ERIC Identifier: ED321483
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Delisle, James - Berger, Sandra L.
Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Underachieving Gifted Students. ERIC Digest #E478.
There is perhaps no situation more frustrating for parents or teachers than
living or working with children who do not perform as well academically as their
potential indicates they can. These children are labeled as underachievers, yet
few people agree on exactly what this term means. At what point does
underachievement end and achievement begin? Is a gifted student who is failing
mathematics while doing superior work in reading an underachiever? Does
underachievement occur suddenly, or is it better defined as a series of poor
performances over an extended time period? Certainly, the phenomenon of
underachievement is as complex and multifaceted as the children to whom this
label has been applied.
DEFINITION OF UNDERACHIEVEMENT
Early researchers (Raph,
Goldberg, and Passow, 1966) and some recent authors (Davis and Rimm, 1989) have
defined underachievement in terms of a discrepancy between a child's school
performance and some ability index such as an IQ score. These definitions,
although seemingly clear and succinct, provide little insight to parents and
teachers who wish to address this problem with individual students. A better way
to define underachievement is to consider the various components.
Underachievement, first and foremost, is a behavior and as such, it can
change over time. Often, underachievement is seen as a problem of attitude or
work habits. However, neither habits nor attitude can be modified as directly as
behaviors. Thus, referring to "underachieving behaviors" pinpoints those aspects
of children's lives which they are most able to alter.
Underachievement is content and situation specific. Gifted children who do
not succeed in school are often successful in outside activities such as sports,
social occasions, and after-school jobs. Even a child who does poorly in most
school subjects may display a talent or interest in at least one school subject.
Thus, labeling a child as an "underachiever" disregards any positive outcomes or
behaviors that child displays. It is better to label the behaviors than the
child (e.g., the child is "underachieving in math and language arts" rather than
an "underachieving student").
Underachievement is in the eyes of the beholder. For some students (and
teachers and parents), as long as a passing grade is attained, there is no
underachievement. "After all," this group would say, "A C is an average grade."
To others, a grade of B+ could constitute underachievement if the student in
question were expected to get an A. Recognizing the idiosyncratic nature of what
constitutes success and failure is the first step toward understanding
underachieving behaviors in students.
Underachievement is tied intimately to self-concept development. Children who
learn to see themselves in terms of failure eventually begin to place
self-imposed limits of what is possible. Any academic successes are written off
as "flukes," while low grades serve to reinforce negative self-perceptions. This
self-deprecating attitude often results in comments such as "Why should I even
try? I'm just going to fail anyway.", or "Even if I do succeed, people will say
it's because I cheated." The end product is a low self-concept, with students
perceiving themselves as weak in academics. Under this assumption, their
initiative to change or to accept a challenge is limited.
STRATEGIES TO REVERSE PATTERNS OF UNDERACHIEVEMENT
it is easier to reverse patterns of underachieving behavior than it is to define
the term underachievement.
Whitmore (1980) describes three types of strategies that she found effective
in working with underachieving behaviors in students:
1. Supportive Strategies. Classroom techniques and
designs that allow students to feel they are part of a "family," versus a
"factory," include methods such as holding class meetings to discuss student
concerns; designing curriculum activities based on the needs and interests of
the children; and allowing students to bypass assignments on subjects in which
they have previously shown competency.
Intrinsic Strategies. These strategies incorporate the idea that students'
self-concepts as learners are tied closely to their desire to achieve
academically (Purkey and Novak, 1984). Thus, a classroom that invites positive
attitudes is likely to encourage achievement. In classrooms of this type,
teachers encourage attempts, not just successes; they value student input in
creating classroom rules and responsibilities; and they allow students to
evaluate their own work before receiving a grade from the teacher.
Remedial Strategies. Teachers who are effective in reversing underachieving
behaviors recognize that students are not perfect--that each child has specific
strengths and weaknesses as well as social, emotional and intellectual needs.
With remedial strategies, students are given chances to excel in their areas of
strength and interest while opportunities are provided in specific areas of
learning deficiencies. This remediation is done in a safe environment in which
mistakes are considered a part of learning for everyone, including the teacher.
