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IAGC Question of the Month - March 2021: Why Do Advanced Learners Grapple With Underachievement and What Can We Do About It?

03/18/2021 3:12 PM | Anonymous

Why Do Advanced Learners Grapple With Underachievement and What Can We Do About It?  

-Patricia Steinmeyer


Often we think of gifted and advanced learners as those who are successful in school, embrace learning opportunities, and are highly motivated. However, this is not always the case. Some highly capable students do not excel in school and may even resist learning. For parents and educators of children with exceptional abilities and potential, it can be heartbreaking and frustrating when a child's performance in school does not match his or her capabilities. 

Because of the diversity of talents and strengths exhibited by individuals, there is no set definition for underachieving gifted and talented learners. However, it is generally understood that underachievement refers to a difference between expected achievement and ability (Reis, 2000).It is also difficult to characterize underachievers because individuals may underachieve in certain areas and not others.

Underachievement can manifest itself in a lack of motivation, which may be reflected in a variety of behaviors such as apparent laziness, defiance, disengagement, procrastination, and/or passive aggressiveness (Whitney & Hirsch, 2007, pp. 37-38). 

There are also different types of underachievers. Richard Cash, Ed. D. identifies two types of underachievers, “nonproducers” who perform well on tests, but do not complete daily assignments and homework, and “selective producers” who know that they are capable, but only complete work that they are interested in doing (Cash 2017). 

As a teacher, I observed that underachievement on the part of advanced learners was sometimes driven by a lack of appropriate challenge or interest in the class work. This is not surprising because advanced learners may begin the school year having mastered 40-50 percent of the material (Heacox & Cash, p. 139). Also, many gifted and advanced learners have intense interests that they do not have the opportunity to explore in school due to inflexibility in the curriculum and/or lack of differentiation. 

In addition to the lack of appropriate challenge and/or engaging learning experiences, other potential factors that may contribute to underachievement include the following:

  • Family struggles/life changes
  • Perfectionism
  • Lack of culturally responsive curriculum and instruction that creates a sense of relevance and belonging for students from diverse backgrounds and cultures
  • Peer influences
  • Fixed mindset (as opposed to a growth mindset that accepts mistakes and struggle as a part of learning, resulting in resilience, perseverance and grit)
  • A sense of lack of control over circumstances
  • Negative perceptions of one’s own abilities/poor self-concept
  • Unclear Expectations
  • Test anxiety
  • A sense that work is irrelevant/unimportant for achieving personal goals
  • Lack of clear and meaningful feedback
  • (For perceived underachievement) Undiagnosed learning disability, illness, or health concern

As human beings, all of us underachieve at times. But what can parents do when they observe a pattern or consistent underachievement? Here are a few suggestions:

Check in with the child’s teacher and extracurricular coaches/instructors.

  • Ask teachers to share their observations and perspectives with respect to any changes in your child’s attitudes or performance. This can help you to get a complete picture of your child’s daily experience.
  • If you speak with teachers in classes/activities in which your child is motivated and successful, ask about any strategies or suggestions they may have that may help to motivate your child.
  • Find out whether the curriculum relevant to your child’s experience and inclusive of your child through its acknowledgement of his/her culture and heritage. 
  • Gain awareness of the type of feedback your child receives in school. Positive, specific feedback from the teacher can be highly motivating when it acknowledges individual effort, provides clear, constructive suggestions for improvement, and underscores the meaningfulness of the assignment. Help your child to review and reflect on this feedback when provided.
  • Ask about whether there are opportunities for choice when projects are assigned. Having choice may provide a sense of autonomy that can increase motivation.
  • Ask your child’s teacher for any suggestions about what you can do as a parent to support your child’s continued learning and growth in the classroom.

Check in with your child's physician to rule out potential health concerns.

  • Sometimes a child's underachievement, especially when there is a change in behavior, may reflect an underlying physical or emotional health issue. 

Talk with your child. Some helpful questions to start a conversation may be:

  • How are things going in school? What do you think is going well? In what classes/subjects are you struggling?
  • Are there things that your teacher, parent, and/or you can do to help?
  • How do you feel about school days? When are you feeling the best about school and your work?
  • If you could create the most interesting assignment or learning experience for yourself, what would it be?
  • What are your goals for yourself and/or what would you like to do when you grow up? How do you think school will help you with your goals?
  • What school subjects and classes interest you the most? Why? What about those classes/subjects that do not interest you? How could they be improved? Is there anything you think you could do differently to help yourself in those subjects?

Encourage or support your child’s passions and interests if these interests are physically and emotionally healthy and align with your values. 

  • Your child’s sense of excitement and curiosity can positively impact a sense of joy in learning, a positive self-concept, a sense of control, and self-efficacy. 
  • Participating in activities with peers and/or mentors that have similar interests may inspire and/or motivate your child.

Accept that your child may have unique strengths and talents in some areas but not others.

  • Often children excel in some areas, but not in others. Educators and parents should maintain high expectations for children and encourage children to put forth effort and embrace challenges. However, it is also important to keep expectations realistic.

Help your child to set realistic and measurable short term and long term goals.

  • Set goals that are within your child’s control such as “I will practice 5 math problems per day,” or “I will write a paragraph in my journal every Thursday.” Once your child gains confidence by fulfilling short term goals, extend goals gradually.
  • Help your child to be accountable by following up routinely, reflecting on progress, and celebrating incremental progress.
  • For more information on goal setting, review theIAGC January 2021 Question of the Month Blog: How Can I Help My Advanced Learner Set and Achieve Goals?

Always let your child know that they are loved and valued for who they are, not what they achieve.

As engaged, informed, and positive advocates, parents can provide invaluable support for reversing underachievement among advanced learners. Although the road may be challenging, we can help our children overcome this struggle through respectful listening, creativity, understanding and love.



  • Cash, R. Understanding Underachievement in Gifted Learners. Free Spirit Publishing Blog. August 17, 2017.
  • Heacox, D. (2020).Differentiation for gifted learners: Going beyond the basics. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
  • Reis, S. M., & McCoach, D. B. (2000). The underachievement of gifted students: What do we know and where do we go?Gifted Child Quarterly,44(3), 152-170. Retrieved from:
  • Whitney, C. S., & Hirsch, G. (2007).A Love for Learning: Motivation and the Gifted Child. Great Potential Press, pp. 37-38.

Additional Resources:

  • Cash, R. Understanding Underachievement in Gifted Learners. Free Spirit Publishing Blog. August 17, 2017.
  • Delisle, J. R. (2018). Doing poorly on purpose: Strategies to reverse underachievement and respect student dignity. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Whitney, C. S., & Hirsch, G. (2007). A Love for Learning: Motivation and the Gifted Child. Great Potential Press
  • NAGC Webpage - Underachievement(Includes an additional list of resources.)
  • Summer Institute for the Gifted: Underachievement in Gifted Students: Reversal is Possible.



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