Underachievement in Gifted Children

This post is a part of SENG’s National Parenting Gifted Children Week Blog Tour. We encourage you to browse the list of participating blogs to find more posts about parenting gifted children.

You learn that your child is gifted; maybe he or she even mastered up to 50% of the year’s curriculum before school begins (Ross, 1993) (Brulles, et al., 2010). So school should be easy, which means good grades, right? Not necessarily.

One of the greatest frustrations for parents is the assumption that giftedness means performing well in traditional school environments. Gifted children are not intrinsically motivated by good grades; they are more passionate about the acquisition of knowledge than performing rote tasks. This causes a problem when the school structure and grades rely on repetition and memorization.

With budget cuts, growing class sizes, and an emphasis on standardized test scores, it is difficult for educators to differentiate instruction and meet the needs of every student in the classroom. Often, it is the gifted students who are short-changed because they already know much of the material they need to demonstrate on high stakes tests.

Bored, unchallenged students are often a result. Many check out of the learning process, which can lead to underachievement and even academic failure.

Although there are many reasons gifted kids underachieve, the most common are

  • A mismatch between students and their classroom environment
  • Disinterest in content
  • Poor self-concept and fear of failure
  • Learning disabilities
  • Lack of self-regulation and study skills

It is important for underachievement to be spotted early, when possible, and addressed quickly. If your children think that learning and school require little to no effort, they may continue to slack off and may not ever learn to challenge themselves and work to their full potential in higher level thinking (Winner, 1996). If this is a problem your children encounter, it is important that you work with their school and challenge them whenever possible.

Start this process by finding out more. Why exactly is your child bored? A teacher will not be able to make the necessary accommodations without this knowledge. Is it because the class is struggling to understand division, to which several days of class have been devoted, but your child has perfectly understood division for six months and has nothing to do while the teacher continues to explain it? Approach the teacher with this specific challenge and ask for an accommodation to solve the problem.

"You don't have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better." - Stephanie TolanWhen speaking with your child’s teacher, you may have to combat misunderstandings about giftedness and underachievement in gifted children. Be prepared. Bring support to show your child’s gifts (test scores, GATE qualification, assessments, etc.). Many parents also find it helpful to bring research and journal articles to meetings like this to support your concerns and give the teacher the opportunity to learn more. You can also provide the teacher with several potential solutions, including some form of acceleration.

Remember that a good relationship with your child’s teacher or a school administrator is crucial to receiving special accommodations, so do your best to show how this can be a mutually beneficial relationship. Approach the teacher in a positive manner. Acknowledge that the teacher is the expert in education, and you trust his or her expertise there. However, you are the expert on your child, and you can offer the teacher some suggestions on what will be positive or negative situations for your child. Once you’ve discussed the problems, you can try to reach agreements with the teacher on how to mitigate these challenges. Also explain to the teacher that you are available to discuss your child at any time. The better your communication is with the school, the more your child will benefit.

Outside of school, give your child an environment that encourages inquiry and critical thinking. Provide access to supplemental programs geared towards your child’s intellectual ability and pace of learning. The more opportunities you provide for your child to be challenged outside of school, the more you will emphasize that hard work does pay off, even if that isn’t being demonstrated in school. You should also help your child develop communication skills so that he or she can effectively communicate with you and teachers if school is not challenging or engaging enough.

Understanding, spotting, and addressing factors that lead to underachievement early can help your children learn to challenge themselves and work towards their full potential.

What has your experience been in addressing your child’s underachievement or unchallenging work at school? Please share your experiences with us in the comment section below!

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9 responses to “Underachievement in Gifted Children

  1. When I was in teacher credentialing school I received almost no training on gifted children whatsoever. 😦 So it is very safe to assume that a regular ed teacher might care very deeply about your child, but have the opinion “If he is so smart than why can’t he do____________?”

    • Absolutely, Jenny. Teachers today have to be specialists in everything, but they are often not given the resources or support in school necessary for that. It is so important for parents to communicate with teachers because the teacher is trying to help 40 students, and a parent knows his or her child best to help that teacher with a situation. It is also important that teachers listen to what the parents have to say because they do know their child and can help. I think the biggest problem comes when the school is not willing to help, as @Alison and @mytwicebakedpotato mention.

  2. we were just learning that gifted could also bring behavioral issues and depression. the school suggested that we focus on his behavioral issues because ‘he was just fine academically.’ focusing made it significantly worse to the point where his bowels were in knots. the school meant well. they really did. they need to be educated about our children. we felt our son was not practice material and removed him to a school for the gifted where it took about three months of trust-building and patience for him to discover that all adults are not evil; that school is not cruel and that learning is a pleasure.

    • Thank you for sharing, Alison. It is disappointing that a school that meant well just couldn’t seem to understand and address the true problem quickly enough. It is unfortunate that you had to move schools in order to help your son, but it’s great that you were able to find a school that meets his needs. I’m sure a school that understands gifted kids will be great for him in the long run for many reasons, including the unique social and emotional aspects that giftedness brings.

  3. Even in some very good schools, there is still a misunderstanding about gifted children. They expect a gifted student to be self motivated and socially a leader. My son’s school refused to consider more challenging work until “he could control his behavior.”
    They met me with defensiveness and consistently down-played his giftedness. It was an extremely difficult situation!

    • What the school doesn’t seem to understand is that the behavioral problems often stem from being unchallenged. It is not an obvious correllation, but it is too bad that you are having trouble getting your son what he needs because the school can’t seem to understand that relationship. Have you tried bringing them materials to support what you are saying? We’ve heard from many parents that it helps. It can be so frustrating when you know there is a problem but can’t get the school to take it seriously.

  4. Pingback: “Keeping Track of the Who” | Institute for Educational Advancement's Blog

  5. I have just discovered this website and blog – what a wonderful resource! I relate so strongly to the comments here!

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