Underachieving Gifted Students
ERIC Identifier: ED262526
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: Whitmore, Joanne Rand
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Underachievement can be simply defined as academic performance that is
significantly lower than predicted, based on some reliable evidence of learning potential.
It is reasonable to assume there exists a range of mild to severe underachievement.
When the discrepancy appears to be significant to the teacher and/or parents, attention
should be given to the student's specific needs for modification of educational
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR AN INTELLECTUALLY GIFTED STUDENT TO BE AN
The concept of an underachieving gifted student may seem inherently contradictory if
intellectually gifted students are seen only as those who excel in school at high levels of
academic achievement. However, since the new federal definition was formulated in the
early 1970s, there has been growing support in the field for defining intellectual
giftedness as exceptional potential for high academic achievement, whether or not it
has been demonstrated at school. It is assumed that the gifted underachiever has
exceptional potential. A student may be gifted in one or many areas of learning or
cognitive processing; however, few mentally gifted students have the capability of truly
excelling in all subjects and on all kinds of academic tasks.
Gifted underachievers manifest three patterns of behavioral responses to the school
Behavior patterns of all three groups tend
to reflect feelings of low self-esteem, a lack of belief in their ability to influence outcomes
in school, an unrealistic self-concept, and negative attitudes toward school. Generally,
these students tend to be loners who have difficulty making or maintaining friendships.
- non-communicative and withdrawn,
- passively complying to "get by," and
- aggressive/disruptive "problem" students.
HOW ARE GIFTED UNDERACHIEVERS IDENTIFIED?
Increasing numbers of intellectually gifted students who have not been recognized and
served as gifted because of relatively low patterns of achievement have been
discovered over the last two decades as a result of three significant changes in
educational practices. First, there has been an increase in the use of tests and
sophisticated assessment procedures. Second, there has been an increase in teacher
referrals for special education services because of learning or behavorial problems.
Third, there has been an increased effort to recognize and develop the potential abilities
of culturally different and minority children. Gifted underachievers are also identified as
a result of parental accounts of out-of-school behaviors that show advanced interests
The most disconcerting group of gifted underachievers are those who are not
recognized while in school. Awareness of this group has developed primarily through
the identification of adults with superior intellectual abilities whose school records show
mediocre or poor academic performance.
WHY DO WE NEED TO IDENTIFY GIFTED UNDERACHIEVERS?
The first reason is obvious -- the loss of potential contributions to society from that
individual. The second reason is not so obvious -- the underachiever's vulnerability to
significant mental health and social problems. Often the gifted underachiever becomes
a disturbing behavorial problem both at home and at school. This problem is a natural
consequence of the conflict between the individual's personal psychological needs and
the lack of opportunities for appropriate learning provided by the school. The third
reason is that early identification permits a better chance for reversing patterns of
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CAUSES OF UNDERACHIEVEMENT?
AFTER IDENTIFYING STUDENTS AS GIFTED UNDERACHIEVERS, WHAT NEEDS
TO BE DONE? WHAT EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMMING IS NECESSARY?
- LACK OF MOTIVATION.
Many highly gifted and creative children have learning styles
that are incompatible with prevailing instructional methods. Furthermore, the level of
instruction may be inappropriate for these students and the restrictions on learning in
the classroom discourage their full participation.
- VALUES CONFLICT.
Students may not want to participate in school because of
conflicts between the values of the school or the gifted program and the values held by
the individuals and/or the cultures from which they come; for example, female students
from cultures in which a college education or a career is not expected may
- LACK OF ENVIRONMENTAL NURTURANCE OF INTELLECTUAL POTENTIAL.
socioeconomic status families often fail to provide exposure that stimulates the
development of higher level thinking skills. Enriching experiences such as travel,
educational activities, and shared problem solving may be neglected. Such students
may be from isolated rural settings, economically disadvantaged urban sites, or specific
ethnic or cultural minorities that do not encourage intellectual development.
- DEVELOPMENTAL DELAYS OR CHRONIC POOR HEALTH.
These students are
characterized by relatively low energy levels or interfering hyperactivity. They may have
a mild delay in perceptual motor skill development, or a general immaturity in all areas.
