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The Underachieving Gifted Child: Recognizing, Understanding, and Reversing Underachievement

reviewed by Kathy Hargrove - November 08, 2013

coverTitle: The Underachieving Gifted Child: Recognizing, Understanding, and Reversing Underachievement
Author(s): Del Siegle
Publisher: Prufrock Press, Austin
ISBN: 1593639562, Pages: 192, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

The title of Del Siegle’s new book, The Underachieving Gifted Child:  Recognizing, Understanding, and Reversing Underachievement, nicely summarizes the scope of this new volume published by Prufrock Press as one of CEC-TAG’s educational resources.  The series is edited by recognized experts in the field of gifted education--Cheryll M. Adams, Tracy L. Cross, Susan K. Johnsen, and Diane Montgomery, who along with Dr. Siegle add authority to the volume’s contents.   Relatively brief at about 175 pages, the book is organized into 12 chapters and a thorough and useful reference list.  

Chapters One, Two, and Three lay the groundwork for the book with brief discussions of the definition of giftedness (about which the field has yet to agree!).  Chapters Two and Thee focus on underachievement itself—what it is and the characteristics of underachievers.  Chapter Four lays the psychological foundations for underachievement, reviewing the “mindset” work of Carol Dweck as well as that of developmental educational psychologists Joseph Renzulli and Francois Gagné.  This is an especially important chapter, because here Siegle introduces the ideas of self-efficacy and the relationship of ability and effort and promotes the importance of this relationship. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of generic and domain-specific giftedness.  These ideas are set in the frame of discussions of how parents and teachers might discuss giftedness with young people.

Chapter Five addresses issues of unhealthy perfectionism, which often is a part of underachievement.  Siegle lays out a description of perfectionism with brief discussions of a number of perfectionist behaviors.  Following the descriptions, he outlines some factors that often contribute to the behavior as well as some possible solutions.  These suggestions focus on how parents and educators might help gifted young people develop healthy perceptions about not only their innate abilities but also about what they produce.

The work of Sylvia Rim and her Trifocal Model is the subject of Chapter Six.  The author points out that no book on underachievement would be complete without acknowledging and discussing Dr. Rimm’s contributions.  The chapter is a clear summary of her work that might be especially useful for those who are not familiar with her prolific publications and public appearances.  

Chapter Seven links the earlier chapters with the remainder of the book, which primarily focuses on specific strategies.  Titled “Achievement Orientation Model:  Students’ Beliefs That Regulate Their Motivation to Achieve,” in this chapter, the author asks why “some students achieve while other, equally talented students do not?” (p. 73).   He answers the question by presenting the “Achievement Orientation Model” that he and D. Betsey McCoach developed.  The model is grounded on the self-efficacy work of Bandura, the attribution theories of Weiner, the expectancy-value theory of Eccles, and the person-environment fit theory of Lewin.  The model suggests the importance of an individual’s having positive perceptions in three areas:  self-efficacy, meaningfulness, and environmental perception.  Taken together, these elements regulate motivation, and subsequently, achievement.  The chapter includes sections that elucidate each of the three areas above.

This introduction to the Siegle-McCoach model is followed by a chapter devoted entirely to a discussion of self-efficacy, its importance and its sources.   The second part of Chapter Eight includes specific suggestions and tips for increasing student confidence as well as healthy ways to recognize student growth.  Chapters Nine and Ten continue with detailed discussions of meaningfulness (Chapter Nine) and environmental perceptions (Chapter Ten).  To be effective learners, students need to perceive that they are receiving support from teachers, parents, and peers.  Siegle emphasizes the importance of relationship building; the chapter supports the importance of students’ believing that they are valued and that teachers want them to achieve.

Chapter Eleven makes specific suggestions on the development of self-regulation and study skills.  This chapter offers specific strategies for parents and teachers to encourage students not merely to study but to study effectively.  The final chapter, “Putting it All Together,” is a personal statement from Dr. Siegle about his experiences in the field of gifted education and his debt to some of the pioneers, and concludes with the “Gifted Children’s Bill of Rights” (p. 143).

Initially, Siegle points out several difficulties inherent in writing about and solving this problem.  First, there is no universally accepted definition of giftedness.  Second, there is disagreement about what constitutes underachievement.  He deals briefly with these issues, but he does not allow these uncertainties to stop him from pulling together the best ideas from the field.  In an early chapter, he deals with the idea of underachievement as discrepancy between “expected and actual performance,” (p. 9) or in classroom performance and achievement test scores.  Others have looked at discrepancy in terms of the difference in classroom performance and IQ scores, but Siegle selects achievement scores because he believes that achievement tests more closely parallel the work of the classroom.  High achievement scores indicate that the student is learning the material but not producing in the classroom.  Related to this idea, he provides very useful and understandable discussion about measuring expected achievement.  His explanations are clear and should be helpful to parents and others not familiar with numbers and statistical terms.