The key to eventual success lies in the willingness of parents and teachers
to encourage students whenever their performance or attitude shifts (even
slightly) in a positive direction.
PARTICIPATION IN GIFTED PROGRAMS
Students who underachieve
in some aspect of school performance, but whose talents exceed the bounds of
what is generally covered in the standard curriculum, have a right to an
education that matches their potential. To be sure, a program for gifted
students may need to alter its structure or content to meet these students'
specific learning needs, but this is preferable to denying gifted children
access to educational services that are the most accommodating to their
ROLE OF THE FAMILY
The following are some broad
guidelines-representing many viewpoints-for strategies to prevent or reverse
Supportive strategies. Gifted children thrive in a mutually respectful,
nonauthoritarian, flexible, questioning atmosphere. They need reasonable rules
and guidelines, strong support and encouragement, consistently positive
feedback, and help to accept some limitations--their own, as well as those of
others. Although these principles are appropriate for all children, parents of
gifted children, believing that advanced intellectual ability also means
advanced social and emotional skills, may allow their children excessive
decision-making power before they have the wisdom and experience to handle such
responsibility (Rimm, 1986).
Gifted youngsters need adults who are willing to listen to their questions
without comment. Some questions merely preface their own opinions, and quick
answers prevent them from using adults as a sounding board. When problem solving
is appropriate, offer a solution and encourage students to come up with their
own answers and criteria for choosing the best solution. Listen carefully. Show
genuine enthusiasm about students' observations, interests, activities, and
goals. Be sensitive to problems, but avoid transmitting unrealistic or
conflicting expectations and solving problems a student is capable of managing.
Provide students with a wide variety of opportunities for success, a sense of
accomplishment, and a belief in themselves. Encourage them to volunteer to help
others as an avenue for developing tolerance, empathy, understanding, and
acceptance of human limitations. Above all, guide them toward activities and
goals that reflect their values, interests, and needs, not just yours. Finally,
reserve some time to have fun, to be silly, to share daily activities. Like all
youngsters, gifted children need to feel connected to people who are
consistently supportive (Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982).
Intrinsic strategies. Whether or not a gifted youngster uses exceptional
ability in constructive ways depends, in part, on self-acceptance and
self-concept. According to Halsted (1988), "an intellectually gifted child will
not be happy [and] complete until he is using intellectual ability at a level
approaching full capacity.... It is important that parents and teachers see
intellectual development as a requirement for these children, and not merely as
an interest, a flair, or a phase they will outgrow" (p. 24).
Providing an early and appropriate educational environment can stimulate an
early love for learning. A young, curious student may easily become "turned off"
if the educational environment is not stimulating; class placement and teaching
approaches are inappropriate; the child experiences ineffective teachers; or
assignments are consistently too difficult or too easy. The gifted youngster's
ability to define and solve problems in many ways (often described as fluency of
innovative ideas or divergent thinking ability) may not be compatible with
traditional gifted education programs or specific classroom requirements, in
part because many gifted students are identified through achievement test scores
(Torrance, 1977). According to Linda Silverman (1989), Director of the Gifted
Child Development Center in Denver, Colorado, a student's learning style can
influence academic achievement. She contends that gifted underachievers often
have advanced visual-spatial ability but underdeveloped sequencing skills; thus
they have difficulty learning such subjects as phonics, spelling, foreign
languages and mathematics facts in the way in which these subjects are usually
taught (Silverman, 1989). Such students can often can be helped by knowledgeable
adults to expand their learning styles, but they also need an environment that
is compatible with their preferred ways of learning. Older students can
participate in pressure-free, noncompetitive summer activities that provide a
wide variety of educational opportunities, including in-depth exploration,
hands-on learning, and mentor relationships (Berger, 1989).
Some students are more interested in learning than in working for grades.
Such students might spend hours on a project that is unrelated to academic
classes and fail to turn in required work. They should be strongly encouraged to
pursue their interests, particularly since those interests may lead to career
decisions and life-long passions. At the same time, they should be reminded that
teachers may be unsympathetic when required work is incomplete. Early career
guidance emphasizing creative problem solving, decision making, and setting
short- and long-term goals often helps them to complete required assignments,
pass high school courses, and plan for college (Berger, 1989). Providing
real-world experiences in an area of potential career interest may also provide
inspiration and motivation toward academic achievement.
