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 90th percentile range on standardized tests can be expected to excel in school, earning As and perhaps some Bs. But a child with high potential who earns less than Bs is said to be underachieving.

When Gifted Children Underachieve in School

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 tutoring underprivileged children.

However, 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 since school grades, particularly those in high school, can either open or close doors to possibilities in the future.

Parents of gifted children are often surprised and dismayed when their children underachieve in school. The key to helping an underachiever succeed is understanding the causes of underachievement.

Learning Disability

Gifted children with a disability are said to have dual exceptionalities and are sometimes called "twice-exceptional children." They are difficult to identify because they look like average learners: they are bright enough to compensate for their disability, so even though they are passing, they are working below their potential, 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
  • Have the child tested with WISC-IV 

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 in first grade.


Gifted children are not immune to depression and its effects. They can become depressed by the same issues that can cause depression in all children, for example, the death of a family member or pet as well as family problems like divorce. Gifted children are also prone to existential depression.

As with all cases of depression, gifted children should get counseling to help them cope with and overcome the depression.

Intrinsic Motivation

One reason students excel is to get the reward it brings — good grades and praise. Some children, however, are not motivated by these extrinsic or external rewards. They are intrinsically motivated; 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.

Additional Considerations

Underachievement in gifted children is difficult to reverse, and the longer a child underachieves, the harder it is to reverse. Parents and educators need to ask themselves whether they should continue to try to reverse the underachievement in school or help the child succeed in life using the skills the student has to achieve outside of school.

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Article Sources
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  2. National Association for Gifted Children. Twice-Exceptional Students.

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