Bright Kid Acting Up, Underachieving or Shutting Down?

Jacqui Byrne
Is it a behavior problem – or an identity crisis?
Do you have a child who seems smart, yet is struggling at school? Maybe your child is refusing schoolwork – or even school itself. Maybe your child’s grades don’t seem to reflect their true abilities. Or maybe you’ve been getting calls from the school describing your child as disruptive, disrespectful, or careless.
When the adults in a child’s life see these kinds of behaviors, they may interpret it as defiance, laziness or perhaps hormones run amock. But there may be something else going on – especially if the student is intellectually gifted. (It’s not always obvious who is gifted, so if the description above resonated with you – keep reading!). 
During childhood, gifted kids become accustomed to having new skills come easily on the first try; thinking of themselves as the smart kid; being admired. And over time, this experience can become a deeply ingrained part of their sense of self – their internal understanding of “This is who I am.” 
But sometimes, a gifted student may also have a hidden challenge – such as a neurological, social-emotional or learning difference or disability. This is described as “twice-exceptional,” or “2e.”

And as these kids advance through school, sometimes things can start to shift. Demands increase. There’s more to manage independently. And subjects become too complex to grasp on the first try. There’s a learning curve, even for really smart kids. 
And suddenly, perhaps for the first time, that bright child may start to fall behind the more typically developing kids – kids who’ve had a lifetime’s worth of practice at persevering through a learning curve.

The gifted child may have no experience with that kind of struggle – and may wonder why it looks so easy for everyone else.
That gifted child has just entered uncharted territory – and there’s far more at stake than just grades. 

Suddenly, they may be wondering if everything they thought they knew about themselves was wrong. They may fear they’ve been lied to all their lives – or that they’ve been lying to themselves. 
Harder still, they may have internalized the idea that their talent was what gave them value. Their gifts were what made them worthy. Worthy of admiration. Worthy of love.

Calling one’s entire sense of self-worth into question is not merely uncomfortable – it’s destabilizing. And the response can be dramatic.
In my near-decade at the helm of a school for the gifted and 2e, I’ve most often observed this playing out in one of two ways:
They may feel compelled to defend that identity at all costs. 
This can look like refusing to risk trying things that seem challenging in order to preserve their “record”; making excuses; creating diversions, such as disruptive behaviors to avoid facing difficult tasks; or even cheating.

Or they may forsake that former identity entirely.
“I’m not who we all thought I was,” the thinking goes. “I guess I’m not smart after all, so I’m not even going to try.” This can look like disengagement; listlessness; even shutting down.
So if you have a really bright kid who is presenting in any of the ways above, consider this possibility: What you’re seeing is not a behavior problem – it’s an identity crisis*
And what’s even more painful is that at the same time they’re suffering through this identity crisis, they may also be:

  • Trying as hard as they can, yet being accused of not trying.
  • Being mislabeled as a behavior problem 
  • Receiving inappropriate placements and/or insufficient supports. 
They may be struggling with a workload demand that is too high, in which they grasp the content but their executive functioning skills can’t keep up. Or they may be enduring unchallenging, low-level content that fails to stimulate their intellect. And in either case, they may lack any intellectual peers who can engage at their level.
The result is that they may feel:
  • Misunderstood
  • Wrongly accused
  • Isolated
  • Gaslighted

If that were your experience, how would you behave?
So if you have a bright kid whose current school performance or behaviors don’t seem to accurately reflect their abilities, before allowing them to be labeled, dig deeper – you may find there is more going on than you realized.

*(If you’re anything like my 2e students, you’ll be quick to point out that the term ‘identity crisis’ originated as one of Erikson’s stages of development. I am, of course, using the more popular modern usage here, as defined in Merriam-Webster.)