Academic journal article Journal of Secondary Gifted Education

A Longitudinal Study of Post-High-School Development in Gifted Individuals at Risk for Poor Educational Outcomes

Academic journal article Journal of Secondary Gifted Education

A Longitudinal Study of Post-High-School Development in Gifted Individuals at Risk for Poor Educational Outcomes

Article excerpt

Fourteen gifted late adolescents, considered at risk for poor educational outcomes because of underachievement, depression, or family situation, participated in a 4-year qualitative longitudinal study focusing on 4 developmental tasks: gaining autonomy, becoming differentiated, establishing career direction, and developing a mature relationship. The process of resolving conflict with parents generated the largest portion of narrative data. The majority of participants still lacked direction and a mature relationship at the end of the study, but most respondents had resolved conflict, felt autonomous, and reported good emotional health. Multiple task accomplishments were associated with being able to concentrate on academics.


Moving from adolescence to adulthood involves detaching from parents, finding career direction, achieving autonomy, and developing a mature relationship, among several processes described by developmental theorists (e.g., Chickering, 1969; Erikson, 1968; Havighurst, 1972; Levinson, 1986, 1996). Exceptional ability does not exempt individuals from struggles associated with accomplishing these tasks. In fact, heightened sensitivity, which has been associated with high ability (Dabrowski, 1964; Lovecky, 1992; Tucker & Hafenstein, 1997), may make "uncontrollable" developmental transitions uniquely challenging for the highly able (Rakow, 1989). Difficult developmental transitions may in turn place such individuals at risk for poor post-high-school academic performance.

This 4-year longitudinal study explored developmental processes in gifted individuals who were at risk for poor educational outcomes. Their difficulties were generally not obvious. Their behavior was not disruptive, their demeanor was pleasant, and their anxieties were usually not shared with school personnel. Their risk factors--underachievement, depression, a high level of family conflict, or an otherwise difficult family situation--are not typically cited in the literature concerning risk for adolescent school dropout (which typically cites absenteeism, school behavior problems, delinquency, and pregnancy), although the criteria used here may be associated with those. In some cases, these individuals were not only at risk for not reaching their educational potential, but some were also at risk for not surviving young adulthood.

The focus of this study was the subjective experience of their post-high-school development, an area that has rarely been addressed in gifted-education, at-risk, or family-development literature. Other literature has, however, given attention to differentiation, indecision, identity exploration, and conflict with parents, areas that are related to the four developmental tasks of interest here.


Differentiation is a process related to maturation and self-definition, to gaining objectivity about self and environment and clarity about personal values and goals, and to "taking maximum responsibility for one's own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context" (Friedman, 1991, P. 141). For Bowen (1978), differentiation was not the same as separation/individuation, the latter being a goal to be achieved, rather than a process.

Identity. Identity is a complex notion, essentially answering the question "Who am I?" Identity development involves questioning in fundamental areas such as future occupation, sexuality; and religious and political ideas and eventually developing feelings of rootedness, confidence, and sense of purpose. The end of adolescence does not necessarily mean the end of identity development (Blasi & Glodis, 1995). Regarding the self-definition component of differentiation mentioned above, the period of active exploration of identity, or "identity crisis," is likely to be pronounced in persons with high ability (Erikson, 1968). Superior cognitive complexity and integration have also been connected to both having and being able to resolve identity deficit, the latter through making commitments (Slugowski, Marcia, & Koopman, 1984). …

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