Gifted Underachievers: Underachieving or Refusing to Play the Game?

Gifted children who are not challenged in school and are not taught the way they need to learn can eventually give up on school and may then become what we term gifted underachievers.

Sadly, it happens more often than it should.

Yet, maybe the term gifted underachievers is a misnomer. Maybe we have it all wrong. Maybe gifted underachievers have it all right and our educational system has it all wrong. What if our gifted underachievers know something about education that we don’t know and we refuse to see?

Our traditional, industrial-style educational system of today is a relatively new construct in American and world history. Before the current type of education our children experience today, we had the one-room schoolhouse and learning at home from parents, tutors and older siblings when there was not a school nearby. Teachers were not always trained and classes were multi-age. Instruction was probably instinctive and geared toward each child’s educational level and needs. Teaching was probably more natural, logical and organic way back then, at least that is what I think.

Now, we have a strict age-based organization. Education is delivered to typical children based on their ages, not their educational level because this is an expedient and effective method, most of the time—this assumption does not include special education which usually focuses on the educational needs of the child, not his age.

Of course, any system, group or organization with a set organizational format will always have outliers or exceptions to the overriding philosophical foundations, and our traditional educational system does have its share of those exceptions. Maybe more than its share. Our gifted underachievers are included in the group of outliers, the exceptions to our current traditional educational system. One-size-fits-all in reality is one-size-fits-most in our educational system.  And this leads me to the question: Are our gifted underachievers really underachieving? When school does not fit them?

Before we answer that question, let’s first look at those who are achieving in our traditional school system. Specifically, let’s look at the children who are excelling. To be brief, the children who excel learn the information they are expected to learn and then perform well on tests and assessments. They follow the rules, comply with what is expected of them and work hard to exceed expectations. They know that good grades are important and so they follow the rules and meet or exceed expectations. They are the smart students, deemed so because they are following the game plan exceedingly well and getting the desired results.

What about the gifted underachievers? Their label is derived from the fact that these children are gifted and are performing below expectations, not fulfilling their potential. There are many reasons given for gifted children who fall into this unfortunate category—lack of a challenging education, boredom, frustration, and not being understood as a gifted learner with unique social, emotional and cognitive needs. When traditional schools don’t deliver an education that meets the learning needs of this particular group of gifted learners, they become frustrated, demotivated and disengage from school. And then we cast on them a label that suggests they are not doing their part in school, they are not following the game plan.

Are gifted underachievers really failing to achieve? Or are our schools failing to meet their learning needs? What responsibility do our schools have to properly educate all students? And when this responsibility is neglected by our schools and we end up with a crop of gifted underachievers, who bears the responsibility of fixing the situation?

I’m sure most of us have seen the growing disapproval of our public schools lately—too many standardized tests, recess being taken away, focus on bringing up low test scores, and subjects like music and art being cut out of the curriculum. Learning is becoming more and more a stressful and hated part of many children’s lives. There is a lot of dissent out there.

For our gifted children who are said to be underachieving, are they really failing to achieve or just bucking a system of learning which no longer works for them, a system which is said to be broken? Maybe the educational system is underachieving and our gifted underachievers know something we haven’t quite figured out yet.

Maybe our gifted underachievers are a growing manifestation of our broken educational system. Maybe we don’t have gifted underachievers. Maybe what we really have is a colossal case of underachievement by our broken educational system, and our gifted underachievers are not really underachieving, they are just refusing to continue to play the game in an arena where the rules keep getting more and more restrictive, inappropriate and ineffective.

And just maybe these gifted children know something we have yet to figure out: our educational system is failing too many of our children—maybe most of our children.

Gifted underachievers—underachieving or just refusing to play the game, the broken game?


An Underachiever Named Bart

Underachievement of Verbally Gifted Children

Underachievement in Gifted Children: A Tragic Irony

Suffering in Silence: Who’s Really Paying the Price for the Neglect of Our Gifted Children?

40 Comments on “Gifted Underachievers: Underachieving or Refusing to Play the Game?

  1. This really depends on the definition of underachieving. If it means scoring badly on all the stupid tests that schools make kids take now…….. then maybe the tests need changing more than the children.
    If… and this is what I think the true definition is… it means not fulfilling your potential as a human being to live a fulfilling and rich life, then education is just one part of the jigsaw puzzle, even if that jigsaw puzzle is much more complex when you are gifted.
    This is why it is so important to advocate, and try and help your child find as many pieces of that puzzle as you can.

    • Emily,

      I think it is like you said, “it means not fulfilling your potential as a human being to live a fulfilling and rich life.” And it is very much like a jigsaw puzzle.

