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Rethinking Underachievement and Potential


What constitutes underachievement and who determines when a child is underachieving? Does the definition change over time based on what society values? A simple definition of underachievement is ‘performing below expectations.’ This begs the question … who determines what is expected? In education, it may mean meeting/exceeding the standards. In society, are accomplishments enough? Regardless of how it is defined, underachievement must be dealt with in some manner due to the consequences often faced by students in the situation. The effects can be devastating for some and have a lifelong impact.

Potential is equally a term whose definition is up for debate. Whether in the eye of the beholder or determined by others, the expectation is that it must be fulfilled if one is to be seen as accomplished; a success. When a person fails to live up to their potential, it is generally a reason for calls to ‘fix’ the situation; even if the person in question doesn’t want fixed.

Underachievement has real life consequences that can extend well into adulthood. Gifted underachievers may have very different reasons for finding themselves dealing with those consequences. Causes of underachievement range from learning difficulties to lack of study skills or motivation to teacher mismatch or school policy.

Once underachievement envelops a student’s life; it can develop into apathy, disrespect, or a desire to conform to peers in an attempt to be popular. It may eventually cause social-emotional issues when a student’s ‘gifted’ identity is challenged.

What can schools do to counteract underachievement in gifted students? Gifted underachievers can benefit from incorporating depth and complexity in their learning, accelerating the pace of learning, allowing the free expression of creativity, and grouping with intellectual peers. Schools can reduce boredom and increase engagement of gifted underachievers by allowing students to experience “control, choice, challenge, complexity and caring teachers” (Kanevsky & Keighley, 2003). Research suggests that engagement can be encouraged by “enlisting gifted students’ social-emotional imagination, creativity, sense of purpose & empathy for others.” (Gottlieb, Hyde, Immordino-Yang & Kaufman, 2016).

Parents must advocate for the determination of the cause of the underachievement first so that schools provide appropriate interventions and then be willing to work with school personnel to address the causes. They may need to consider additional testing and counseling with a licensed mental health professional. Parents can nurture a love of learning by providing opportunities outside traditional schooling that appeal to their child’s interests and abilities. A transcript of this chat may be found at Wakelet.

Global #gtchat Powered by the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented  is a weekly chat on Twitter. Join us Thursdays at 8E/7C/6M/5P in the U.S. and Fridays at 1PM NZST/11 AM AEST/Midnight UK  to discuss current topics in the gifted community and meet experts in the field. Transcripts of our weekly chats can be found at Wakelet. Our Facebook Page provides information on the chat and news and information regarding the gifted community. Also, checkout our Pinterest Page and Playlist on YouTube.

 Lisa Conrad About the authorLisa Conrad is the Moderator of Global #gtchat Powered by TAGT and Social Media Manager of the Global #gtchat Community. She is a longtime  advocate for gifted children and also blogs at  Gifted Parenting Support. Lisa can be contacted at:



Cleverness and Common Sense-Your True Potential: Human Gifts and Talents! (Podcast)

Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic (Amazon)

Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement (bn)

Gifted Underachievers (why it makes sense, and how to deal with it) (YouTube 8:32)

Solving the Riddle of Underachievement: Kenneth Christian at TEDxSacramento (YouTube 8:49)

In Defense of the High School Underachiever | Rachel Hawley | TEDxYouth@Wayland (YouTube 16:45)

Reversing Underachievement: Stories of Success

Who is the Gifted Underachiever? Four Types of Underachievement in Gifted Children

What causes gifted underachievement?

Factors That Differentiate Underachieving Gifted Students From High-Achieving Gifted Students

Underachievers Under-the-radar: How Seemingly Successful Gifted Students Fall Short of their Potential

How to Help your Underachieving Gifted Child

8 Ideas for Building Intrinsic Motivation to Learn in Students

Underachievement in Exceptionally Gifted Adolescents and Young Adults: A Psychiatrist’s View (pdf)

Gifted Underachievers: A Contrarian Position or Two

Beware of Underachievement in Successful Students

Underachievement: A Story in Process

When You Don’t Live up to Your Potential


Image courtesy of Pixabay Pixabay License

Graphic courtesy of Lisa Conrad.


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