Underachieving Gifted Students

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Your young child loves to learn, learns quickly, and asks endless questions. You fully expect to be signing report cards with straight A's, after your child has completed all his homework exceptionally well, and aced all the tests. For the first couple of years of school, your expectations are met. However, one year (usually third or fourth grade), you are confused and shocked when your child brings home a report card with C's, and maybe even a—gasp—D!

What happened? According to our old principal, kids just get dumber as they get older. (He actually said that to me.) But that can't be it because your child at home is just as curious, just as interested in learning as ever. Maybe it's true that "abilities even out in third grade." But that can't be right either, you think because when you see what your child can do and what the other kids can do, you see that your child still seems to be more advanced. For example, your eight-year-old child might be reading as well as a seventh-grader. The other third graders aren't even reading at close to that level. So what's really going on? Your child has become what we call an underachiever.

Underachieving means that your child is not performing at school as you expect him to based on his abilities. But while that is the simple explanation, underachievement is complex. And it can show up at any age.

Jim Delisle and Sandra Berger wrote an article about underachievement many years ago, but what they say is just as valid today as it was when they wrote it. They explain what underachievement is, what causes it, and most importantly, what you can do about it.


There is perhaps no situation more frustrating for parents or teachers than living or working with children who do not perform as well academically as their potential indicates they can. These children are labeled as underachievers, yet few people agree on exactly what this term means. At what point does underachievement end and achievement begin? Is a gifted student who is failing mathematics while doing superior work in reading an underachiever? Does underachievement occur suddenly, or is it better defined as a series of poor performances over an extended time period? Certainly, the phenomenon of underachievement is as complex and multifaceted as the children to whom this label has been applied.

Early researchers (Raph, Goldberg, and Passow, 1966; Davis and Rimm, 1989) have defined underachievement in terms of a discrepancy between a child's school performance and some ability index such as an IQ score. These definitions, although seemingly clear and succinct, provide little insight to parents and teachers who wish to address this problem with individual students. A better way to define underachievement is to consider the various components.

Underachievement, first and foremost, is a behavior and as such, it can change over time. Often, underachievement is seen as a problem of attitude or work habits. However, neither habits nor attitude can be modified as directly as behaviors. Thus, referring to "underachieving behaviors" pinpoints those aspects of children's lives which they are most able to alter.

Underachievement is content and situation-specific. Gifted children who do not succeed in school are often successful in outside activities such as sports, social occasions, and after-school jobs. Even a child who does poorly in most school subjects may display a talent or interest in at least one school subject. Thus, labeling a child as an "underachiever" disregards any positive outcomes or behaviors that the child displays. It is better to label the behaviors than the child (e.g., the child is "underachieving in math and language arts" rather than an "underachieving student").

Underachievement is in the eyes of the beholder. For some students (and teachers and parents), as long as a passing grade is attained, there is no underachievement. "After all," this group would say, "A C is an average grade." To others, a grade of B+ could constitute underachievement if the student in question were expected to get an A. Recognizing the idiosyncratic nature of what constitutes success and failure is the first step toward understanding underachieving behaviors in students.

Underachievement and Low Self-Concept

Underachievement is closely tied to self-concept development. Children who learn to see themselves in terms of failure eventually begin to place self-imposed limits of what is possible. Any academic successes are written off as "flukes," while low grades serve to reinforce negative self-perceptions. This self-deprecating attitude often results in comments such as "Why should I even try? I'm just going to fail anyway," or "Even if I do succeed, people will say it's because I cheated." The end product is a low self-concept, with students perceiving themselves as weak in academics and unwilling to accept challenges.

Behavior Strategies

Luckily, it is easier to reverse patterns of underachieving behavior than it is to define the term underachievement. Whitmore (1980) describes three types of strategies that she found effective in working with underachieving behaviors in students:

  • Supportive Strategies. Classroom techniques and designs that allow students to feel they are part of a "family," versus a "factory," include methods such as holding class meetings to discuss student concerns; designing curriculum activities based on the needs and interests of the children; and allowing students to bypass assignments on subjects in which they have previously shown competency.
  • Intrinsic Strategies. These strategies incorporate the idea that students' self-concepts as learners are tied closely to their desire to achieve academically (Purkey and Novak, 1984). Thus, a classroom that invites positive attitudes is likely to encourage achievement. In classrooms of this type, teachers encourage attempts, not just successes; they value student input in creating classroom rules and responsibilities, and they allow students to evaluate their own work before receiving a grade from the teacher.
  • Remedial Strategies. Teachers who are effective in reversing underachieving behaviors recognize that students are not perfect—that each child has specific strengths and weaknesses as well as social, emotional and intellectual needs. With remedial strategies, students are given chances to excel in their areas of strength and interest while opportunities are provided in specific areas of learning deficiencies. This remediation is done in a "safe environment in which mistakes are considered a part of learning for everyone, including the teacher.

The key to eventual success lies in the willingness of parents and teachers to encourage students whenever their performance or attitude shifts (even slightly) in a positive direction.

Gifted Programs

Students who underachieve in some aspect of school performance, but whose talents exceed the bounds of what is generally covered in the standard curriculum, have a right to an education that matches their potential. To be sure, a program for gifted students may need to alter its structure or content to meet these students' specific learning needs, but this is preferable to denying gifted children access to educational services that are the most accommodating to their abilities.

Family Support

The following are some broad guidelines—representing many viewpoints—for strategies to prevent or reverse underachieving behavior.