Often these students have entered school as the youngest in their class.
- SPECIFIC DISABILITIES.
Impairment due to specific learning disabilities, brain
damage/cerebral dysfunction or neurological impairment, or lack of normal hearing or
visual perception may be the cause of underachievement. Some of these students are
in fact dyslexic or neurologically disabled. It is not the disability that produces that
underachievement but the lack of appropriate programming. These students frequently
are not adequately challenged or encouraged to develop their intellectual abilities
because of low expectations and a narrow curriculum.
- SPECIFIC OR GENERAL ACADEMIC SKILL DEFICITS.
These students may have
difficulty with writing, reading, math, or higher level skills necessary for subject matter
mastery and high achievement.
Successful approaches to reversing patterns of underachievement have been based on
a view that the problem behavior has been shaped by forces within the school
experience that can be altered. These forces essentially are:
Successful interventions create positive forces to shape achievement behavior.
- the social messages conveyed by the teacher and peers that invite or discourage the student to participate
(Purkey, 1984) and
- the degree to which the curriculum and instruction is appropriate
for the learning style and performance level of the student.
Programming for gifted underachievers must address three critical areas:
Effective programming for reversing patterns of underachievement can occur in
self-contained classrooms, in resource rooms that provide supplementary services, or
through the development of an individual educational plan that may involve a mentor in
the school or community.
Regardless of the structure, there are five programming components that need to be addressed:
- an understanding of self -- the nature of and problems related to being gifted;
- development of constructive ways of coping with the inevitable conflict and frustration
created by the significant gap between cognitive ability and performance level; and
- development of a healthier, more realistic self-concept and higher self-esteem.
- The teacher(s) must accept the fact that the student is intellectually gifted, does not
want to underachieve or fail, has low self-esteem, and needs to develop constructive
coping skills and self-understanding. The teacher(s) must be skilled in guidance
techniques, accurate in understanding the nature of giftedness, and positive in
emotional response to the challenge of working with this type of student.
- The curriculum must be challenging, personally meaningful, and rewarding to the
gifted underachiever. There must be a balance between basic skill development and
more advanced exploration through the arts and sciences. Career exploration and the
development of personal interests are also critical motivating elements, and all learning
experiences should be designed for maximum challenge and success.
- The instruction must require minimal memorization and drill/practice activity and
provide maximal opportunity for inquiry, scientific investigation, and creative production.
Self-directed learning activities should be encouraged and the students' self-discipline
nurtured. The climate created by the instructional style of the teacher should be one of
excitement, anticipation, personal satisfaction, and low pressure.
- The peer group must include at least a few other gifted students, possibly other
underachievers, who may become special friends. The group must be accepting of
diversity and individual differences.
- Special services should be provided as needed for handicapped students, for those
in need of remedial instruction, or for group counseling. Supplementary psychological
and medical services, including family counseling, may also be needed.
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under OERI contract. The opinions
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or
the Department of Education.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dowdall, C. B., and N. Colangelo. "Underachieving Gifted Students: Review and
Implications." GIFTED CHILD QUARTERLY 26 (l982): 179-184.
Purkey, W. INVITING SCHOOL SUCCESS. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company,
Shoff, H. G. THE GIFTED UNDERACHIEVER: DEFINITIONS AND IDENTIFICATION
STRATEGIES. 1984. ED 252 029.
Section on Gifted Underachievers. 1983. ROEPER REVIEW 5(4).
Whitmore, J. R. GIFTEDNESS, CONFLICT, AND UNDERACHIEVEMENT. Boston:
Allyn & Bacon, 1980.
Whitmore, J. R. "Recognizing and Developing Hidden Giftedness." THE ELEMENTARY
SCHOOL JOURNAL, 82 (3), 274-283.
Whitmore, J. R. WHAT RESEARCH AND EXPERIENCE SAY TO THE TEACHER OF
EXCEPTIONAL CHILDREN: GIFTED LEARNING DISABLED STUDENTS. Reston, VA:
The Council for Exceptional Children, l985.
Menu Page |
Parenting the Next Generation