Tuesday, February 16, 2016

What causes gifted underachievement?

Why does your gifted child struggle in school?

Your child, once curious, energetic, overjoyed to learn, now has little interest in academics. As a parent, you stand by helplessly, saddened as you watch the spark disappear.

Gifted underachievers vary in how they display their underachievement. They may exert just enough effort to coast through school, under the radar and ignored because of average or even above average grades. They may become "selective consumers" who choose to achieve only in classes they enjoy, Or they may give up completely, perform poorly, fail, or drop out.

Yet not every gifted child underachieves. All children, especially teens and middle schoolers, face peer pressure and heightened expectations; not all respond by losing their drive to succeed in school.

Then, why?

So, then why do some gifted students lose interest and underachieve when others stay focused?  Researchers and theorists have suggested various reasons for underachievement, some based on sound research, others based on clinical observation or theory (see several references below). Here are some findings:

1. Family dynamics - Family dysfunction, distress, conflict, inconsistent parenting, mixed messages about achievement, an absence of role models, excessive pressure to succeed, or either too much or not enough supervision - all may negatively impact a gifted child's drive to achieve. In families where parents are divided in their opinions about achievement, children may develop resentment about expectations, and may withdraw or rebel. If there is a high level of conflict at home, gifted children may become anxious, angry and preoccupied with the family struggle, and school may take a back seat. 

2. Individual traits - Various personal traits, behaviors and emotional reactions have been linked to gifted underachievers in research and observational studies. These include any of the following: insecurity, perfectionism and fear of making a mistake, conflict avoidance, passive-aggressive behavior, existential depression, and perceiving oneself as an "impostor." These traits limit students' willingness to push themselves, care about their school work, risk failure or endure the envy of peers.

3. Sociocultural Issues - Peer pressure, the desire to "fit in," and cultural issues that discourage achievement all take their toll. Many gifted youth "dumb themselves down" to remain popular; others do this just to survive and protect themselves from bullying. Gender role development plays a part, including boys' concerns about appearing strong, athletic and tough, and girls' self-doubt and desire to be popular and attractive - all quite different from the "gifted nerd" stereotypes. And some cultures discourage academic success, particularly for girls.

4. School Policy - Underidentification of giftedness, misconceptions about gifted students' abilities, and school policy that discourages universal screening or appropriate and meaningful education for gifted children all contribute to underachievement. Some gifted children become "involuntary underachievers," particularly those in impoverished school districts lacking financial resources for gifted education. School policies that discourage enrichment, acceleration, ability grouping or creative alternatives to the mainstream curriculum deprive these students of the education they desperately need. Without the necessary complexity, depth and pace of learning, without like-minded peers, and without teachers who are trained to understand and teach gifted children, they quickly lose interest in learning, and disrespect their teachers and the school culture.

5. Teaching mismatch - Even though most teachers genuinely try to provide the best possible education, gifted students are frequently left behind. Many teachers lack training in gifted education and some hold biases about giftedness. Teachers who do not understand asynchronous development or who think all gifted students are high achievers, may assume unrealistically high expectations and become frustrated when students perform poorly. Some teachers place gifted children in the role of "junior instructor," expecting them to teach fellow students. When gifted students are singled out, their differences are highlighted even further, resulting in increased isolation from peers and possible bullying. And in many classrooms, gifted students are just left alone - it is assumed that they "will do just fine" and don't warrant the time and attention the rest of the class requires. Without school work that challenges them, they become bored, inattentive and discouraged. They also may become apathetic, afraid to take academic risks, and may never learn study skills or the value of hard work.

A perfect storm: Middle school 

Although some gifted children lose interest in academics early on, most underachieving gifted students don't start to disengage from learning until middle school and high school. At that point in their development, there is a perfect storm combining the following:

  • An accumulation of apathy and disrespect for the system, built up after years of boredom, frustration and feeling that their intellectual needs were never understood, appreciated or challenged. School may seem boring and pointless, and they may refuse to consider any possible benefits it could offer; 

  • Increasingly independent thinking, as they forge their own identities, formulate their own views, and develop distinct beliefs, often quite different from those of their families (fueled even more by their sharp intellect and questioning approach to just about everything);

  • Developmental changes related to puberty, hormonal shifts, mood swings, and a heightened interest in sexual and dating relationships, which may take precedence over academics;

  • Social pressure to conform and achieve popularity, prompting decisions regarding the necessity of fitting in, and whether to embrace or discard their gifted identity. If it is seen as a liability, many will "dumb themselves down" to gain acceptance.  And for some, especially those in inner city schools, conformity can be a matter of survival;

