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Underachievement in Gifted Students

Gifted Resources

Underachievement is an issue that can be especially impactful among gifted students, particularly those who are profoundly gifted. Profoundly gifted individuals score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ tests and have an exceptionally high level of intellectual prowess. These students score at least three standard deviations above the norm on the bell curve, so they are at the extreme end of the intelligence, or IQ, continuum.

One of the major challenges in educating these students is determining how to group them together into a setting that appropriately delivers them a challenging curriculum. However, even among a setting that delivers an appropriately challenging curriculum for most students, there may be some whose intellectual needs cannot be met. As a result, some profoundly gifted students end up being bored in school, even in classes that are designed to be challenging.

Boredom often transforms into underachievement, social isolation, and an overall disinterest in academics. In some cases, underachievement among profoundly gifted students does not reveal itself until students are finally in an environment in which they are being appropriately challenged. These students—who may now be challenged and forced to work hard in school, employing study skills or even discovering holes in their knowledge—are then at risk of becoming disillusioned with their own intellect, which can cause poor self-esteem, anxiety, and academic underachievement.

Causes of Underachievement in Gifted Students

Why do gifted students underachieve? Identifying causes can be very difficult, not only due to problems with identifying such students themselves in the first place, but also due to these students’ ability to effectively hide their shortcomings. Once behaviors that are characteristic of underachievement are revealed, it is up to parents and teachers to discover underlying causes, which can be numerous and compounding. For profoundly gifted students, the roots of underachievement can step from a variety of factors, including improper learning environments and social/emotional challenges.

Improper learning environment

While some gifted students can function happily and effectively in regular education classrooms, it is doubtful that such an environment would be appropriate for most profoundly gifted students. In Genius Denied, the Davidsons describe the “quiet crisis” in education: gifted students spending their days in classrooms learning little beyond how to cope with boredom as they “relearn” material they’ve already mastered years before.

This lack of challenge leads to frustration, underachievement, and even failure. Some gifted students become severely depressed. Even in some classrooms that are designed for gifted students, some are too broad as far as their reach and scope in serving gifted students that they can’t quite reach the level of serving profoundly gifted students. It is crucial for parents and educators to determine whether these students are underachieving due to not being adequately prepared for these challenging materials, because they are still not being properly challenged, or they are simply in over their heads.

Environments that can lead to underachievement often display:

  • Inflexibility;
  • a lack of respect for individual students’ strengths and interests;
  • an undue emphasis on errors and failures;
  • an inappropriately teacher-centered environment;
  • and, a bland, rewarding curriculum.

Students who do get the opportunity to be in appropriately challenging gifted programs for the first time may find that they simply are not prepared to face more demanding intellectual demands. Without any real challenge, these exceptional students can coast and rely on their inane ability. Since everything comes easily to them, their self-discipline and tolerance for roadblocks may be underdeveloped.

Purposeful underachievement in order to fit in socially

Gifted students might do poorly on purpose, deliberately underachieving to “fit in” or gain acceptance in certain social circles. Profoundly gifted students who downplay their abilities still have the capability of achieving good grades, but they can’t express their gifts to their fullest potential. Even if these students successfully mask their true abilities in the name of acceptance, they still might feel the effects psychologically. In Underachievement in Exceptionally Gifted Adolescents and Young Adults: A Psychiatrist’s View, Jerald Grobman found that success without substantial effort often made gifted students he worked with feel a great deal of guilt and anxiety, and that it was not fair that they are “so well-endowed compared to their siblings, peers, parents, and even teachers”. This shame can lead to further efforts to suppress their gifts and self-esteem issues.

When some profoundly gifted students do get appropriately placed with intellectual peers into a stimulating and challenging academic environment fitting for them, this can be the first time they are not the smartest student in the room, an intellectual outlier. As this becomes part of their identity, it can be a harsh shock when these students suddenly are with intellectual equals or even those who have a superior level of intelligence. This can result in defensiveness, upsetting blows to self-esteem and self-identity, and, ultimately, academic underachievement.

Signs of Gifted Underachievement

Underachievement among profoundly gifted students can be extremely confusing and frustrating for educators and parents. This population displays mastery far beyond their years in their areas of strength, but might still need adult guidance for basic skills, or skills that were passed over in the course of acceleration.

Low self-esteem

Gifted children understand that they can be different in a lot of way from their same-age peers, and this is especially true among those who are profoundly gifted. Establishing a positive self-concept can be difficult for extremely gifted students, and generally, the higher the IQ, the more difficult the struggle for personal identity and friendships. Gifted students’ notions of self are often tied to their ultra-specific intensities, and educators and parents often unfairly expect gifted students to excel in all areas of performance, even those outside of their domain of strength.