Supportive strategies. Gifted children thrive in a mutually respectful, nonauthoritarian, flexible, questioning atmosphere. Although these principles are appropriate for all children, parents of gifted children, believing that advanced intellectual ability also means advanced social and emotional skills, may allow their children excessive decision-making power before they have the wisdom and experience to handle such responsibility (Rimm, 1986).

Gifted children need reasonable rules and guidelines, strong support and encouragement, consistently positive feedback, and help to accept some limitations—their own, as well as those of others.

Gifted youngsters need adults who are willing to listen to their questions without comment. Some questions merely preface their own opinions, and quick answers prevent them from using adults as a sounding board. When problem-solving is appropriate, offer a solution and encourage students to come up with their own answers and criteria for choosing the best solution. Listen carefully. Show genuine enthusiasm about students' observations, interests, activities, and goals. Be sensitive to problems, but avoid transmitting unrealistic or conflicting expectations and solving problems a student is capable of managing.

Provide students with a wide variety of opportunities for success, a sense of accomplishment, and a belief in themselves. Encourage them to volunteer to help others as an avenue for developing tolerance, empathy, understanding, and acceptance of human limitations. Above all, guide them toward activities and goals that reflect their values, interests, and needs, not just yours. Finally, reserve some time to have fun, to be silly, to share daily activities. Like all youngsters, gifted children need to feel connected to people who are consistently supportive (Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982).

Intrinsic strategies. Whether or not a gifted youngster uses the exceptional ability in constructive ways depends, in part, on self-acceptance and self-concept. According to Halsted (1988), "an intellectually gifted child will not be happy [and] complete until he is using the intellectual ability at a level approaching full capacity... It is important that parents and teachers see intellectual development as a requirement for these children, and not merely as an interest, a flair, or a phase they will outgrow" (p. 24). Providing an early and appropriate educational environment can stimulate an early love for learning.

A young, curious student may easily become turned off if the educational environment is not stimulating; class placement and teaching approaches are inappropriate; the child experiences ineffective teachers; or assignments are consistently too difficult or too easy.

The gifted youngster's ability to define and solve problems in many ways (often described as fluency of innovative ideas or divergent thinking ability) may not be compatible with traditional gifted education programs or specific classroom requirements, in part because many gifted students are identified through achievement test scores (Torrance, 1977).

According to Linda Silverman (1989), Director of the Gifted Child Development Center in Denver, Colorado, a student's learning style can influence academic achievement. She contends that gifted underachievers often have advanced visual-spatial ability but underdeveloped sequencing skills; thus they have difficulty learning such subjects as phonics, spelling, foreign languages and mathematics facts in the way in which these subjects are usually taught (Silverman, 1989). Such students can often be helped by knowledgeable adults to expand their learning styles, but they also need an environment that is compatible with their preferred ways of learning.

Older students can participate in pressure-free, non-competitive summer activities that provide a wide variety of educational opportunities, including in-depth exploration, hands-on learning, and mentor relationships (Berger, 1989).

Some students are more interested in learning than in working for grades. Such students might spend hours on a project that is unrelated to academic classes and fail to turn in required work. They should be strongly encouraged to pursue their interests, particularly since those interests may lead to career decisions and life-long passions. At the same time, they should be reminded that teachers may be unsympathetic when required work is incomplete.

Early career guidance emphasizing creative problem solving, decision making, and setting short- and long-term goals often helps them to complete required assignments, pass high school courses, and plan for college (Berger, 1989). Providing real-world experiences in an area of potential career interest may also provide inspiration and motivation toward academic achievement.

Praise versus encouragement. Overemphasis on achievement or outcomes rather than a child's efforts, involvement, and desire to learn about topics of interest is a common parental pitfall. The line between pressure and encouragement is subtle but important. The pressure to perform emphasizes outcomes such as winning awards and getting A's, for which the student is highly praised. Encouragement emphasizes effort, the process used to achieve, steps taken toward accomplishing a goal, and improvement. It leaves appraisal and valuation to the youngster.

Underachieving gifted students may be thought of as discouraged individuals who need encouragement but tend to reject praise as artificial or inauthentic (Kaufmann, 1987). Listen carefully to yourself. Tell your children when you are proud of their efforts.

Remedial Strategies. Dinkmeyer and Losoncy (1980) caution parents to avoid discouraging their children by domination, insensitivity, silence, or intimidation. Discouraging comments, such as "If you're so gifted, why did you get a D in _____?'' or "I've given you everything; why are you so _____?'' are never effective. Constant competition may also lead to underachievement, especially when a child consistently feels like either a winner or a loser. Avoid comparing children with others. Show children how to function in competition and how to recover after losses.

Study skills courses, time-management classes, or special tutoring may be ineffective if a student is a long term underachiever. This approach will work only if the student is willing and eager, if the teacher is chosen carefully, and the course is supplemented by additional strategies designed to help the student. On the other hand, special tutoring may help the concerned student who is experiencing short-term academic difficulty. In general, special tutoring for a gifted student is most helpful when the tutor is carefully chosen to match the interests and learning style of the student. Broad-ranged study-skills courses or tutors who do not understand the student may do more harm than good.

A Word From Verywell

Some students, particularly those who are highly capable and participate in a variety of activities, appear to be high achievers when learning in a highly structured academic environment but are at risk of underachieving if they cannot establish priorities, focus on a selected number of activities, and set long-term goals. On the other hand, some students appear to be underachievers but are not uncomfortable or discouraged. They may be quite discontent in middle or secondary school (in part because of the organization and structure), but happy and successful when learning in an environment with a different structural organization. They may handle independence quite well.

Underachievement is made up of a complex web of behaviors, but it can be reversed by parents and educators who consider the many strengths and talents possessed by the students who may wear this label.

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Article Sources
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