Combatting Underachievement in Gifted Children

‘There is talk about gifted primary children underachieving, but surely it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be? After all, you can see they’re doing well at school and they’re bright and communicative with adults. Aren’t there are lots of open-ended activities happening in classrooms these days? Many schools stream for subjects like maths and put the gifted children in the top group for English. At least gifted children have the intelligence to take advantage of these arrangements. Anyway, what if they are underachieving a bit? It’s not as though they’re missing out completely and causing problems like some other groups such as the real underachievers. Sure, some of the parents are complaining, but they’re generally overreacting.’

These sentiments are really quite convincing if you don’t look too closely. They’re not extreme or attacking. They represent teachers’ attempts to take a reasonable point of view in a society that regularly expects too much of the profession. And where there is no obvious solution to a problem, perhaps this is the safest course to take.

I am tempted here to squash some of these erroneous assumptions by throwing around some startling facts. You know the kind of thing: a third of gifted children are underachieving, some gifted children are invisible, underachieving gifted children are at risk and so on. But, instead, I’m going to use a vignette to convey what underachievement can mean for a gifted child.

Jennifer is a gifted student who went from being a model student to being a child with behaviour problems at home. The reason for this dramatic change was extreme boredom in the classroom. Anyone who spent time with Jennifer now, would notice that she smiles easily, is eager to please and has mature social skills. As a teacher you’d notice how she perseveres with challenging tasks and has a high level of self-efficacy. I can imagine her becoming a school captain in a couple of years from now…

However, a couple of years ago when Jennifer was in grade 2 it was a completely different picture. When faced with such unendurable boredom every day for the year, Jennifer’s behaviour became a nightmare for her parents. Perhaps it’s tempting to blame poor parenting or assume that Jennifer expected life to be constantly entertaining. But these responses fail to address the problem. Jennifer was bored. Not just for a few, mildly annoying hours a week. We’re talk about the crippling kind. In fact if you add it up, Jennifer was facing around 1,000 hours of classroom boredom in that year.

I’d like to ask any adult to contemplate that level of boredom in their year. I don’t know about you, but I’m not good with ten minutes of boredom (my husband would say that’s just me). How about an hour of mind-numbing frustration when your brain is aching to get stuck into something? Two or three, and I’m practically climbing the walls! We’re not talking about time when you can take out a book and switch off to the boredom around you or relax from an otherwise busy and demanding life.

Think about the main activity you front up to every weekday and the place in which you spend a large portion of your waking, energetic hours. School, the equivalent of an adult’s work situation, is a place where Jennifer hopes to feel the buzz of learning and the excitement of testing her brain to see what it’s capable of. Instead Jennifer was required to sit quietly, look interested and do mundane work that was so easy she probably could’ve cried. No wonder she ‘acted up’ at home!

The problem here (I think this is the ‘Duh!’ moment) is not that Jennifer was occasionally bored … but that she was bored most of the time. She was basically not learning. Imagine if someone argued that schools are not for learning but a place for children to ‘tread water’ until aged 18 when they could go into the work force or tertiary education? Ridiculous! Of course we don’t want this scenario. But then, why was Jennifer doing this? For what purpose was she going to school? Can we as educators allow this type of scenario to occur?

In Jennifer’s example the result of being bored at school manifested in worrying behaviour at home. Of course there are many ways that bored gifted children consciously or unconsciously express their frustration. Tears, switching off, being ‘difficult’ in the classroom, struggling with peer relationships, seeking negative attention, low self-esteem, depression and my favourite: using your intelligence to bait the teachers. “Hey, I made the teacher cry!” Sometimes the teachers suffer together with the child and usually the parents do. If these negative side affects aren’t enough, then the child’s underachievement should convince us to change our strategies.

So what are better strategies? In Jennifer’s case, a teacher who acknowledged her high ability and made sure she was challenged made a big difference. In general terms ‘curriculum differentiation’ in the classroom can go a long way to helping gifted students to achieve nearer their potential. Better still, acknowledge gifted children’s frustrations, find out their needs, support the teachers by showing them how to differentiate in the classroom and develop a school culture that celebrates high academic achievers. Add to this by making opportunities for gifted children to engage with like-minded students. Remember that most classes won’t have enough such children to truly challenge each other and this is an effective and efficient way to challenge gifted children.

If you are a teacher you may be thinking in response to this article, ‘I’d like to cater better for my gifted students but how can I justify putting in the time when I have so many more non-gifted children to cater for?’ I’m not sure if it’s luck or just common sense that there is one effective solution to both these problems. In fact if you’re going to do any professional development to improve your ability to help the largest number of children in your class, then learning about curriculum differentiation is what I recommend.

Differentiation is about modifying curriculum content, process and product to provide a program that allows all students to work at their level. Don’t worry, you won’t have to learn lots of new techniques; you’ll use what you already know such as open-ended questions, Bloom’s taxonomy, rubrics, thinking organisers and so on. But you’ll use these in a holistic context starting at the planning stage.

And the parents? What can you do? I know it can be daunting to approach the teacher, but don’t let this put you off. Your child’s teacher may respond better than you expect and appreciate you alerting them to the problems. A positive parent-teacher partnership can be very powerful and of tremendous benefit to your child.

Underachievement in gifted children is not something to be rationalised and minimised. It’s a real and worrying problem. But there are positive ways to remedy it and some very passionate teachers who can make a difference.


Penny Willoughby runs seminars, workshops and coaching sessions with teachers on how to differentiate effectively. She receives outstanding feedback on the effectiveness and practicality of her presentations.

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