  • Increased academic demands. Middle school provides an increasingly competitive, somewhat rigid environment, with higher expectations related to performance, less attention and support from teachers, fewer opportunities for creative expression, and less tolerance for quirks and divergence from the rules. Students also may encounter a difficult assignment for the first time - frequently a shock for those who had coasted through elementary school; 

  • Awareness of their inadequacies. If they have not had an opportunity to fail at something in elementary school, they surely will by middle school. In addition to the social scene, often filled with pain and drama, gifted students start to realize that they are not going to be successful in every area of their lives. They may not be the best in every subject, may not get the highest grade, and may never be the most talented. While some can brush this off and move on, others may believe their identity is threatened, feel devastated and retreat. Fearful of taking risks, they may give up easily or become highly anxious before every exam. Since they never had to work hard before, they lack the study skills and strategic planning abilities others learned years earlier. 

Understanding must inform intervention

In order to address the roadblocks that can derail gifted students' performance, a thorough understanding of the possible reasons for underachievement is essential.

For each child.

Every child is different, so offering sweeping generalizations about reasons for gifted underachievement does not benefit any particular individual child. The list of causes above is a starting point, but parents, teachers, counselors, physicians, school psychologists, therapists, and the child all need to sort out the unique and specific factors that are creating problems. Typically, more than one causal factor is involved, and resolving the problem requires intervention at many levels. But it is critical that a thorough understanding of the cause(s) must inform and drive any intervention. Your child will benefit from your close and attentive focus on what is contributing to the problem, with the hope that you and the school can intervene to quickly resolve it.

This blog post is the second in a three-part series about gifted underachievement. The first post: Who is the gifted underachiever: Four types of underachievement in gifted children focused on forms of underachievement. Also, see Underachievers under-the-radar: How seemingly successful gifted students fall short of their potential. Stay tuned for the third post about interventions for underachievement in gifted children!


Baker, J., Bridger, R., & Evans, K. (1998). Models of underachievement among gifted preadolescents: The role of personal, family, and school factors. Gifted Child Quarterly, 42, 5-15.
Clasen, D., & Clasen, R. (1995). Underachievement of highly able students and the peer society. Gifted and Talented International, 10, 67-76.
Delisle, J. & Galbraith, J. (2002). When gifted kids don't have all the answers: How to meet their social and emotional needs. Golden Valley, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Gurian, M. & Stevens, K. (2007). The minds of boys: Saving our sons from falling behind in school and life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hoover-Schultz, B. (2005). Gifted underachievement: Oxymoron or educational enigma? Gifted Child Today, 28, 46-49.
Kay, K. & Shipman, C. (2014, May). The Confidence Gap. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/the-confidence-gap/359815/
McCall R., Evahn, C., & Kratzer, L. (1992). High school underachievers: What do they achieve as adults?  Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
McCoach, D. & Siegle, D. (2001). Why try? Factors that differentiate underachieving gifted students from high achieving gifted students. Office of Educational Research and Improvement: Washington, DC. Retrieved from  http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED454678.pdf.
Peterson, J. (2000). A follow-up study of one group of achievers and underachievers four years after high school graduation. Roeper Review, 22, 217-224.
Reis, S. (2002). Social and emotional issues faced by gifted girls in elementary and secondary school. The SENG Newsletter, 2, 1-5. Retrieved from http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/social-and-emotional-issues-faced-by-gifted-girls-in-elementary-and-secondary-school.
Reis, S. & McCoach, D. (2000). The underachievement of gifted students: What do we know and where do we go? Gifted Child Quarterly, 44, 152-170. 
Siegle, D., & McCoach, D. B. (2005). Motivating gifted students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Smutney, J. (2004, Dec.). Meeting the needs of gifted underachievers - individually! 2e Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10442.aspx.


  1. This fits so much with my daughter. She stopped caring in middle school and got caught up in dating and being popular. Being smart was not popular, so she tried to hide it, and then started to do poorly in her classes. We could not get her to study any more. Now that she is older, she regrets it. I wish we could have motivated her, or the school could have helped her.

    1. Nancy, Thanks for your comments. It sounds like your daughter hit a common roadblock and made a decision that fitting in was more important than school work - and it may not have seemed like she could fulfill both options. Hopefully, she can move forward at this point and feel comfortable with whatever direction she takes.

