Creative Underachievers: Children Who Are Too out of the Box

By Rimm, Sylvia | Parenting for High Potential, March/April 2015 | Go to article overview

Creative Underachievers: Children Who Are Too out of the Box


Rimm, Sylvia, Parenting for High Potential


Educators in the field of gifted education attempt to not only accelerate curriculum for their students, but also to encourage and expand their critical and creative thinking. They often explain this creative approach to students as out-of-the-box thinking. The box is an effective analogy to help children understand how to shifttheir thinking and learning styles toward taking initiative and becoming more original, questioning, and imaginative.

As a psychologist who specializes in gifted children, I sometimes work with students who do indeed enjoy learning and working out of the box, but struggle with in-the-box assignments, even when they are at appropriate challenge levels. They say things like, "I would enjoy math if 6 plus 4 could equal something different each time, but we always have to put down the same exact answer. It's boring." These children often have uneven abilities,1 so that while they may enjoy talking, they prefer to write little, and specifically find repetitive study unpleasant, even when it is helpful for their mastery of information. Many children underachieve in school.2

Underachieving children are not always creative, and creative children are not always underachievers. However, an alarming number of highly creative children do not achieve to their abilities in school. Parents of those highly creative children frequently conclude with a certain amount of pride that "their children have always seemed to march to the beat of different drummers."3

What Parents and Teachers Can Do to Help Creative Underachievers

Ideal home and school environments that foster both creativity and achievement include parents and teachers who value creativity within the limits of reasonable conformity. Children are praised and encouraged to work hard, but also for their unusual and critical thinking and production. The creative thinking does not become a device or a manipulation for avoidance of academic or home responsibilities, even when they are not as exciting. If, in any way, creativity takes on a ritualized position of regularly avoiding parents' requirements or the school's expectations, creativity becomes used as "an easy way out" for avoidance of responsibility and achievement. Here are some recommendations for parents and teachers for the prevention and reversal of underachievement in creative children: 4

* As a parent, don't, if at all possible, ally with children against a parent or teacher in the name of creativity. Parents should communicate their concerns to the other parent or the teacher, but it must be done respectfully so the children are not overempowered to avoid home or school expectations.

* Encourage creative children to be productively engaged in at least one area of creative expression, and help them to find audiences for their performances. 5 Children that are happily and productively involved in creative areas are less likely to use their energy to fight authority. Whether their choice of creative expression is art, drama, music, or science, a creative outlet frees them of some of their internalized pressures to be nonconformists in other areas.

* Be sure not to permit children to use their creative outlet as a means of evading academic assignments. Demanding music practice or impending art show deadlines are reasons for flexibility in academic requirements but not excuses for avoidance of responsibility.

* Don't label one child in the family "the creative child." It causes that child to feel pressured to be most creative and causes other siblings to believe that creativity is not possible for them at all.

* Find appropriate models and mentors in areas of children's creativity.6 Creative children, particularly in adolescence, too easily discover inappropriate models that may also be creative underachievers. Appropriate models should share their creative talent area, but must also give messages of responsibility, self-discipline, hard work, and reasonable conformity. …

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