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 their homework exceptionally well, and aced all the tests.

For the first couple of years of school, your expectations are met. However, one year (often in 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? Maybe it's possible that your child's abilities "evened out in third grade," but you know that can't be true. At home, your child is just as curious and just as interested in learning as ever. At school, you know your child is just as capable as the other students—and in many ways, seems to be more advanced.

For example, your eight-year-old might be reading at a seventh grade level, while the other third graders aren't even reading close to that level. So what's really going on? Your child has likely become what is known as an underachieving gifted student.

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

Gifted student educator, Jim Delisle, and Sandra Berger, an expert on college and career planning for gifted students, wrote an article about underachievement more than two decades ago, but what they say is just as valid today as it was when they wrote it in 1990. 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 not everyone agrees 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 comprehension 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 who exhibit these characteristics.

Researchers in the mid-1960s and late 1980s 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 insufficient insight to parents and teachers who wish to address underlying issues with individual underachieving gifted students. A more universal way to define underachievement is to consider the various components.

Underachievement is a behavior, which means that it can change over time. Often, underachievement is seen as a problem of attitude or work habits. However, neither habits nor attitudes are as directly modified as behaviors. Therefore, referring to "underachieving behaviors" points the aspects of children's lives in which they are most capable of altering.

Underachievement is content and situation-specific. Gifted children who do not perform well in school are often successful in extracurricular activities such as sports, social events, and after-school jobs. Even a child who performs poorly in most school subjects may display a noteworthy 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 in other arenas. In general, it's more effective to label the behaviors rather than the child. For example, acknowledging that the child is "underachieving in math and language arts" versus labeling them as an "underachieving student."

Underachievement is in the eye of the beholder. For some students (and teachers and parents), as long as a passing grade is attained there is no underachievement, since C is considered an average grade.

To others, a grade of B+ could constitute underachievement if the student in question was expected to get an A. Recognizing the characteristics 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 as a failure eventually begin to place self-imposed limits of what is possible. Any academic successes could be written off as flukes while low grades serve to reinforce negative self-perceptions. This self-deprecating attitude often results in, "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 come up with a universally agreed upon definition for the term underachievement. In 1986, researcher Joanne Rand Whitmore described three types of effective strategies in working with underachieving behaviors in students:

  • Supportive Strategies. These are classroom techniques and designs that support the child's greater potential. Methods may include 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 closely tied to their desire to achieve academically, according to education scholars John M. Novak and William Watson Purkey. Thus, a classroom that invites positive attitudes and prioritizes a child's self-discovery 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 may 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 to be an important part of the learning experience for everyone, including the teacher.

The key to eventual success lies in the willingness of both parents and teachers to offer encouragement to 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 a variety of viewpoints—for strategies to prevent or reverse underachieving behavior.

Supportive Strategies

Gifted children thrive in a mutually respectful, non-authoritarian, flexible, questioning atmosphere, according to psychologist Silvia Rimm, PhD, who wrote about the "disappearance of underachievement" in the 1980s. Although these principles are appropriate for all children, parents of gifted children—who believe that advanced intellectual ability also means advanced social and emotional skills—may allow their children too much decision-making power before they have cultivated the wisdom and experience to handle such responsibility.

Gifted children need reasonable rules and guidelines, strong support and encouragement, consistently positive feedback, and help to accept 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 may reflect their own opinions, and quick answers can prevent them from using adults as a sounding board. When problem-solving is appropriate, offer a solution and encourage your gifted child 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 themselves.

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, be silly, and share daily activities. Like all children, gifted students thrive when they feel connected to people who are consistently supportive, according to James Webb, PhD, Elizabeth Meckstorth, MSW, and Stephanie Tolan, MA, co-authors of Guiding the Gifted Child.

Intrinsic strategies

Whether or not a gifted child uses their exceptional ability in constructive ways depends, in part, on self-acceptance and self-concept. As educator Judith Halsted wrote in 1988, "An intellectually gifted child will not be happy, 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."

Providing an early and appropriate educational environment can stimulate an early love for learning in gifted children.

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 myriad 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, according to psychologist Ellis Paul Torrance.

Linda Silverman, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Gifted Child Development Center in Denver, Colo., has said that a student's learning style can influence academic achievement. Silverman suggests 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 math facts in the way in which these subjects are usually taught.

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, according to Berger.

Some students are often 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 ought to be reminded that teachers may be unsympathetic when required work is incomplete.

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

Praise vs. Encouragement.

Overemphasis on the achievement of outcomes rather than a child's efforts, involvement, and desire to learn about topics of interest is often a pitfall of parenting. The line between pressure and encouragement is subtle but important. The pressure to perform tends to emphasize outcomes such as winning awards and getting straight A's, for which the student is highly praised.

Encouragement ought to emphasize effort—the process used to achieve, the steps taken toward accomplishing a goal, and the overall improvement. It leaves appraisal and valuation to the youngster.

Gifted students who are underachievers may be viewed as discouraged individuals who need extra encouragement, but they tend to reject praise as artificial or inauthentic. Be mindful about how you issue praise to your child. Tell them when you are proud of their efforts.

Remedial Strategies

In The Encouragement Book by Don Dinkmeyer Sr. and Jr., the co-authors 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 rarely 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 prove 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 a struggling gifted 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 not be as effective.

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.

Additionally, there are some students who may appear to be underachievers but are not necessarily uncomfortable or discouraged. It's possible that they're dissatisfied and discontent in middle or secondary school (in part because of the organization and structure), but are 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 fall into this category.

16 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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