Underachieving Gifted Students: A Mother’s Perspective

Spring 1998 Masthead

Pamela Hunter-Braden
Boise State University
Boise, ID

I teach preschool. I have done so for long enough to watch a number of my students reach high school. Several have been identified as gifted, which came as no surprise since ability and potential often show themselves clearly at early ages. Several more have not been identified officially and I question what the school district has done to thwart what I considered obvious.

I also parent. Of my four children, the two in the middle have been tested and assigned IQs of 140. The oldest, whose judgment sometimes belies his intelligence, received a 130 score. His standardized test scores rank at a higher percentile than does his IQ. The fourth is in third grade and testing has not been done. He’s plenty bright; whether or not he needs special classes has not been determined.

The only really interesting thing about my children’s test scores are the circumstances surrounding the referrals to the psychologist. The oldest was tested because a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was being considered when he was in eighth grade. The next child, a second boy, was also tested in junior high because of distractibility and daydreaming. The third, a girl, was tested in second grade. It could have been earlier. Her kindergarten teacher used her as a classroom aide to help other children.

So, as my second son would ask, “What’s up?” My children meet most definitions of gifted. Only my daughter has received special services. The oldest dropped out of high school and obtained his GED in under a week. He plans on starting college with his former classmates this fall and majoring in history. He thinks he might want to teach high school. The comedian with the 140 IQ is in tenth grade. He has a late August birthday; he is the youngest of his friends. He loves music and when his choir teacher can get him to stop talking, he sings beautifully. His grades in ninth grade were horrible. This year they fluctuated wildly. The girl is in accelerated everything, is taking French with kids two years older and teachers love her. I’m impressed that she does her homework, something I have not witnessed her older siblings do with any kind of enthusiasm or regularity.

I also go to school. I have a degree in Child Development, a minor in psychology, and am now taking classes for my elementary certification. Recently, I’ve been reading about underachievers. I figured I’d been observing them since my first Mother’s Day so I might as well see what the experts were saying.

The problem of identifying underachievers reminds me of a quote ascribed to a supreme court justice about the definition of obscenity: “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.” Identifying underachievers is similar. Teachers and parents may not know why their children are not reaching their potential, but we know them when we see them. Still, it is difficult to decide who gets to make a judgment about students that declares that they are not working up to their potentials. What measurement techniques are used? Can anyone be a true underachiever or just gifted students? And what is the definition of a gifted student?

McCall, Evahn, and Kratzer (1992) define underachievement as “discrepancy between actual and expected performance” (p. 2). An earlier definition which they cite is that “the underachiever with superior ability is one whose performance, as judged by either grades or achievement test scores, is significantly below his high measured or demonstrated aptitudes or potential for academic achievement” (p. 2).

Whitmore (1980) provides a checklist to identify gifted underachievers. If, after observation, a student exhibits 10 or more of the listed traits, it is suggested that more tests be done to determine whether the student is gifted and underachieving. Of the 20 traits listed, Whitmore cites 7 that are most significant:

  1. Poor test performance;
  2. Achievement at or below grade-level expectations in one or all of the basic skill areas: reading, language arts, or mathematics;
  3. Daily work frequently incomplete or poorly done;
  4. Superior comprehension and retention of concepts when interested;
  5. Vast gap between qualitative level of oral and written work;
  6. Wide range of interests and possibly special expertise in an area of investigation and research; and
  7. Low self-esteem in tendencies to withdraw or be aggressive in the classroom.

Whitmore also states that:

All studies comparing the characteristics of the achiever with those of the underachiever indicate that negative self-concepts are the central trait distinguishing underachievers from those who are achieving commensurate with their ability. (p. 178)

Coil (1992) believes that “while signs of underachievement often begin by third or fourth grade, middle school or junior high usually marks the highest point of consistent underachievement” (p. 2).

