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Why Some Gifted Children Become Underachievers

By Mayflor Markusic

Some gifted children do not excel in school, and they become underachievers. The first step in helping underachieving gifted students is to identify the causes of underachievement. There are three common causes.

Experts in the field of education disagree on the definition of underachievement. The conventional idea of underachievement is having low grades in school. However, the school report card is not the only measure of the gifted child’s development. It is possible for gifted children to not stand out in school and yet remain confident and competitive. They can accomplish many other things outside of school and eventually become successful adults.

Some gifted children, however, underachieve. They do not develop to their full potential. Since underachievement and its subsequent consequences are not easy to overturn or cancel out, the focus of many educators is to spot underachievement at a young age and address the causes. There are three common causes of underachievement. These are depression, intrinsic motivation, and the presence of a learning disability.


Gifted children are just as susceptible to depression-triggering events as the average child. For example, they become depressed when they relocate and leave behind their close friends. They get depressed when their parents are getting a divorce. Besides these situations, gifted children can also easily give in to existential depression without any observable triggers.

Existential depression occurs when a person mulls over the meaning of life and death. This is when giftedness can be both a gift and a bane. The gifted child can easily understand the events around him. And, even as young as five years old, he may mull over death and begin to question the meaning of his life. The recommended way to address depression is counseling.

Intrinsic Motivation

Many gifted children are intrinsically motivated. They accomplish school tasks for the sheer joy of overcoming a challenge. However, if the school activity is not challenging enough, the gifted child becomes bored and uninterested. The idea of “school” is not attractive. One classic example is Einstein’s experience. One of the greatest geniuses of all time did not enjoy elementary and high school. This is why the parents of gifted children should look into schools that offer programs for the gifted. Such schools offer intellectually stimulating work for the gifted students. The teachers offer differentiated instruction as early as first grade. Intrinsic motivation also emphasizes the importance of the early discovery of a child’s giftedness.

Learning Disability

Gifted children with learning disabilities are described as having dual exceptionalities. Dual exceptionality is extremely difficult to identify. These special students are usually written off as average students. In reality, they are exceptionally intelligent and have often managed to compensate for their learning disabilities. The result, however, is average-level achievement. The learning disability may remain undiagnosed for a long time, and the gifted children underachieve because they don’t develop to their full potential.

If the parents and teachers suspect dual exceptionality in a child, one test that can be used is the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children or the WISC. If there is a difference of 15 points or more between the subsections called Verbal IQ and Performance IQ, the child is probably gifted but with a learning disability. Dual exceptionalities are also possible when discrepancies of nine points appear among the other subtests of the WISC.

Identifying the cause of a gifted child underachieving is difficult, but it is an essential step in resolving the problem.