Interventions for Gifted Teens Who Are Underachieving

The underachievement of gifted students is a perplexing phenomenon. Too often, for no apparent reason, students who show great academic promise fail to perform at a level commensurate with their previously documented abilities, frustrating both parents and teachers (Whitmore, 1986). The process of defining underachievement, identifying underachieving gifted students, and explaining the reasons for this underachievement continues to stir controversy among practitioners, researchers, and clinicians. Practitioners who responded to a National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented needs assessment identified underachievement as a major research problem (Renzulli, Reid, & Gubbins, 1992). Despite this interest, the underachievement of gifted students remains an enigma.

Academic underachievement has been a persistent area of concern for educators, parents, and students for at least the past 35 years. The gifted underachiever has been described as “one of the greatest social wastes of our culture” (Gowan, 1955, p. 247). Beyond the social cost, however, there are personal setbacks as well — opportunities for advanced educational experiences and personal development are thwarted by academic underachievement. Today, there is no problem more perplexing or frustrating than the situation in which a bright child cannot or will not perform at an academic level commensurate with his or her intellectual ability.

Definitions of gifted underachievement as a discrepancy between potential and performance are by far the most common. However, if one accepts the general premise that underachievement involves a discrepancy between ability and achievement; a need exists to operationally define these key concepts.

A common method of defining ability involves the use of an IQ test, such as the Wechsler Scales. However, the criteria needed to identify giftedness vary from state to state and from district to district. In some states, students must achieve an IQ score at or above a certain cut-off in order to acquire the gifted label. Many states, including Colorado, mandate the use of multiple criteria to determine giftedness. Because different school systems use different criteria to label a student gifted, the populations of students who are identified as gifted vary; and, in some cases, they are not comparable. This phenomenon is sometimes called “geographic giftedness” (Borland, 1989).

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Putting the Research to Use
Parents and teachers working with students to reverse the underachievement pattern may wish to consider a number of factors. Results from this study (Read the full article here) indicate that it is important to identify the underachiever’s areas of strength and talent. Personal interests can motivate the student to learn and provide an avenue for learning various skills related to school success. Providing appropriately challenging curriculum during the period of underachievement also appears to be important. School personnel should consider gifted underachievers candidates for gifted education services and/or advanced classes. The underachievers in this study also seemed to respond well to parents and teachers who had high expectations, provided calm and consistent guidance, and maintained a positive, objective regard for the student. The study’s findings indicate that academic underachievement can be reversed as a result of modifications on the part of both the student and the school.

If you’re interested in reading a book about emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development from early adolescence through teen years we recommend Your Adolescent by David Pruitt M.D., AACAP

About the Book

Parents, teachers, and mental health workers will find the answers to these- and many other-questions in this forthright yet compassionate guide to helping your adolescent through the tumultuous teen years. From peer pressure and self-esteem to experimentation with sex, alcohol, and drugs, this invaluable resource covers a wide range of practical issues. Here as well is information on more serious obstacles to a teen’s development that may require professional intervention, such as depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and disruptive behavioral disorders. As surely as every child will become a teen, every person that must relate to a teen will find this book a reliable, indispensable guide to the ups and downs of adolescence.

Another good resource for parents and educators in combating underachievement is the work of Dr. Sylvia Rimm. Her articles and books on the subject can be found at this link:



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