      For me, I would say the definition of underachievement must also include how the child feels about his own progress and achievement in his education. If a child refuses to play the game at school, but is very much happy at home programming or writing novels, then I would be reluctant to call it underachievement. Also, underachievement can exist in homeschooled students.

      A huge jigsaw puzzle indeed!

      Thanks so much for your insight and comment, Emily!

  2. My daughter was tested in 2nd grade and deemed highly gifted. We tried homeschooling her for a year. (thru a local on line school). It was wonderful she finished the school year in about 6 1/2 months.(she only worked about 4 hours a day). however when we approached the online school about starting on the next year school work. We were told she couldn’t do that. That is not what we wanted. Also their was next to no socialization events. She decided she wanted to go back to school. We are fortunate, she attends a performing arts elementary Charter school, not only does it focus on the academics but also on the Performance aspect too.
    What I have noticed is not only is my daughter academically smart, but she also excels in others areas. Music, Drama and dance. as well as several sports.
    While this is not the ideal school situation, it better than any other avenue we have explored. Pennsylvania is not know as a progressive state, education wise.

    • Lori,

      It is a wonderful thing when you can feel comfortable with your child’s education even if it is not ideal. Not all educational environments–traditional school, magnet school, charter schools, online schools and homeschool–are perfect, and some better meet the needs of our children than others. As well, some states value education more than others, and so they support education with adequate funding and programs.

      So happy you have found a school which supports both your daughter’s interests and strengths!

  3. Pingback: Dear Public Schools, You Have Been Warned | Crushing Tall Poppies

    • And the more I know about this seeming “underachievement”, the more I see how the label is wrong and misleading. These kids are not underachieving, they are just reacting to something that feels unnatural and wrong to them.

  4. Celi,

    Your article was so resonant with my own experience in school over 30 years ago!

    It is remarkably sad, that it still resonates today- for far too many students, who’s sense of self worth Is all too often mirrored through the limited, distorted prism of misguided grown ups who are presumed to know better

    In fact- solvers of world problems, inventors of cures for diseases, artists, entrepreneurs…are by their very nature disruptive thinkers. We need to cultivate not thwart their individuality and curiosity

    it is time our schools shifted from a model aimed at producing compliant assembly line workers for a stable, relatively unchanging 20th century, to one that fosters creative thinkers and effective, self-aware collaborators able to adapt and co-create the road ahead- in harmony with today’s rapid rate of change, ubiquitous access to information and hyper-connectivity.

    If you’re leading a movement- count me in!

    At the link below is a poem I wrote – juxtuposing a defiant stand against school assignments with seemingly no enduring value, with the broader question about what society values

    Facts about packaging-

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful, thought provoking article

    • Lori, you are absolutely right on all of the points you made and I shared your poem on the Crushing Tall Poppies Facebook page.

      I would certainly lead a movement and I will count on you to be in! Right now, all of the information that is being shared in the gifted community is shared just within the gifted community–we are preaching to the choir. Many have said that gifted advocacy can’t work because there is too much animosity towards gifted children and gifted programs. How do we share our information without setting off a defensive stand-off? Who do we reach out to first? Who can make the most significant impact on a better education for our gifted children?

      I’m ready, I just need some accomplices and back-up troops! 😉

      Thanks for your inspirational words and getting that fire in me stoked again!!!

  5. What a great post! It is my observation that the children who were identified as “gifted” in elementary school, myself included, did not fare as well by the time we were in high school. It was as though we were in a race and the kids who’d been lagging behind all of those years finally got ahead there in the end… when it mattered most. I am confident that these kids excelled, not because they were exceptionally bright, but because they learned how to properly “play the game.” I am certain that the Valedictorian is NEVER the smarted kid in the class.

    • Thank you! Yes, there is definitely some confusion and misperception between bright and gifted, and who excels and who doesn’t. And the confusion and misperception continues to hinder parents’ ability to seek an appropriate education for their gifted children.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

    • Be awfully careful with that “never”.

      Generally speaking, there is often a small cadre of students– usually 3-5– at the top of a graduating class, any one of whom may end up being Val/Sal depending upon classes taken and weighting of those classes. In the class to which I am currently college advisor/mother confessor/purveyor of cookies, there are three, two of whom are gifted program alumni. (I don’t know the gifted status of the third child since AFAIK she was not tested– but as they say, absence of proof is not proof of absence.)