Praise versus encouragement. Overemphasis on achievement or outcomes rather
than a child's efforts, involvement, and desire to learn about topics of
interest is a common parental pitfall. The line between pressure and
encouragement is subtle but important. Pressure to perform emphasizes outcomes
such as winning awards and getting A's, for which the student is highly praised.
Encouragement emphasizes effort, the process used to achieve, steps taken toward
accomplishing a goal, and improvement. It leaves appraisal and valuation to the
youngster. Underachieving gifted students may be thought of as discouraged
individuals who need encouragement but tend to reject praise as artificial or
inauthentic (Kaufmann, 1987). Listen carefully to yourself. Tell your children
when you are proud of their efforts.
Remedial Strategies. Dinkmeyer and Losoncy (1980) caution parents to avoid
discouraging their children by domination, insensitivity, silence, or
intimidation. Discouraging comments, such as "If you're so gifted, why did you
get a D in ......?" or "I've given you everything; why are you so.......?" are
never effective. Constant competition may also lead to underachievement,
especially when a child consistently feels like either a winner or a loser.
Avoid comparing children with others. Show children how to function in
competition and how to recover after losses.
Study-skills courses, time-management classes, or special tutoring may be
ineffective if a student is a long-term underachiever. This approach will work
only if the student is willing and eager, if the teacher is chosen carefully,
and the course is supplemented by additional strategies designed to help the
student. On the other hand, special tutoring may help the concerned student who
is experiencing short-term academic difficulty. In general, special tutoring for
a gifted student is most helpful when the tutor is carefully chosen to match the
interests and learning style of the student. Broad-ranged study-skills courses
or tutors who do not understand the student may do more harm than good.
Some students, particularly those who are highly
capable and participate in a variety of activities, appear to be high achievers
when learning in a highly structured academic environment, but are at risk of
underachieving if they cannot establish priorities, focus on a selected number
of activities, and set long-term goals. On the other hand, some students appear
to be underachievers but are not uncomfortable or discouraged. They may be quite
discontent in middle or secondary school (in part because of the organization
and structure), but happy and successful when learning in an environment with a
different structural organization. They may handle independence quite well.
Underachievement is made up of a complex web of behaviors, but it can be
reversed by parents and educators who consider the many strengths and talents
possessed by the students who may wear this label.
Berger, S. (1989). COLLEGE PLANNING FOR GIFTED
STUDENTS. Reston, VA: The ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children.
Davis, G. A. and Rimm, S. B. (1989). EDUCATION OF THE GIFTED AND TALENTED
(2nd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Dinkmeyer, D. and Losoncy, L. (1980). THE ENCOURAGEMENT BOOK. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Gardner, H. (1985). FRAMES OF MIND: THE THEORY OF MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES,
(rev. ed.). New York: Basic Books.
Halsted, J. W. (1988), GUIDING GIFTED READERS - FROM PRESCHOOL TO HIGH
SCHOOL. Columbus: Ohio Psychology Publishing.
Kaufmann, F. (1987). The courage to succeed: A new look at underachievement.
Unpublished paper presented at the 12th annual Northern Virginia Conference on
Gifted/Talented Education, Fairfax, VA.
Purkey, W. W. and Novak, J. A. (1984). INVITING SCHOOL SUCCESS (2nd Ed.).
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Raph, J. B., Goldberg, M. L. and Passow, A. H. (1966). BRIGHT UNDERACHIEVERS.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Rimm, S. (1986). THE UNDERACHIEVEMENT SYNDROME: CAUSES AND CURES. Watertown,
WI: Apple Publishing Company.
Silverman, L. (March, 1989). "Spatial learners." UNDERSTANDING OUR GIFTED, 1
(4), 1, 7, 8, 16.
Silverman, L. (Fall, 1989). "The visual-spatial learner." PREVENTING SCHOOL
FAILURE, 34 (1), 15-20.
Torrance, E. P. (1977). ENCOURAGING CREATIVITY IN THE CLASSROOM. Dubuque, IA:
William C. Brown.
