Underachievement in Gifted Children

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Underachievement occurs when a child's performance is below what is expected based on the child's ability. For example, a child who scores in the 97th percentile on standardized tests can be expected to excel in school, earning As and perhaps some Bs. But a child with high potential who consistently earns Cs could be said to be underachieving.

Some experts suggest that gifted children who are working below their potential in school are not necessarily underachievers. They may be excelling in areas outside of school. For example, these children may be composing music, creating and working in community assistance programs, or starting a small business.

The key to helping an underachiever succeed is understanding the causes of underachievement.

Parents of gifted children are often surprised and dismayed when their children underachieve in school. Here's a closer look at underachievement, why it occurs, and what you can do.

Learning Disability

Gifted children with a learning disability are said to have dual exceptionalities and are sometimes called "twice-exceptional children." They can be difficult to identify because they sometimes look like average learners. Their advanced memory or problem-solving skills may compensate for their disability, allowing them to do well enough to pass.

However, these children are still scoring lower than they could if they were getting treatment or accommodations, which means they are underachieving. Parents should rule out the possibility of a disability, which can be done in at least two ways:

  • Look for the characteristics of gifted children with disabilities. This can include uneven skills—children may excel at math and science but struggle with reading. Or disabilities may be misinterpreted as a lack of motivation, attention issues, or behavior problems.
  • Have the child tested with WISC-V, which is considered the "gold standard" intelligence test. The WISC-V assesses abilities in five different domains, such as verbal reasoning and working memory, making it easier to spot disabilities in gifted children.

Parents should find a tester familiar with gifted children and discuss any concerns about learning disabilities. If a disability is uncovered, schools should provide the appropriate academic accommodations.

Lack of Challenge

Gifted children who are not intellectually challenged may "give up;" they may stop caring about learning or at least stop caring about doing work in school. Many schools, for a variety of reasons, do not offer any gifted programming until the third or fourth grade, which is often too late for many gifted children who have already "turned off."

Differentiated instruction can help these children, but it need not be delayed until third grade. The advanced material can be provided as early as first grade. If your school district doesn't provide gifted curriculum or programming until third grade, talk with your child's teacher about how to challenge your student.

Just remember that adding busy work or additional assignments does not provide a challenge for a gifted student. The key is to provide work that stretches them academically.

Instead of piling on more homework, which can feel like a punishment, ask the teacher if there are opportunities to do more difficult or thought-provoking assignments. For instance, maybe your child can move beyond basic math and do more complicated math problems or worksheets. Or, maybe your gifted student can read higher-level books for their reading assignments. Work with the teacher to develop opportunities for your student in order to keep them engaged in school.

Grief and Depression

Gifted children are not immune to grief and its effects. They can display intense mourning for the same issues that can cause grief in all children. For example, the death of a family member or pet as well as family problems like divorce can all cause grief, stress, and anxiety.

Just like every other child, this grief can have a significant impact on academic performance. Gifted children also are prone to existential depression. If your child has recently experienced a loss or a significant change in their life, look for signs of depression or discuss your concerns with your pediatrician.

Another common cause of depression in gifted children is bullying. Gifted children may be targeted because other kids are envious of their abilities or the attention they receive, or because they're seen as different.

As with all cases of depression, gifted children should get counseling to help them cope with their feelings.

Intrinsic Motivation

One reason students excel is to experience the reward it brings—good grades and praise. Some children, however, are not motivated by these extrinsic or external rewards. They are intrinsically motivated. For them, the desire to excel must come from within.

For this reason, work that is not intellectually challenging is not likely to motivate an intrinsically motivated underachiever.

The best way to motivate this kind of underachiever is to provide challenging material, but it should be done early. Waiting too long to introduce challenging material may allow a pattern of underachievement to become more firmly rooted in your child's life.

A Word From Verywell

Even though some gifted children may be highly motivated to work and excel outside of the school environment, underachieving in the school is still considered a problem. School grades, particularly those in high school, can either open or close doors to possibilities in the future.

What's more, underachievement in gifted children is difficult to correct, and the longer a child underachieves, the harder it is to reverse. For this reason, it's important to try to correct underachievement as soon as possible so that you can change the trajectory of your child's academic career and allow them to reach their potential.

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