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Understanding Underachievement in Gifted Children


Updated June 20, 2014

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Parents of gifted children are often surprised and dismayed when their children underachieve in school. The key to helping an underachiever succeed is understanding the causes of underachievement.

Learning Disability:

Gifted children with a disability are said to have dual exceptionalities and are sometimes called "twice-exceptional children." They are difficult to identify because they look like an average learners: they are bright enough to compensate for their disability, so even though they are passing, they are working below their potential, which means they are underachieving.

Parents should rule out the possibility of a disability, which can be done in at least two ways:
  • Look for characteristics of gifted children with disabilities
  • Have child tested with WISC-IV and look at subtest scores since discrepancies are good indicators of an LD.
    • Discrepancies of more than 9 points
    • Difference of 15 or more points between Verbal IQ and Performance IQ
Parents should find a tester familiar with gifted children and discuss any concerns about learning disabilities. If a disability is uncovered, schools should provide the appropriate academic accommodations.

Lack of Challenge:

Gifted children who are not intellectually challenged may "give up"; they may stop caring about learning or at least stop caring about doing work in school. Many schools, for a variety of reasons, do not offer any gifted programming until the third or fourth grade, which is often too late for many gifted children, who have already "turned off."

Differentiated instruction can help these children, but it need not be delayed until third grade. Advanced material can be provded in first grade.


Gifted children are not immune to depression and its effects. They can become depressed by the same issues that can cause depression in all children, for example, death of a family member or pet as well as family problems like divorce. Gifted children are also prone to existential depression.

As with all cases of depression, gifted children should get counseling to help them cope with and overcome the depression.

Intrinsic Motivation:

One reason students excel is to get the reward it brings -- good grades and praise. Some children, however, are not motivated by these extrinsic or external rewards. They are intrinsically motivated; the desire to excel must come from within. For this reason, work that is not intellectually challenging is not likely to motivate an intrinsically motivated underachiever.

The best way to motivate this kind of underachiever is to provide challenging material, but it should be done early.

Additional Considerations:

Underachievement in gifted children is difficult to reverse, and the longer a child underachieves, the harder it is to reverse.

Some experts, however, believe we need to redefine underachievement. Some gifted children, particularly older children, may not excel in school, but achieve a great deal outside of school. For example, a fifteen-year-old gifted student may be getting average grades in school, but may have organized a community tutoring program for disadvantaged elementary school children.

Clearly, such children do not fit the typicsl profile of a gifted underachiever. They do not, for example, suffer from low self esteem as many underachievers do. In these cases, parents and educators need to ask themselves whether they should continue to try to reverse the underachievement in school or help the child succeed in life using the skills the student has to achieve outside of school.
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Signs Your Child is Gifted
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