He also acknowledges that there is no universal set of characteristics shared by all underachievers and notes that this variability is one of the reasons that reversing underachievement is such a difficult task.    Educators may find his table “Types of Underachievers” a useful tool in identifying students and in locating research that might be helpful in working with them.  Chapter Three also briefly addresses some key issues surrounding underachievement:  gender, peers, and family dynamics.  Particularly strong points in the section on gender are his observations regarding females.  He notes that girls often display classroom behavior that is rewarded and that their underachieving behavior is likely to start later than that of boys.  However, their underachievement is often overlooked, and he advises educators to be especially vigilant toward bright girls who are doing only average work.  

Siegle first introduces Dweck’s ideas in Chapter Four, but they permeate the book.   Her “mindset theory” and the importance of students viewing their abilities as dynamic rather than fixed is an important premise because this mindset allows for stronger motivation, perseverance, and resiliency.  If parents and educators, as well as gifted students, can adopt this view, students will likely have more potential for growth, develop feelings of self-efficacy, and understand the importance of effort.  These themes are carried out in later chapters in which the author gives specific advice and techniques for educators, counselors, and parents on understanding the importance of effort.  In particular, Chapters Seven through Eleven offer specific advice and techniques for educators, counselors, and parents.

Siegle also discusses the idea of challenge—a buzzword today.  He reminds teachers of something that most are likely to have observed in gifted students—they don’t always enjoy or respond to challenge.  He helps the reader understand the difference between “challenge”—often perceived as just more work—and intellectual stimulation.  This point would almost pay the price of the book for any teacher who has struggled to provide curriculum and learning experiences that result in real growth in their gifted students.

Seen in total, this book sets out some of the difficulties inherent in the problem of underachievement and affirms the fact that to date, there is no single plan or strategy to prevent or reverse it.  However, as Siegle says in the introduction,

What we do know is that if nothing is done, many underachievers will not catch up after they leave high school.  The greater their underachievement, the less likely they will reverse it.  Students with high IQ scores and mediocre grades tend to produce in life what students with average IQ scores and mediocre grades produce.  In other words, their life accomplishments are more closely related to their grades than to their academic potential.  Their unexplored talents represent potential loss for society and for their own self-fulfillment. (p. 4)

Siegle’s work makes a contribution not only to the field of gifted education but also to general education.  Underachievement is a concern across a broad spectrum of students; it affects the average as well as the talented student.  While often surfacing in middle school, the roots of the problem are earlier.  And, unfortunately, underachievement can and does continue into high school and beyond.  He brings his wide experience as a teacher, administrator, and professor to the topic, but one of the strengths of the book is that he draws not only on his personal experiences but also accesses all the important work in this field.  In fact, if the book is useful for no other reason, it is that it provides an excellent source to the best and most recent research in the field.  Siegle himself has made significant contributions to the research in the field, but he doesn’t limit his discussion either to personal anecdotes—although there are some that add interest and readability to the book—or to his own work, but draws on the work of others.  Most of the more than 200 references are recent—from the 1990’s and beyond—but he has not neglected earlier giants in psychology, such as Shunk and Bandera as well as Whitmore and Gowan.   He emphasizes that there is no “silver bullet” that will solve underachievement for all students.  Rather he presents a variety of interventions that have proven successful with different students, and he addresses gender issues as well as issues of ethnicity and poverty.

This book provides a comprehensive overview of underachievement as well as many specific strategies for combating the problem.  It would make an excellent “book study” for teachers or, even better, for teachers and parents together.  If undergraduate courses permitted sufficient time, it could be used effectively there because of its broad approach.  Older students might benefit from “seeing themselves” in its pages.  Certainly it should find a place in professional libraries where teachers will have easy access to a volume likely to be useful to them.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 08, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17313, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 4:18:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Kathy Hargrove
    E-mail Author
    KATHY HARGROVE, Ph.D., has been an educator of the gifted for more than 30 years, serving as a classroom teacher and administrator of gifted programs. While on the faculty of the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at SMU she taught graduate courses in gifted education and served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. She received a Fulbright Fellowship to India in 2011-12, where she worked with teachers and students in schools in the north of India. She has served as president of the Texas Association of Gifted and Talented and has been a frequent lecturer and workshop leader as well as a member of the Editorial Board of Gifted Child Today and a regular contributor to the journal.
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