told about early childhood? What kinds of adventures, discoveries, or misunderstandings were there? What sorts of things happen that seem out of the ordinary? These are some of the places to find missing, necessary clues.
"Even in the (dropout) group there are resources in talent that the school has completely ignored. Able students who should have been encouraged to prepare for positions of responsibility leave with no assurance that they will ever obtain training suited to their abilities. Adequate guidance has apparently been lacking for these students..." (Eckert and Marshall, 1939)
As teachers, our own perceptions come first. We must recognize that we are working with people whose development has been misguided, if guided at all. The kinds of behaviors which arise come not as a consequence of disability, but, rather, of unchanneled ability or power. By our recognition, we can help students to see that way, as well. The resulting increase in self-understanding and self-esteem can bring about a growth in their control and a decrease in their despair. (Kardaras, 1996) A most gratifying development for a teacher.
for Supervision and Curriculum Development (1988). Content of the curriculum.
Crow, G. A.
(1978). Children at risk: A handbook of
the signs and symptoms of early childhood difficulties.
K. (1967). Personality shaping through
K. (1996). Multilevelness of emotional
and instinctive functions.
Delisle, J. (1994). Dealing with the stereotype of underachievement. Gifted Child Today, 17(6), 20-21.
E. and Marshall, T. O. (1939). When
youth leave school - Report of the Regents' Inquiry.
(1983). Frames of mind: The theory of
(1993). Exceptionally gifted children.
(1947). The guidance of the superior child and the prodigy. in E. Harms (ed.)
Handbook of Child Guidance.
(1969). The Underachieving School.
(1999, May). Authentic Life: Three Headless Horsemen. Paper presented at the
Hollingworth Conference on Highly Gifted Children,
Kardaras, K. (1996). "Spiritual Emergency," The potential for emotional growth, and the case of "Ann Hedonia." Unpublished paper.
Maxwell, E. (1997). Private communication.
E. and Smith, B. O. (1978). Curriculum
development: Issues and insights.
Peabody, J. (1991). Origins of despair. Unpublished paper.
M. (1991). Emotional development and emotional giftedness. in N. Colangelo
and G. Davis (ed.) Handbook of gifted
Plucker, J. and McIntire, J. (in press). Academic survivability in high ability, middle school students. Gifted Child Quarterly.
(1986). Underachievement syndrome:
Causes and Cures.
(1993). Gifted students at risk. in L. Silverman (ed.) Counseling the gifted and talented.
(1992). Horace's school.
L. (1990). Reaching the underachiever:
Program strategy and design.
R. (1974). Teaching clever children
Tillier, W. (1998). Private communication.
J. and Maker, C. J. (1985). Intellectual
giftedness in disabled persons