Underachievement Among Gifted Learners: An Interview with Dr. Nielsen Pereira and Ophélie Desmet

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Underachievement Among Gifted Learners: An Interview with Dr. Nielsen Pereira and Ophélie DesmetRecently, I had the honor of speaking at the National Association for Gifted Children’s 66th annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During the three-day event, experts from around the country and world came together to share the best and newest ideas in the education of gifted, talented, and advanced learners.

During the convention, I had the pleasure of meeting new friends, as well as connecting with some of my long-time colleagues in the field of gifted education. One of my friends, Dr. Nielsen Pereira, told me of a fascinating study he is undertaking with doctoral candidate Ophélie Desmet regarding underachievement among gifted learners. I sat down with Dr. Pereira and Ms. Desmet to share their study.

R$: Tell me about your study and its significance to forwarding the education of gifted children.

Pereira and Desmet: In this multiphase, mixed-methods study, our goal was to (a) investigate how gifted underachievers differ from gifted achievers in their attitudes toward school, attitudes toward teachers, motivation, academic self-perceptions, and goal valuation; (b) investigate how students’ school attitudes and self-identification as gifted and/or underachieving relate to how they define and perceive underachievement; (c) understand why students underachieve, how they experience underachievement, and what contributes to the development of underachievement; and (d) create and evaluate an intervention to help students increase their academic achievement and achievement motivation.

So far, we have collected survey data to explore students’ attitudes toward school and how students define underachievement, interviewed students who identified as underachievers and their parents to gain in-depth understanding of how students experience underachievement, and piloted an intervention—the Achievement Motivation Enhancement (AME) model—in a summer camp for gifted and talented students.

Based on the data collected in the summer camp, we modified the AME intervention for implementation in a middle school and will start collecting data to evaluate how students respond to the model and how participation in the AME sessions affects student academic achievement, engagement, self-regulation, and attitudes toward school. We have received funding from the American Psychological Foundation (Esther Katz Rosen Fund) and the National Association for Gifted Children (Hollingworth Award) to complete this work.

R$: What are your findings so far?

Pereira and Desmet: In our multiple-narrative inquiry, we examined the narratives of four underachieving gifted girls to identify aspects that appear to have contributed to the onset, development, and resolution of academic underachievement. We found that academic achievement was disrupted when the participants experienced a sudden increase in curricular demands when transitioning to middle or high school. Participants’ negative self-perceptions, lack of learning skills, and negative relationships with teachers commonly contributed to the maintenance of the underachievement. Finally, the underachievement began to resolve when the girls had a clear goal in mind, which for three of them was being accepted to college.

In our intervention study, we are evaluating the implementation of an affective curriculum, the AME model, that fits the themes we have identified in the multiple narrative inquiry. The AME model includes exercises and small-group discussions on topics such as enhancing achievement motivation, stimulating self-regulation skills, effective learning, and goal setting. Preliminary findings indicate positive results for most students, such as small increases in academic self-efficacy, attitudes toward school, and goal valuation.

R$: What do you hope educators of the gifted can take away from your studies so far?

Pereira and Desmet: Our goal is to validate a low-cost intervention with a potentially high return on investment for students and educators. Through the evaluation of the AME curriculum, we have gained insight into the educational experiences of students with high potential who are currently academically underachieving. We have an increased understanding of what can contribute to the resolution of underachievement as well. We hope teachers take away the importance of focusing on affective support as well as academic support for underachieving students. It is our goal to share this affective curriculum widely once we have completed our study.

In the next five years, with funding from the US Department of Education (The Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program), we plan to continue this line of research by implementing a schoolwide version of our model, the Extended Achievement Motivation Enhancement (AME+) model . The AME+ model combines principles of the Schoolwide Enrichment Model and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support to promote talent development for all students through investing in both domain-specific and affective skills and knowledge through a continuum of instruction and support.

R$: I look forward to hearing more about the outcomes of this study! Thank you, Dr. Pereira and Ms. Desmet, for your contribution to the education and understanding of gifted, talented, and advanced learners! To learn more about Dr. Nielsen Pereira and his research, go here.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

Differentiation For Gifted Learners

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