Underachieving Gifted StudentsThis document has been retired from the active collection
of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.
It contains references or resources that may no longer be valid or up to date.
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E478
Authors: James R. Delisle and Sandra L. Berger
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.
Definition of Underachievement
Early researchers (Raph, Goldberg, and Passow, 1966) and some recent authors (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 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 is tied intimately 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. Under this assumption, their initiative to change or to accept a challenge is limited.
Strategies To Reverse Patterns of Underachievement
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:
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.
Participation in Gifted Programs
Students who underachieve in some aspect of school per- formance, 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.
Role of the Family
The following are some broad guidelines - representing many viewpoints - for strategies to prevent or reverse underachieving behavior.
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.
Berger, S. (1989). College planning for gifted students. Reston, VA: The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.
Davis, G. A. and Rimm, S. B. (1989). Education of the gifted and talented (2nd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Dinkmeyer, D. and Losoncy, L. (1980). The encouragement book. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences, (rev. ed.). New York: Basic Books.
Halsted, J. W. (1988), Guiding gifted readers - From preschool to high school. Columbus: Ohio Psychology Publishing.
Purkey, W. W. and Novak, J. A. (1984). Inviting school success (2nd Ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Raph, J. B., Goldberg, M. L. and Passow, A. H. (1966). Bright underachievers. New York: Teachers College Press.
Rimm, S. (1986). The underachievement syndrome: Causes and cures. Watertown, WI: Apple Publishing Company.
Silverman, L. (March, 1989). Spatial learners. Understanding Our Gifted, 1 (4), pp. 1, 7, 8, 16.
Silverman, L. (Fall, 1989). The visual-spatial learner. Preventing School Failure, 34 (1), 15-20.
Torrance, E. P. (1977). Encouraging creativity in the classroom. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.
Webb, J., Meckstroth, E., & Tolan, S. (1982). Guiding the gifted child. Columbus, OH: Ohio Publishing Company.
Whitmore, J. F. (1980). Giftedness, conflict and underachievement. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Resources for Students
Adderholdt-Elliott, M. (1987). Perfectionism. What's bad about being too good? Explores the problem of perfectionism, explains the differences between healthy ambition and unhealthy perfectionism, and gives strategies for getting out of the perfectionist trap.
Bottner, B. (1986). The world's greatest expert on absolutely everything...is crying. New York: Dell Publishers. Deals with how perfectionism affects interpersonal relationships.
Delisle, J., & Galbraith, J.(1987). The Gifted Kids Survival Guide II. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit. Helps students understand the meaning of giftedness, how to take charge of their own education, how to handle other people's expectations, how to make and keep friends. This book is a sequel to Galbraith, J. (1983), The Gifted Kids Survival Guide (for ages 11-18). Free Spirit Publishing Co., 123 N. Third St., Suite 716, Minneapolis, MN 55401.
Dinkmeyer, D. and Losoncy, L. (1980). The encouragement book. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Provides a plan, strategies, hints, and tips for helping discouraged students.
Ellis, D. (1994). Becoming a master student (7th ed.). Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. Written primarily for college students, this book provides dynamic ways of teaching study skills, time-management, and goal-setting. Students are encouraged to try innovative approaches to academic and life management skills. Available from Houghton-Mifflin Co., Wayside Road, Burlington, MA 01803.
Galbraith, J. (1984) The Gifted Kids Survival Guide, Ages 10 and under. Support and practical suggestions for gifted youngsters who are struggling with typical problems such as school work, peer relationships, and community expectations. Free Spirit Publishing Co., 123 N. Third St., Suite 716, Minneapolis, MN 55401.
Halsted, J. W. (1988), Guiding gifted readers - From preschool to high school. Columbus: Ohio Psychology Publishing. A guide to using bibliotherapy and an excellent annotated list of books to use with gifted students.
Harvey, J. & Katz, C. (1986). If I'm so successful, why do I feel like a fake? The impostor phenomenon. New York: Pocket Books.
Heide, F. & Chess, V. (1985). Tales for the perfect child. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books. Presents a funny look at what would happen if children were perfect.
Manes, S. (1987). Be a perfect person in just three days. New York: Bantam/Skylark Books. A student decides that he wants to be perfect and finds a book on the topic.
McDermott, G. (1980). Sun flight. Soquel, CA: Four Winds Press. Shows students how aiming too high with unrealistic standards can be self-defeating.
McGee-Cooper, A. Time management for unmanageable people. PO Box 64784, Dallas, TX 75206. Provides a "right-brain" method for work/study skills and time-management. Suggestions include "reward yourself first and then do your assignments."
On being gifted. (1976). New York: Walker and Co. Written by students (ages 15 to 18) who participated in the National Student Symposium on the Education of the Gifted and Talented, this book is an articulate presentation of student concerns such as peer pressure, teacher expectations, and relationships.
Smith, D. (1978). Dreams and drummers. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Publishers. The story of a perfectionist who learns that we cannot always be Number One at everything.
Zadra, D. (1986). Mistakes are great. Mankato, MN: Creative Education. Provides examples of famous mistakes and how they can be turned into positive learning experiences.
copyright © 1997
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education