The Plight of the Super Smart: The Hidden At-Risk Students

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Originally posted on April 5, 2014.

Each year, the American government spends billions of dollars to help students who struggle to meet their potential. These students languish in traditional school programs. They struggle socially. And they ultimately have less impact on society than they might if they had received educational opportunities that maximized their abilities.

New research suggests that students who occupy this group are the ones we often worry about the least: super smart kids. The study followed several hundred students from age 13 to 38. At age 13, all of the students showed testing ability that placed them in the top 0.01 percent of students their age. Put another way, the study participants outscored students in the top 1 percent by a factor of ten. That’s pretty smart!

The super smart kids flourished. Their rate of earned doctorates dwarfed the average American rate: 44 percent compared to 2 percent. They held jobs that gave them influence over millions of dollars and, in some cases, millions of lives.

It’s easy to shut the book there. Super smart kids succeed. Big deal. But these super smart kids often experience challenges that also plague so-called “at-risk” students. They don’t have class material that pushes them intellectually. Before their first day of class, they know the course material. What happens next? What do they do for the next six to eight hours while their peers struggle to understand the material they’ve already mastered?

The super smart kids might also struggle to connect socially. If academics are such a breeze, might it be difficult to relate to your peers? Might you experience stress when your peers have to study at night while you look for other opportunities to pique your intellectual interests? Might you act less intelligent to fit in?

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”