Last week, we discussed the myth that “all children are gifted,” and how perpetuating this myth undercuts the real struggles that gifted learners face.

At the beginning of this week, we had the good fortune to be able to attend the Wallace Research & Policy Symposium for Talent Development, which was held in conjunction with the National Association for Gifted Children Affiliate Conference. Ever since, we have been thinking about a prominent theme in the sessions we attended at Wallace, and that has been cropping up in our blog reader since: the problem of “underachievement” among gifted learners.

We put “underachievement” in quotes because it is a concept that is difficult to nail down. To begin with, the field is still divided on the definition of “gifted.” Having established a working definition, what qualifies as underachievement? How can it be measured? How can its causes be determined with any certainty, particularly as there is frequently more than one reason a student’s achievement might be well below their ability? Some studies have decided to not provide figures, finding that “any estimation of the number of gifted underachievers is speculation at best.”

Even if we put these questions aside, however, it does seem safe to say that there is a gap for too many gifted learners between their ability and their performance. This gap is exacerbated if your student is a minority or comes from a low socioeconomic background. This is at odds with what parents may commonly be told by their child’s school:

“She’s bright and passing all her classes; she’ll be fine.”

“He doesn’t need services—look at his grades!”

 “She doesn’t need extra services; she just needs to apply himself.”

“He’s lazy—he needs to work harder.”

“You can’t get out of ‘boring work’ when you’re holding down a real job. This is good experience.”

However, a brief overview of the research suggests that many students are not fine. Even adding a label of “underachiever” can make things worse, as it comes with its own implications. For one thing, it suggests that there is a set standard that gifted children must live up to, a standard that may have more to do with adult perceptions of giftedness than the child to whom the standard is applied. By focusing on the underachievement aspect, we may also be placing blame —intentionally or unintentionally—on the student, as in the comments above. If they would just do their homework, go to class, get better grades, show how smart they are—then maybe everything would be easier.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop talking about underachievement as a struggle that gifted students face. But it may mean that we need to reframe our thinking around what makes an underachiever—that we may need to be more careful in our thinking and talking about gifted students, particularly to gifted children themselves. Does he “just need to apply himself,” or is it time to rethink the way that we approach education for our gifted learners?

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