The gifted underachiever

Hidden genius

The gifted underachiever

 Most often, people categorise students as either gifted or underachievers, but there is another tribe - the gifted underachievers, observes Amita Basu.

On the face of it, this seems impossible. How can a child be both gifted and an under-achiever? Indian views of giftedness emphasise innate ability.  The idea that “if a child is ‘really’ gifted, s/he will succeed in spite of everything” is prevalent even among educators.

This idea pits nature and nurture against each other – whereas a large body of research suggests that nature and nurture are complementary, even inextricable.  Children who have excelled “no matter what” represent the exception, not the rule.

  As long as we discourage any attempts to identify and nurture the gifted, we cannot even begin to diagnose the size of the problem: the number of children who failed to succeed in the face of overwhelming obstacles.  This misbelief conveniently releases us from the duty of identifying and nurturing the gifted – “they will come up on their own.”  Right? Wrong. Meet the gifted underachiever.


While there are claims that under-achievement is purely subjective – a problem of expectations – most educators and researchers agree that under-achievement is very real, with estimates of up to 50% in countries with gifted education programmes.  (In India, the prevalence of gifted under-achievement is probably much higher.) Under-achievement represents a difference between potential and performance. 

The difference may be between a standardised test score (WISC) and a non-standardised test score (class exams), between two standardised test scores (WISC and SAT), or between two non-standardised measures (daily classroom performance and school exams).

It is important to remember that ability is not the only factor in academic performance.  We should expect gifted children to achieve above-average, but we should not expect their achievement to be as exceptional as their ability (McCoach and Del Siegle 2008). 

A note to parents: we are not talking about children who score 95% instead of 99% on their board exams.  We’re talking about gifted children who perform significantly below their potential.  As well, under-achievement can be episodic (a brief decline in performance following a stressor) as well as chronic.  It is chronic under-achievement that is of concern.

In identifying a gifted underachiever, it’s important to rule out a learning disorder.

Causes of under-achievement

Why do gifted children underachieve?
Gifted underachievers are a diverse group, with diverse causes for under-achievement.

Environmental Factors

We’re putting environmental factors first because, in the absence of an integrated national gifted education programme, environmental deficiencies are probably the biggest cause of gifted under-achievement in India.

*Lack of challenge early in school: Many gifted children coast through primary school with little effort.  For many, secondary school (or perhaps even college) is the first time they ever face the necessity of hard work.  Lacking good work habits, children who have been consistently under-challenged may never learn to achieve at their potential.  This is one of the reasons why early identification and nurturance are so important.

What can we do?

If advanced courses are unavailable at school, parents may be able to challenge the child via specific extracurricular activities. In many fields, after achieving a certain proficiency a child can also make substantial progress in his/her area of interest by independent study.  Allowing the child to balance this with academics usually has better results than forcing the child to focus on academics alone.

* Heterogeneous grouping: A child who is consistently by far the brightest in his/her class may develop an unrealistically positive view of his/her abilities. Heterogeneous grouping – putting children of diverse abilities in the same classroom – may create under-achievement in the same way as unchallenging curriculum. When children finally meet intellectual peers (e.g. in college), they may conclude that they were not as intelligent as they thought earlier, so there’s no use trying to excel.

What can we do?

At least occasionally, gifted children should be able to study and interact with other children of equal ability. Parents may be able to arrange weekly clubs in their neighbourhoods. For gifted children with socioemotional deficits, meeting equal-ability peers with whom they can discuss interests has an added advantage.

* Peer attitudes to intelligence: Many gifted children underachieve to fit in. They hide their abilities to deal with bullying, teasing, isolation, and rejection.

*  Inconsistent parenting: Underachievers are more likely to come from homes where parents swing between being too lenient and too strict; or where one parent is overprotective and the other is a strict disciplinarian.

What can we do?

Parents should set clear limits and communicate high but reasonable expectations.  High parental standards are important in achievement.

Intrinsic Factors

The attitudes and personality of some gifted children may also be involved in under-achievement:

* Motivation: Even when challenging courses are available, some gifted children lack the motivation to pursue them. One reason for this is low goal-valuation: i.e. the child does not place importance on excelling or on demonstrating excellence. 

Competition and high marks don’t motivate such children.  Another type of motivational issue relates to children’s theories about intelligence.  Many of us believe that effort and ability are inversely correlated.

“If I’m really intelligent, then I should not have to work hard. If I do have to work hard, I’m not that intelligent.” As previously discussed in this column, this view is strongly refuted by research: no matter what an individual’s ability level, s/he needs to work hard to achieve optimally. Children who subscribe to this view would rather do something that they’re already good at – to demonstrate their intelligence – than take up a novel or challenging task – where initial failures may cast doubts on their intelligence.

Such children prioritise performance goals: i.e. demonstrating existing knowledge/skills.

Conversely, children who believe that intelligence is incremental and is developed through effort tend to select challenging tasks and to take failures in their stride.  These children prioritise learning goals, i.e. acquiring new knowledge.

Thus, whether a child prioritises performance goals or learning goals can strongly influence the child’s willingness to work hard to excel. Of course, parental and cultural attitudes to intelligence and hard work can be transmitted to children. 

American parents believe that success is largely dependent on ability.  Chinese parents believe that children are roughly equal in ability and that effort determines achievement. It’s possible that this explains to some degree the academic/professional success of Chinese immigrants in the US.

What can we do?

Instead of rewarding only visible achievements, parents and teachers can praise students for trying, emphasising the process of learning rather than the products (marks, prizes). Parents can emphasise the value of hard work and teach children that ability and effort are both necessary for achievement. They can introduce children to biographies of high achievers, which invariably document decades of dedicated effort.

*  Perfectionism: A child afraid of making errors may refuse to undertake a challenging task or may keep postponing it.

What can we do?

Perfectionism is multidimensional. Parents and teachers can emphasise positive perfectionism – organised thinking and working habits, attention to detail – and help children to overcome negative perfectionism – preoccupation with errors.  Errors are necessary for learning.

* Other intrinsic causes for under-achievement are negative attitudes to school, and the belief that luck and other external factors determine performance.  Poor self-regulation or study skills may be involved.

It is important to remember that any specific case of under-achievement involves the interaction of multiple environmental and intrinsic factors.  Again, early identification and intervention are important. 

There is some evidence that, without appropriate intervention, gifted children who under-achieve in secondary school may continue to perform below potential through their careers.

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