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Avoiding, Reversing & Handling Underachievement in Gifted Students

Gifted Parenting and Strategies

Today we are revisiting a number of Davidson Gifted “Tips for Parents” articles related to that all-too-common phenomenon in the gifted world – underachievement.

Doing Poorly on Purpose: Underachievement and the Quest for Dignity >

Dr. Jim Delisle discusses these important considerations:

  • No one wants to be an underachiever. As human beings, we seem hard-wired to seek out pleasure, not pain—and being an underachiever is not a pleasant thing. However, for children and teens who do not get recognized for anything less than perfection, they may choose to underachieve to get themselves away from the pressure to always be #1. Hey, if you can’t be “first best”, you might strive to become “first worst”. In either position, you tend to get a lot of attention from others—which is better than being in the middles and getting ignored.
  • Underachievement tends to be an issue of dignity not curriculum. If a gifted child is required to complete work that is tedious or repetitive, or loses credit for refusing to do homework that is pointless, s/he will begin to question the value of high grades. If teachers don’t seem to care how high a child can jump, academically speaking, and focus instead on whether s/he can jump at all, the capable child often begins to feel that his or her intellect is being both denied and disrespected. Without this intellectual dignity being afforded, grades lose their significance, be they “As” of “Fs”.
  • Every “underachiever” is good at and passionate about something. Sadly, despite a gifted underachiever’s interest and knowledge of game design, cloning or poetic expression, if these areas are not part of a child’s curriculum, they are often considered less important than the content of a math or science class. Even sadder, if grades fall too low in school, these areas of passion or interest are frequently removed from the child’s repertoire “…until such time that you get serious about school.” This sets up more battles—not over “content”, but over “dignity”.

Dr. Delisle offers the following suggestions:

  • Compare where a child is succeeding in school and where s/he is not. The best way to address underachievement is through a positive, proactive approach. Thus, if you can determine the conditions in which a child succeeds, and with which teachers a child performs as expected, try to “tease out” the elements of why this success has been achieved. As much as possible, try to replicate these strategies/attitudes in situations where the child has not been successful.
  • The underachieving child needs to be acknowledged for attempts, not just successes. If the only time a gifted child hears “Good job!” is when perfection is attained, the seeds for underachievement are being sown. However, if parents and teachers say things like “This is going to be a tough task, and I’ll be here to help in any ways I can. I simply want to thank you for taking on this challenge.” Now…to which statement would you respond better. Yeah…I thought so.
  • Get away from questioning “who’s at fault” for underachievement and work towards resolving the situation where no one loses. In every case of underachievement, there is enough blame to go around. A meager curriculum? Perhaps. Parental expectations that are too high? Could be. Lousy, cantankerous attitude toward authority? Students have been known to be guilty of that. But if parents, teachers and kids themselves can agree to have an honest series of conversations about what is working and what is not working, the first seeds of resolution have been sown.

Parenting for High Achievement and Avoiding Underachievement >

Dr. Sylvia Rimm lists a number of tips for parents, and offers an explanation of each:

  • Foresight – While providing gifted children with challenge and learning are important contributions to their development, guiding them with foresight and confidence will help them feel more secure and will assist parents in avoiding some future problems.
  • Praise – Praise conveys expectations for your children. Since praise conveys your values, consider praise words like smart, hardworking, thoughtful, kind or good thinker rather than brilliant, genius, best, smartest, perfect, etc.
  • Power – The adult-sounding vocabulary and reasoning of gifted kids can often cause parents to treat small children like miniature adults. While it’s not appropriate to talk down to children, they need to be treated as children. I recommend raising children with the V of LoVe: that give children little power early but expands power and choices as they mature, thus causing them to feel appropriately empowered.
  • United Parenting – Respect and agreement between parents and between parents and teachers are a high priority for raising successful and happy children. Parents need to be advocates for their children, but they need to do that carefully or respectfully, or they will find their gifted kids avoiding schoolwork only because it’s a little repetitive, even when it is appropriately challenging.
  • Twice Exceptional Children – Both teachers and parents need to be sensitive to these children’s differences because they can trap gifted children into lifelong underachievement. Emphasizing a work ethic and helping kids to use their strengths to develop their weak areas will help these children with their struggles.

What You Can do to Reverse Underachievement in The Classroom >

Drs. Del Siegle and D. Betsy McCoach offer strategies on helping underachieving students to become achievement-oriented individuals:

Students must value academics. Students who do not value the goals of school do not find any purpose in what they are learning, they don’t see any pay-off for learning it, and they’re not interested in learning it, so they turn off and tune out. The following are some minor modifications that will increase the task value of activities for students:
  • Encourage and promote your students’ interests and passions.
  • Help students to see beyond the immediate activity to the long-term outcomes. A school assignment may seem unimportant, but pursuing a dream career may be an outcome that your student is willing to strive toward. Parents and educators may wish to share how they use various skills learned in school.
  • Help students to set short and long-term academic goals. Small, short-term goals work better for younger students. It is essential that the goals are meaningful to students. Talk with them about possible goals. Remember, goals that adults value may have little meaning to children.
  • Students are more likely to become engaged with material that is optimally challenging. Ensure that all students are challenged (but not frustrated) by classroom activities.
Self-Efficacy: Students need to believe that they have the skills to be successful. This can be accomplished by helping them recognize the skills that they have developed. They also must be aware that they didn’t always have those skills (the skills were something they developed).The way we compliment young people has an impact on how successful they perceive themselves. It is important to be specific with comments. A general compliment such as “Good work” does not carry the weight of something more specific such as “You really know your threes times tables.” Students are able to better cognitively appraise their progress when feedback is specific or when we’ve helped them be aware of specific things they do well.

Environmental Perceptions: Students who view their environment as friendly and one that will provide positive outcomes are more likely to demonstrate achievement-oriented behavior. It is not enough to be confident that they have certain skills, they must expect that they will succeed if they put forth effort.


  • Encourage students to pursue excellence, rather than perfection. Adults can model acceptance of their mistakes while striving for excellence. Gifted students should not be expected, or expect, to complete every task, in every area, with 100% accuracy.
  • Help students plan tasks. This serves two functions. First, it develops a mindset that the task is doable. Young people are often reluctant to begin a task because they are unsure how to begin. Second, it minimizes the unknown. Through planning, children can visualize a task coming to fruition.
  • Help students set realistic expectations. This involves setting goals that are difficult enough to be challenging, yet not so difficult as to be unachievable and discouraging.


Ricardo Elegarle

Underachievement can also be due to the individual's choice of putting a limit to what he/she can achieve.

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