Underachievement in Gifted Students: Causes & Solutions

Instructor: Linda Winfree

Linda has taught English at grades 6-12 and holds graduate degrees in curriculum and teacher leadership.

In this lesson, you will learn about the emotional and environmental causes of underachievement in gifted students, as well as strategies to help gifted students achieve at their optimal level.

Underachievement in Gifted Students

While gifted students learn easily and think deeply and creatively about various topics, they often fall prey to underachievement, when test scores or other evidence of learning does not correlate to student ability. Knowing that gifted students are not reaching their full level of ability is frustrating to both educators and parents.

What causes underachievement in gifted children and how can teachers help overcome it?

Causes of Underachievement

A variety of factors contribute to underachievement among gifted children. Heidi teaches middle school language arts in heterogeneously mixed classes with clusters of gifted students placed with general education students. This school year, Heidi notices several of her gifted students display patterns of underachievement. Aware that each gifted child is unique, Heidi knows she cannot assume all of her underachieving students have the same root cause.

Because Heidi wants to develop strategies to help her students overcome barriers to achievement, she researches the various causes of underachievement. During her research, Heidi sorts the factors into two categories: emotional and environmental causes.

Emotional Causes

Heidi discovers three causes related to students' emotions: pressure to conform, fear of failure, and low self-esteem.

Pressure to conform, or to meet traditional expectations, can take several forms. Students, especially at the middle and high school level, may feel the need to fit in and appear academically similar to their non-gifted peers. This can lead to students performing below their ability level. Another way the pressure to conform affects gifted children is when students encounter pressure from parents and teachers to meet adults' definition of achievement. Students rebel against these expectations by refusing to engage and thus failing to reach expected levels of academic achievement.

Fear of failure, or being afraid of not succeeding, often manifests once gifted students encounter truly challenging work. They may have been the most successful students in their classes or they may have become accustomed to learning easily. As students move into middle and high school and find more complex material is not as easily mastered, they develop avoidance behaviors, in which they refuse to engage in studying or classwork. By refusing to work, they can cover their failure with this excuse, rather than risking failure by trying and having their fears confirmed.

Low self-esteem, or having a skewed concept of one's level of ability, is a third emotional cause of underachievement among gifted students. For example, Heidi's student James is gifted in language arts and he expects the same success in other academic fields. When he struggles with math, he blames himself and that triggers avoidance behaviors. James falls into a cycle of decreasing achievement. Students with low self-esteem may come to doubt their abilities even in their area of giftedness, leading to further lack of success.

Environmental Causes

Continuing to research, Heidi focuses on three environmental factors: cultural influences, a lack of a supportive academic environment, and an unsupportive family structure.

Cultural influences, in which students are influenced by their society, can be closely linked to pressure to conform. Students might come from a cultural background in which being smart is seen as a negative, so they do not reach their full potential. In other situations, students might face cultural pressure to succeed, and if their giftedness does not extend to all content areas, they may demonstrate avoidance behaviors.

A lack of a supportive academic environment, the instructional setup a student encounters, can cause gifted children to not reach full potential. Students may face numerous obstacles at school, such as teachers not adequately trained to meet their academic needs. In other classrooms, students may find that although they can complete work quickly, this results in simply more work, rather than deeper, more fulfilling work. Students may find gifted programs filled with competition, and if they are underachieving already, comparisons among students may lead gifted children to withdraw academically even further.

Family structure, the construct of the student's home life, may be unsupportive as well. Non-gifted parents may be ill-prepared to advocate for or meet the needs of their gifted child. Parents may err on the side of being too permissive or over-controlling, both of which can lead to underperformance. Families might be transient, or move often so the student changes schools frequently. These moves can negatively impact the performance of gifted students.

Strategies for Addressing Underachievement

Once Heidi understands the causes for her students' underachievement, she can plan strategies to address the issues.

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