Underachievement becomes a factor for these students when their self-identity becomes too intricately wound up in their academic performance. Students tend to underachieve when they do not believe that they are capable of living up to expectations set by themselves and others. When profoundly gifted students’ performance in school does not align with perceptions of their potential, their self-esteem and self-image can take a hit, causing them to slide into self-doubt and underachievement.

Avoidance behaviors

Profoundly gifted students often display an infinite desire to master a very specific subject. Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (1964) has a concept of intellectual excitability, a “rage to master” that can be thought of as separate from intelligence, which explains why profoundly gifted children will sometimes latch on to a given topic. Despite the fact that interests can change, this often becomes part of students’ self-perceptions: they are a “humanities kid” or a “math kid” or a “science kid.”

While this can produce outstanding results, it can also lead to students not feeling a need to study subjects outside of their chosen field. Students who avoid studying outside of their zone of intensity might be doing so to avoid revealing possible shortcomings, or they may be doing so to avoid responsibility for any failures. These tactics allow all underachieving gifted students to avoid often crippling damage to their academic self-perception.


It’s can be difficult for educators to miss signs of perfectionism in school, since what they are often seeing is assignments being done well and handed in on time. A closer look might reveal anxious concerns about work being done in class, or about grades earned on work already handed in. Although many perfectionistic kids get their work done ahead of time, some can exhibit a different nuance of perfectionism: procrastination. Not all procrastinators are perfectionistic, but sometimes kids seem less concerned about the nagging of parents and teachers than they are about handing work in and risking getting less than a perfect grade. As a result, they put off completion.

It is possible for perfectionism to be used effectively. Perfectionistic tendencies can prompt the profoundly gifted to identify their weaknesses and then set and accomplish realistic goals. However, Perfectionism can also become counterproductive. Students who might otherwise be successful can sabotage their own accomplishments via extreme dissatisfaction in their work, causing them to abandon a completed draft in favor of starting over in the pursuit of perfection.

See additional common characteristics of gifted underachievers.

Strategies that can help reverse underachievement

 Dr. Jim Delisle offers the following strategies for underachieving gifted students:

  • Compare where a child is succeeding in school and where s/he is not. The best way to address underachievement is through a positive, proactive approach. Thus, if you can determine the conditions in which a child succeeds, and with which teachers a child performs as expected, try to “tease out” the elements of why this success has been achieved. As much as possible, try to replicate these strategies/attitudes in situations where the child has not been successful.
  • The underachieving child needs to be acknowledged for attempts, not just successes. If the only time a gifted child hears “Good job!” is when perfection is attained, the seeds for underachievement are being sown. However, if parents and teachers say things like “This is going to be a tough task, and I’ll be here to help in any ways I can. I simply want to thank you for taking on this challenge.” Now…to which statement would you respond better.
  • Get away from questioning “who’s at fault” for underachievement and work towards resolving the situation where no one loses. In every case of underachievement, there is enough blame to go around. A meager curriculum? Perhaps. Parental expectations that are too high? Could be. Lousy, cantankerous attitude toward authority? Students have been known to be guilty of that. But if parents, teachers and kids themselves can agree to have an honest series of conversations about what is working and what is not working, the first seeds of resolution have been sown.

Preventing perfectionism

Perfectionism is a self esteem issue. Mistakes are seen as evidence of personal flaws, and there is a fear of not being personally acceptable. While it is important to encourage gifted students to relax and not worry so much about outcomes, it can be difficult for teachers to be helpful in this way because it doesn’t address the underlying anxiety. The stage needs to be set by initiating a conversation with the student.

Teachers can voice their concerns about what they see, and wondering out loud about why getting things just right, or completely avoiding mistakes, is so important, is a good first step. Teachers can ask themselves whether own expectations that a gifted student always do outstanding work might be in play. Starting a conversation about these concerns can typically be more powerful if parents are brought in as well. Do they see the same things at home? Have they talked about it? Is perfectionism a family trait?

Finding appropriate educational environments

The benefits of ability grouping for gifted students are well-documented. Studies have found that when gifted students are ability grouped with similarly motivated and intelligent peers, they advance as much as a whole year compared to students of a similar age and intelligence. This type of intellectual growth likely occurs because grouping allows gifted students to move at a pace that is appropriate for their abilities. Ability grouping also creates space for enrichment opportunities and other activities that encourage gifted students to pursue their passions.

Additionally, studies focusing on the social-emotional needs of the gifted have found that gifted students perceive homogeneous ability grouping more positively than mixed-ability grouping with respect to academic outcomes, and most report having more positive feelings about school and about their giftedness in general when grouped with their intellectual peers. Learn more about ability grouping for gifted students.


It is imperative that parents and educators of profoundly gifted students do their best to help them to achieve their academic and personal goals. Parents and educators may find that profoundly gifted underachievers can provide great insight into their own struggles, and can serve as helpful and willing partners in the struggle to recover from academic and social-emotional setbacks. It is important that parents and educators model the kind of patience, resilience, and flexibility they are asking from profoundly gifted children.

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