  2. Unfortunately, #4 fit me to a t as a child and without gifted services in a parochial school, by third grade my divergent answers were beginning to become a nuisance. I did the minimum amount of work throughout my career until I went back for my M.Ed. I was only then, I realized that I was capable of more.

    My own children though testing years ahead were never identified (parochial school again) and only recently have I realized they followed the same pattern as I did. The good news is now that I know, I am beginning to make up for lost time for myself and my children. The even better news is that the giftedness does not disappear. It's there, below the surface just waiting to reappear. You can get it back. Thanks so much for speaking out on such an important topic for the lost souls of giftedness-the underachievers.

    1. "It's there, below the surface just waiting to reappear. You can get it back." Your comment is lovely and offers hope to so many who have ignored, denied or never known their own giftedness. So glad you and your children are discovering/rediscovering your strengths. Thanks for your comments.

  3. I can always count on you to write a thorough well-organized post, Gail. You're such an inspiration. I think I'll write more on this topic, soon, and link to your blog so readers can get a detailed look at this very important topic.

    1. Paula, Thank you for your kind words. I'll look forward to your article coming soon!

  4. Thank you for this post and comments that all is not lost, or that my non producing son hasn't "lost" his giftedness, it's still there we just need to work to get it back. I agree that he has pushed it under the surface so he can fit it. I mean socially, he likes seeing his friends, all two he will actively call his friends, but it's not a huge fight to get him there. Now to up the actual work his does produce. Thanks again!

    1. Smiley, Thanks for your comments and good luck with your son.

  5. I grew up in a factory town with a factory school system geared to producing factory workers. As Yoda would say, "There is no try, there is only shut up and keep your head down."

  6. My daughter is a #2 and #5. She has been in all Pre AP classes(now AP) classes her whole life. Suddenly in 10th grade (she is a slow to mature) She has simply stopped doing her homework. She has decided she is not "smart enough" for these classes. The truth is she is just not doing the work. I have had her tested for depression and ADD and she was positive for both. She is not an aggressive kid but I no longer can look at this in any other way but defiant.

    1. Krista, I know it certainly can be frustrating when your child suddenly stops working. You mentioned that she has ADD and is depressed. It is possible that she is not being overtly defiant, but is struggling with the impact of these problems, combined with the increased demands of more challenging school work. I hope you are able to get her some help, especially with her depression. Good luck.

  7. My daughters are (13,14) really struggling at the moment and it's all due to "just not working". One is in a totally gifted school and the other in a gifted stream at a different school. One never had to work and has hit the wall as far as that goes. Hopefully she will figure it out before it becomes critical. The other was organised, and diligent, and now, suddenly on year 9 *pow*.
    The immediately obvious reason is the fact that they now need laptops for school and internet access at home for homework. They spend HOURS of time on the net and then complain that they haven't time to do homework or revision or assignments. If we try to intervene we get torrents of verbal (and sometimes even physical) abuse, and we would have to literally sit next to them for hours to make sure they don't just flip over to other sites, and who can afford 3 hours (times 2) to do that?
    Frustratingly the school doesn't seem to understand the hurdle they are putting in front of these kids by assigning them internet based homework when they are an age when they just control their impulses.
    I can't say that any of 1-5 (maybe a bit of 2,4) can explain it all.

    1. The internet is a huge distraction. Perhaps you can speak with their teachers more about it. If it continues to be a problem, the kids will see how they are struggling in school and may realize they need help also. Good luck.

  8. Hello, is there a 3rd post on interventions? I looked through the archives but didn't see anything. I would be very interested in that blog post. Thank you!

  9. I think you may of missed the most important element IMO - that is the effect of lack of high-achieving/Gifted classes. I can say that my child was highly motivated in a high achieving/Gifted classes doing two grades a year (twice once in these classes)... until he hit middle school and we moved districts. No more high achieving/Gifted classes and he was completely, utterly bored. His spirit shriveled and he became the classic underachiever. Get these kids into the right environment and we would do wonders for them and our society. Unfortunately, our educational system in most places doesn't recognize the needs of these students that are 1, 2, 3 and 4 standard deviations away from normal.... though in contrast they do for disabilities for the same standard deviations.

    1. Anonymous, I am in complete agreement with you. as I mentioned in the section above on school-based factors: "School policies that discourage enrichment, acceleration, ability grouping..." Many districts are uncomfortable labeling high ability classes as gifted classes. However, gifted children are often miserable and their learning screeches to a halt in mixed ability classes. See my recent post about this: http://giftedchallenges.blogspot.com/2017/03/ability-grouping-works-and-is-essential.html. Thanks for your comments.