Webb, J., Meckstroth, E., & Tolan, S. (1982). GUIDING THE GIFTED CHILD.
Columbus, OH: Ohio Publishing Company.
Whitmore, J. F. (1980). GIFTEDNESS, CONFLICT AND UNDERACHIEVEMENT. Boston:
Allyn and Bacon.
Adderholdt-Elliott, M. (1987). PERFECTIONISM. WHAT'S BAD ABOUT BEING TOO
GOOD? Free Spirit Publishing Co., 123 N. Third St., Suite 716, Minneapolis, MN
55401. Explores the problem of perfectionism, explains the differences between
healthy ambition and unhealthy perfectionism, and gives strategies for getting
out of the perfectionist trap.
Bottner, B. (1986). THE WORLD'S GREATEST EXPERT ON ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING...IS
CRYING. New York: Dell Publishers. Deals with how perfectionism affects
Delisle, J., & Galbraith, J.(1987). THE GIFTED KIDS SURVIVAL GUIDE II.
Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit. Helps students understand the meaning of
giftedness, how to take charge of their own education, how to handle other
people's expectations, how to make and keep friends. This book is a sequel to
Galbraith, J. (1983), THE GIFTED KIDS SURVIVAL GUIDE (FOR AGES 11-18). Free
Spirit Publishing Co., 123 N. Third St., Suite 716, Minneapolis, MN 55401.
Dinkmeyer, D. and Losoncy, L. (1980). THE ENCOURAGEMENT BOOK. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Provides a plan, strategies, hints, and tips for
helping discouraged students.
Ellis, D. (1994). BECOMING A MASTER STUDENT (7th ed.). Boston:
Houghton-Mifflin. Written primarily for college students, this book provides
dynamic ways of teaching study skills, time-management, and goal-setting.
Students are encouraged to try innovative approaches to academic and life
management skills. Available from Houghton-Mifflin Co., Wayside Road,
Burlington, MA 01803.
Galbraith, J. (1984) THE GIFTED KIDS SURVIVAL GUIDE, AGES 10 AND UNDER.
Support and practical suggestions for gifted youngsters who are struggling with
typical problems such as school work, peer relationships, and community
expectations. Free Spirit Publishing Co., 123 N. Third St., Suite 716,
Minneapolis, MN 55401.
Halsted, J. W. (1988), GUIDING GIFTED READERS - FROM PRESCHOOL TO HIGH
SCHOOL. Columbus: Ohio Psychology Publishing. A guide to using bibliotherapy and
an excellent annotated list of books to use with gifted students.
Harvey, J. & Katz, C. (1986). IF I'M SO SUCCESSFUL, WHY DO I FEEL LIKE A
FAKE? THE IMPOSTOR PHENOMENON. New York: Pocket Books.
Heide, F. & Chess, V. (1985). TALES FOR THE PERFECT CHILD. New York:
Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books. Presents a funny look at what would happen if
children were perfect.
Manes, S. (1987). BE A PERFECT PERSON IN JUST THREE DAYS. New York:
Bantam/Skylark Books. A student decides that he wants to be perfect and finds a
book on the topic.
McDermott, G. (1980). SUN FLIGHT. Soquel, CA: Four Winds Press. Shows
students how aiming too high with unrealistic standards can be self-defeating.
McGee-Cooper, A. (1983). TIME MANAGEMENT FOR UNMANAGEABLE PEOPLE. P.O. Box
64784, Dallas, TX 75206. Provides a "right-brain" method for work/study skills
and time-management. Suggestions include "reward yourself first and then do your
ON BEING GIFTED. (1976). New York: Walker and Co. Written by students (ages
15 to 18) who participated in the National Student Symposium on the Education of
the Gifted and Talented, this book is an articulate presentation of student
concerns such as peer pressure, teacher expectations, and relationships.
Smith, D. (1978). DREAMS AND DRUMMERS. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell
Publishers. The story of a perfectionist who learns that we cannot always be
Number One at everything.
Zadra, D. (1986). MISTAKES ARE GREAT. Mankato, MN: Creative Education.
Provides examples of famous mistakes and how they can be turned into positive