Underachievement: An Alternate Course of Action

Photo Courtesy: Morguefile

In my last post, I promised resources for those who requested them. While pulling together the list of links below, I came across several forgotten gems on the topic; articles which have influenced my thinking but escaped my memory. I would be remiss if I did not thank two authors whose work has had a profound impact on how I approach this subject ~ Mr. Josh Shaine and Dr. James Delisle. Their articles are the most parent-friendly ones I have ever come across. I highly recommend you read their articles first.

The term ‘underachievement’ is about as prickly as the term ‘gifted’. There are lots of definitions and parameters, but little agreement on what the term actually means. I’ve always had an uneasy feeling about the connotations surrounding underachievement. As a parent, it made me sad to think of a child as an underachiever.

When did the child become an underachiever?

Where could a parent have gone wrong?

As it turns out, neither the child nor their parent actually did anything wrong. You wouldn’t know that to listen to teachers, psychologists or ‘experts’ in the field of gifted education who try to tell a different story. They are quick to point to the symptoms of underachievement, but are at a loss for words when it comes to causes. And there is a good reason for that …

You see … this is a classic case of blame the victim. Something has to be wrong with the child that they are simply not living up to their potential (or should I say to someone else’s expectations?).

In Delisle’s article, he acknowledges that there are students who do not perform as well as they could academically, but he insists we stop blaming the child. Rather, he explains we should start making a difference by changing ‘our’ vocabulary and attitude about underachievement.

I couldn’t agree more. Last summer, I sat in a session with one of the leading ‘experts’ on the topic of underachievement. It was all about how to fix the underachieving child. During the presentation, she had an activity for the audience. Not accepting the premise of the activity, I chose not to participate. This did not sit well with this expert. She actually came to my table to ask me personally to join in. When I said “no”, she became flustered and walked away. The irony of my actions obviously escaped her.

As parents, we often expect a lot from our children when they are identified as ‘gifted’ … perhaps we expect TOO much forgetting that they are still children? I know – this flies in the face of another group of experts - who say we must push, and push, and push. Well, many of these gifted children are a lot smarter than the experts and that includes the ones who label them as underachievers.

Photo Courtesy: Morguefile

Don’t the same experts advise parents to do all we can to encourage creativity? Then they tell us how to get our children to conform to an uninspired curriculum offered in many classrooms today. We are told to coerce our children into completing the 10 to 12 worksheets they are handed every day for homework ... or endure being labeled another ‘esteem-killing’ term … lazy.

Another course of action:

·         Forget the term ‘underachievement’
·         Explore why your child lacks interest
·         Change the environment, not your child
·         Encourage your child to find their passion
·         Be patient with your child


Patterns for Charlie (Companion piece to Underachievement from the Inside Out) by France Shaine (Josh's mother)

A Note on the Definition of Underachievement 

Underachieving Gifted in a Talent Development World 

Giftedness, Conflict, and Underachievement (book) by Joanne Rand Whitmore 


  1. Great post about this complicated topic. I think that the term needs to be considered within the context of the child, as opposed to one of blame. Rather than viewing the child as underachieving based on grades and school-based norms, one must look at whether the child is living up to his or her potential, and if not, then why not. If a child is no longer showing any passion, creativity and spark, then something's wrong. This may mean a range of things (e.g., boredom with school, apathy, depression, anger, a belief that he or she does not have to work for a grade any more), but clearly warrants further investigation. What I believe you are suggesting is empathy for the child rather than conforming to the system.
    Gail Post/ www.giftedchallenges.com

  2. Thank you for your considerate comment!


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