ERIC Identifier: ED262526
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: Whitmore, Joanne Rand
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Underachieving Gifted Students. 1985 Digest.
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 programming.
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school setting: (a) non-communicative and withdrawn, (b) passively complying to
"get by," and (c) aggressive/disruptive "problem" students. 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.
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 and
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?
--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 underachieve.
--LACK OF ENVIRONMENTAL NURTURANCE OF INTELLECTUAL POTENTIAL. Low
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
--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.
AFTER IDENTIFYING STUDENTS AS GIFTED UNDERACHIEVERS, WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
WHAT EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMMING IS NECESSARY?
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: (a) the
social messages conveyed by the teacher and peers that invite or discourage the
student to participate (Purkey, 1984) and (b) the degree to which the curriculum
and instruction is appropriate for the learning style and performance level of
the student. Successful interventions create positive forces to shape
Programming for gifted underachievers must address three critical areas: (a)
an understanding of self -- the nature of and problems related to being gifted;
(b) development of constructive ways of coping with the inevitable conflict and
frustration created by the significant gap between cognitive ability and
performance level; and (c) development of a healthier, more realistic
self-concept and higher self-esteem.
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
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.