By Mrs. Brianne Hudak, M. Ed.
Advocates for the gifted must make social-emotional achievement as much of a priority as academic success. The holistic understanding of these students allows for a deeper knowledge of their unique abilities and needs. Now more than ever, the mental health of gifted students should be at the forefront of educational decision-making for them to perform confidently at the highest level.
What is Underachievement?
“Not living up to potential” is a term used throughout institutions for some time to describe gifted and high-ability students that are underachieving. According to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), underachievement is the unanticipated difference between accomplishment and ability. When unchallenged, gifted students often become bored, act out, and are noncompliant in completing assignments they view as pointless (Merriman, 2012). When not engaged, this exceptional population can exhibit behavioral problems and negative social-emotional feelings.
Identification of Underachievement in Gifted Students
It is imperative to their emotional health that gifted students receive the support needed to stay engaged, motivated, and committed to academics and activities. Often overlooked and underserved, this population struggles to find their place in the world. Over the years, research on gifted underachievers has shown that there are common characteristics to help identify these at-risk students.
Common Characteristics of Underachievers
(Van Tassel-Baska, 1992; Whitmore, 1986; Rimm, 1986; Baum, Owen & Dixon, 1991)
Consistently negative attitude toward school, teachers, and learning
Reluctance to take risks or apply themselves
Discomfort with competition
Lack of perseverance
Lack of goal-directed behavior
Weaknesses in skill areas and organization
Once identified, interventions must be put in place immediately based on social-emotional behaviors and patterns. These plans must have realistic expectations, implement appropriate strategies, and work towards the successful completion of set goals.
Ways to Effectively Support Gifted Students Social-Emotionally so Underachievement Can be Combated
-Build trusting and positive relationships
Gifted students need social interactions with peers that have similar interests and abilities. By providing opportunities to communicate and collaborate with other students, they increase their interpersonal skills and learn how to effectively work in teams, groups, etc.
Support systems are essential in helping gifted students understand their thoughts and feelings. Meaningful connections are made through advisement, mentorships, and counseling. Support systems stretch across the school, family and community and work together to assist gifted students during transitional periods, difficult situations, and challenges. They should address perfectionism, emphasize effort, and discuss the student’s unique abilities, talents, and gifts.
Gifted students need to be given the tools, strategies, and plans to handle failure, learn how to persevere, and properly express themselves and their ideas. This greater control brings about self-efficacy and is achieved by developing a growth mindset--learning how to properly reflect, practice self-talk, goal set, and think critically and creatively.
-Design gifted programs and content that are sensitive to diversity, equity, and social-emotional development
Gifted students need change agents to reform and assist with the further understanding and development of this population. They will perform better both academically and social-emotionally when recognized and accepted and when their unique needs are met in appropriate educational programs with properly trained specialists and leaders.
Underachieving gifted students often feel that they are unable to live up to the expectations of their label. Be mindful of labels; we are each a work in progress. By removing bias and blaming factors historically assigned to this group and instead focusing on positive and preventative approaches, the walls are broken down and their potential can be realized.
When gifted and talented students do not perform at their ability level, they can become academically and social-emotionally lost from the lack of support needed to meet their exceptional needs. However, when equipped with the skills, tools, and resources necessary to identify a gifted underachiever and properly intervene with research-based social-emotional interventions, the outcome will lead to a change in the underachievement phenomenon and positively affect the individuals involved. We cannot afford to let these future leaders disappear in the system or fall through the cracks.
Mrs. Brianne Hudak, M. Ed., is passionate about gifted education, driven to help students succeed both academically and social-emotionally, and enjoys serving her community. She has worked in many roles and sectors of education (public, private and charter) for the past fifteen years including as a certified gifted and talented educator, curriculum specialist, student activities director, theatre arts and STEM teacher, dean of students, assistant principal, educational consultant, adjunct professor, and school leader of a K-12 charter school. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership with an emphasis on combating underachievement in the gifted population. She is a member of the National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC) serving on various committees, the North Carolina Association of the Gifted and Talented (NCAGT), the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children (WCGTC) and Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) serving as a state liaison. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband, son, two dogs and two cats.
Baum, S. M., Owen, S. V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To be gifted and learning disabled. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Merriman, L. (2012). Developing academic self-efficacy: Strategies to support gifted elementary school students (Doctoral dissertation, Dominican University of California).
National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), (2021). https://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/achievement-keeping-your-child-challenged/underachievement
Rimm, S. B. (1986). Underachievement syndrome: Causes and cures. Watertown, WI: Apple Publishing.
Van Tassel-Baska, J. (1992). Planning effective curriculum for gifted learners. Denver, CO: Love Publishing.
Whitmore, J. R. (1986). Preventing severe underachievement and developing achievement motivation. In J.R. Whitmore (Ed.), Intellectual giftedness in young children: Recognition and development. New York: Haworth Press.