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Underachievement in Gifted Students: Reversal is Possible!

When we think about gifted learners, we often see them as high achieving, motivated individuals. However, at times, many gifted students experience a discrepancy between their abilities and achievement, meaning that there are indicators such as intelligence assessments or products that show high ability, but standard school assessments do not. How is this possible? We can attribute this discrepancy to a phenomenon identified as gifted underachievement. Underachievement in gifted students can result from a variety of causes, including social issues, emotional sensitivities, unchallenging curriculum, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and unsupportive environments. Because most school settings are unprepared to understand the scope of gifted underachievement, it is important to be informed of the characteristics of gifted underachievement and strategies that can reverse its effects.

What are some common signs of gifted underachievement?

  • Negative attitudes toward school or teachers
  • Low self-concept, self-efficacy, or self-esteem
  • Decreased levels of self-motivation
  • Unwillingness to take risks
  • Lack of perseverance or task commitment
  • Lack of enthusiasm toward learning experiences in one or more areas
  • Sense of social isolation or withdrawal

When gifted students demonstrate these indicators, it’s time to start peeling back the layers of the circumstances and seek individualized interventions and/or support.

Below are some interventions that can serve as steps toward reversing underachievement in gifted students.

1: Identify the root causes!

It’s important to evaluate the root causes of underachievement in gifted students. Is underachievement due to mismatched learning opportunities, undiagnosed learning disability, disadvantaged environments or poverty, lack of skill, and/or social pressures? Once a cause is identified, you’ve overcome the first obstacle. Next, implement specialized academic, social, or physical changes that promote evidence of increased drive, excitement, and internal motivation toward achievement.

2: Focus on the child’s gifts and talents.

The key to reversing underachievement is to find out what motivates the student to start achieving. Often underachievement is a result of a learning environment that has not cultivated gifted potentiality as it relates to the child’s strengths or talents. Ask yourself – Does the learning environment provide an opportunity for them to explore their interests or their passions? If not, start there. Seek to understand how and what the student wants to learn and build a differentiated learning approach from the information gathered. In most cases, the extent of learning experiences gifted underachievers wish to tackle within their interests is far more promising and intellectually engaging that what we may have imagined for them.

3: Secure mentors or seek counseling services.

A mentor can have long-lasting positive impacts on gifted underachieving students. When students have the freedom to confide, identify, and build a connection with someone they trust, the impacts on the reversal of underachieving behaviors are quite amazing. The mentorship approach can be as easy as offering specially designated times before or after school with a teacher who gifted students enjoy or respect. They can engage in mentoring activities or connect with their passions beyond traditional learning environments. Professional or school counseling opportunities are additional interventions to help reverse underachievement. Gifted underachieving students can benefit from a specific safe space that allows them to share and deconstruct their emotional and social obstacles or challenges that might impede achievement.

4: Strengthen parent-teacher collaboration.

Underachievement is often identified in educational settings; therefore, it is critical that parents and teachers work together closely. Some areas that parents and teachers should seek to understand are the learning styles and preferences of the gifted learner, where the child might display an exceptionality, and/or what areas the child identifies as conflicts or problems within the educational setting. A joint assessment of the child can help both parent and teacher home in on the root cause and begin to create a path for reversing those underachieving behaviors.

The needs of underachieving gifted learners are unique and differ from person to person. According to Francoys Gagné’s Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent, four types of environment catalysts significantly support the development of talent in gifted learners. These catalysts include milieu (culture, family), persons (mentors), provisions (programs, activities, or services), and events.

Keeping these categories in mind, the impact of school connections, mentors, counselors, and opportunities for summer programs such as SIG or differentiated learning experiences all facilitate the positive enrichment of gifted learners and reduce the risk of underachievement in gifted students. Above all, gifted students need an advocate to believe in them, challenge them to maximize their potential, provide interventions and scaffolds to help them bridge the gap between ability and achievement, and nurture their gifts and talents in ways that empower their futures. Reversing underachievement is possible – one personalized strategy at a time!


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