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Underachieving Gifted Students

This 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)
E-mail: webmaster@hoagiesgifted.org
Internet: http://eric.hoagiesgifted.org
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:

  • Supportive Strategies. Classroom techniques and de- signs 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.

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.

  • Supportive strategies. Gifted children thrive in a mutually respectful, nonauthoritarian, flexible, questioning atmosphere. They 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. 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 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 on 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 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 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 can 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, noncompetitive 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. 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.


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.

Prepared by James Delisle, Coordinator of Gifted Education, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio and author of Gifted Children Speak Out; and Sandra L. Berger, author of College Planning for Gifted Students.

ERIC digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RI88062207. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.

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