Underachieving Gifted Students


Three Broad Reasons for Underacheivement

Researchers recognize that underachievement is a diverse phenomenon with a variety of determinants. Whitmore (1989) identified three broad causes for underachievement in gifted children:

  • Lack of motivation to apply themselves in school

  • Environments that do not nurture their gifts and may even discourage high achievement

  • Disabilities or other learning deficits that mask their giftedness.

Characteristics of Gifted Underachievers

Commonly cited characteristics of underachieving gifted students include (Van Tassel-Baska, 1992; Whitmore, 1986; Rimm, 1986; Baum, Owen & Dixon, 1991):

  • Low self-esteem

  • Consistently negative attitude toward school and learning

  • Reluctance to take risks or apply one’s self

  • Discomfort with competition

  • Lack of perseverance

  • Lack of goal-directed behavior

  • Social isolation

  • Weaknesses in skill areas and organization

  • Disruptiveness in class and resistance to class activities.

How to Motivate the Gifted Underachiever

Expose Your Student to New Ideas and Areas

Sometimes a child lacks motivation because he or she hasn't yet been exposed to what might be a life passion. While other gifted underachievers may already know the material you are teaching and have chosen to disengage.

Nurture Gifted Student's Interests

To nurture your child's interests, provide opportunities for him or her to learn and explore that interest. For example, if your student loves dinosaurs, get fact and fiction books about dinosaurs and visit natural history museums. If your student loves music, use that interest to engage them. Kids who can explore their interests are more likely to keep their love of learning alive.

Help Them Learn to Manage Time

The gifted student ability to learn quickly. Which can easily allow them to keep up with work at the beginning of the year. While that may sound like a real advantage, it can lead to problems. The gifted learner may assume everything will always come easily. They may never learn to manage their time in order to get work done. At some point, they may feel overwhelmed by the work they need to complete. They need to be taught to set time aside to complete tasks.

Use Short-Term Goals and Rewards

Sometimes even a gifted child can be overwhelmed by a large task. It's not that the task is difficult, but the child may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They may not have had the opportunity to develop the thinking skills for that exciting independent project you gave given them. Help your students to see a project as a series of smaller tasks. Make each small task a goal and try setting a reward for that goal.

Teach Organizational Skills

Work to actively teach organizational study skills. Demonstrate that one’s

process is as important as one’s products. An unmotivated gifted child generally doesn't focus on anything but the present. Two weeks in the future is even hard for some of them to imagine.

Praise Your Gifted Student's Efforts

Gifted kids sometimes have trouble connecting personal effort to achievement. Much of what they do and learn comes easily to them, so they can achieve with little effort. To help a child succeed, praise efforts at success and make that praise specific. For example, instead of saying "Nice work," it's better to say something like, "You worked hard on your science project; you really earned that A.

Help Your Student Take Control

Gifted underachievers sometimes see achievement as something beyond their control. If they succeed, it is due to luck or some other external factor. This attitude makes them feel like giving effort is useless. Emphasize self-efficacy to build student motivation. Show students that they can achieve by assigning small projects at first, and building up in scope and complexity as the child’s self-confidence improves.

Help Students Make Connections Between Schoolwork and Their Interests

Sometimes gifted students lack motivation because they don't see a connection between the work they are being asked to do and their goals and interests. A student who wants to be an astronaut should know what math and science are important in that job.

Keep in Mind that Motivation is Not Always About School Achievement

We often equate motivation with school achievement. However, it's important to note that some children are highly motivated to achieve goals, but those goals are unrelated to school. A gifted student, for example, may be more interested in creating a volunteer community program for the elderly or writing computer code.

Establish a Strong Parent /Teacher Relationship

Build close connections with students’ parents, if possible, both to understand your

students’ home lives and to ensure that parents are sending the same messages

that you are.

Create an Individual Plan for the Child

An individual plan designed for underachieving gifted child must consider both the nature of child's individual gifted identification and as well as the causes of the underachievement.

  • An underachieving child with lower skill development due to poverty, inadequate schooling, and low self-esteem plan may include mentoring of their gifts, open-ended projects and also special intervention to strengthen skills.
  • Creative students need plans that give them both the freedom to create and the support in skill and organization areas where they are weak

Adapted from the work of Carol Bainbridge, Joan Smutney, and