Perhaps the most telling personal characteristics of underachievers are listed by McCall et al. (1992):

  1. Low perception of abilities
  2. Poor self-concept and low self-esteem
  3. Self-critical
  4. Fear of failure, fear of success
  5. Anxious, nervous (especially over performance)
Goal Orientation
  1. Unrealistic standards; perfectionistic
  2. Lack of or low educational and occupational aspirations
  3. Lack of persistence
  4. Impulsive reaction to challenges
Peer Relations
  1. Lack of friends, lonely, alienated, withdrawn
  2. Immature or ineffectual social skills, not liked by peers
  3. Feel rejected
Authority Relationships
  1. Overtly aggressive, hostile
  2. Discipline problems, delinquency
  3. Rebelliousness, independence-striving
  4. Lack of self-control, manipulative
  5. Irresponsible, unreliable
  6. Passive-aggressive
Locus of Control
  1. External control, blame others for problems
  2. Hypercritical of others, negativistic
Emotional Expression
  1. Flat affect, apathy
  2. Emotionally explosive, poorly controlled emotions
  3. Unhappy or depressed. (pp. 23-24)

Even with so many possible characteristics, the authors remind educators that “theoretical work on underachievement is not well developed. Some theories are not tied to specific measures and therefore difficult to test” (p. 34).

From an article from CBS Action, Stay-in-School Tool Box (1995), a profile of dropouts includes personal risk factors such as low self-esteem and difficulty with long-range goals and rewards. This profile included the group to which underachievers would most likely belong. The last third are often non-conformists:

  • they are disruptive, mouthy, hyper;
  • they exhibit problematic behavior;
  • they can’t sit still;
  • they learn differently from the norm;
  • they have lots of energy;
  • they are often innovative;
  • they are often gifted.

Well, okay, I recognize enough traits in my children to feel guilty about either my genetic bestowal or my parenting. Now, what can be done? My sons are far from being the only gifted kids who are not excelling. Do we ignore them and concentrate on the ones who produce or do we restructure education so the underachievers will produce, too? After all, even my oldest, the dropout, has won storytelling competitions, tennis trophies, and National History Day awards. Maybe he could have succeeded in school if a few changes had been made. And while he jokes with people about his alternative path to college, there is little doubt in my mind that his confidence would be stronger had he finished high school successfully.

In her book, Up From Underachievement, Heacox (1991) states that “anywhere from 5 to 50 percent of students identified as gifted and talented are also called underachievers.” (p. 2)

She goes on to say that she has

. . . come to realize that underachievers want school to be different. Some are angry, some are hurt, nearly all have negative feelings about themselves, but they still have a desire to be successful in school. They simply don’t know how. (p. 2)

The first problem to overcome is the cycle of blame which begins when a child fails. I think that as long as parents blame schools, schools blame students and parents, and students blame everyone, there will be no solution. Heacox makes this point, also. She admits that it is not always possible for parents, teachers, and students to work together well, but that it is always preferable. I would add administrators to the pool as well.

Coil (1992) also lists numerous strategies for helping underachievers. Her chapter heading categories are building self-esteem; improving study skills and remediating academic weaknesses; motivating students–an essential element of achievement, flexibility, and change within the school system; and finally, working with parents.

A two year study of secondary students found that when underachieving students were placed with high achieving peers they made greater gains than when placed with other underachievers (Karnes, McCoy, Zehrbach, Wollersceim, & Clarizio, 1963). The gains were attributed to content and teaching rather than to the peer grouping. Another study found gains when teachers taught with differentiated methods and showed a caring attitude (Raph, Goldberg, & Passow, 1966). These gains disappeared when the student went to a new teacher.

Because there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to helping underachievers, there has been limited progress made in their behalf. It is time for schools to be more flexible. Some students will need much interest-based selection, others will need the same differentiation strategies used for other gifted students—faster paced instruction or curriculum compacting. The cost of discounting a child’s worth is substantial. Ultimately, schools have to care about the vast amounts of potential being wasted and differentiate for underachieving gifted students.

Risk factors: Characteristics associated with dropping out. (1995). CBS Action. Stay-in-School Tool Box [On-line]. Available: susie.stemnet.nf.ca/Users/coop901l/research/dropouts.htm Link no longer active.
Clark, B. (1997). Growing up gifted (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Coil, C. (1992). Motivating underachievers: 172 strategies for success. Beavercreek, OH: Creative Learning Consultants.
Heacox, D. (1991). Up from underachievement. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.
Karnes, M. B., McCoy, G. F., Zehrbach, R. R., Wollersceim, J., & Clarizio, H. F. (1963). The efficacy of two organizational plans for underachieving gifted children. Exceptional Children, 29, 438-446.
McCall, R. B., Evahn, C., & Kratzer, L. (1992). High school underachievers. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Raph, J., Goldberg, M., & Passow, A. H. (1966). Bright underachievers. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Whitmore, J. (1980). Giftedness, conflict and underachievement. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


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