      In any case, Val will probably end up going to one of the identified-gifted kids– a child who has taken a ridiculous number of AP and dual enrollment classes and is, in general, “that kid”. What I’ve found is that Val– or any spot in the top ten– usually does go to “that kid”, the one savvy enough to figure out how to make the system work for him or her, and then motivated enough to work the bejeezus out of it. Sometimes that’s an outgrowth of giftedness– that ability to find work-arounds, to draw connections (non-Euclidian if needed) between two points, to take not so much the road less travelled as the road completely unseen by human eyes and then, ninja-like, startle the heck out of his or her peers. Sometimes it’s a question of sheer bloody-mindedness (which, IME, is often an outgrowth of giftedness as well). Could be any number of things.
      I think there’s a tendency– perhaps a reaction to the conventional wisdom of equalling giftedness with achievement– for some to assume “real” gifted kids are loftily above the competition, dancing not just to a different drummer but perhaps a didgeridoo choir. And some of them are. Some of them are figuring out how to make the system work and aiming at Princeton en route to world domination. A lot are somewhere in between, or both, depending on the circumstances and possibly moon phases. I think where we do our kids a disservice is when we assume any one of those is the defining face of giftedness.

      Disclaimer: I have four kids of my own, all adults or nearly so. All have acquired the label of gifted; one decided to multi-task and be 2E. The only thing they reliably have in common, aside from the label, is the certainty that as soon as you try to put them in any sort of a box, at least three will have escaped out the other side. (And the other will be gloating about finally having achieved a quiet room of his own.)

      • As a follow up to my own post, I can state with complete confidence that this year’s valedictorian, at least in one suburb of one city in a state which shall remain anonymous, was identified as gifted in second grade. (It would have been kindergarten, but he refused to talk to the woman doing the screening because he’d never met her before and was disinclined to talk to strangers.)
        He’s also (quelle horreur!) pursuing admission to an Ivy League school– not because he is a prestige whore, as suggested on another thread, but because he is entranced by the idea of no required curriculum and the opportunity to play clarinet whilst ice skating.
        Mind you, his older sister (the one who Christmas treed the standardized test, fwiw) did a turn as a waitress at Waffle House before deciding programming satellites sounded like more fun. So I cling to my theory that if you’ve seen one gifted kid…you’ve seen one gifted kid.

        • Sandy, thank you for following up on you post!

          “So I cling to my theory that if you’ve seen one gifted kid…you’ve seen one gifted kid.” I absolutely love this quote and it’s truth is utterly clear. That quote needs to be slapped on a Facebook meme and made viral!

          I appreciate your follow-up and your quote, Sandy. You made my day!

  6. Pingback: Let's Talk about Gifted EducationSF Public School Mom

  7. Oh Celi! You directed me over from the other post and now I must comment here. As I mentioned previously, my daughter has been asked to leave the GT program due to low test scores. Now here is where it gets hilarious…

    Last year during the standardized tests, my child at the age of 8 flat out refused to participate. The teacher tried for two days to get her to complete the tests and finally called me to intervene. Apparently my daughter had asked her if these tests were part of her grade and when finding out that she #1 was not going to learn anything by doing it and #2 not going to get a grade, she decided not to participate. Yep, I think you are spot on with this article!

    • Stacy, I have to say, I love that spunk in your daughter! But, then again, she has it all figured out and I think she is absolutely right!

      Thanks for sharing that lovely little bit, Stacy!

    • Re: the standardised tests: when my state was piloting a new standardised test program, one of my older daughters was part of the grade cohort they were using as guinea pigs. The kids were told that it wouldn’t count for graduation, that it was a road test, as it were. Independently, nearly two thirds of her class decided to Christmas tree it.

      I might add that this was in a STEM program whose students were defined, in part, by having been in the elementary and middle school gifted programs.

      Though I am loathe to define giftedness by any broad personality mandates, a certain tendency to be able to see past the BS might be one I’d consider.

      • ABSOLUTELY, Sandy! Truth —> “Though I am loathe to define giftedness by any broad personality mandates, a certain tendency to be able to see past the BS might be one I’d consider.”

        And their ability to see past the BS is why so many parents and gifted kids struggle in traditional school! How many times have I told my own teen, “I know it is BS, but just do it because you have to get a good grade. You have to play the game!”

        Thanks for sharing your story with all of us! And I enjoyed the giggle just thinking about all the gifted students Christmas tree-ing that test!

      • This isn’t exactly the same situation but it reminded me of it. When my son was in grades 2/3 he struggled (not sure why) with the SRA readings that they were supposed to do. They worked their way through each pamphlet and wrote their answers on a separate answer sheet. At the bottom the teacher had put a scale of smiley to frowny faces that they were supposed to mark how much they had liked the reading–apparently so that she could suggest certain books for them to read. At some point after months of noticing that he ALWAYS marked the last spot for “I didn’t like it much at all”, I finally asked him, “why do you do that? You don’t really hate every reading do you?”. His reply was something to the effect that it was stupid for them to even put that question on there. They didn’t care what he thought and they probably weren’t going to see it or do anything about his opinion anyway. I asked him who “THEY” was and he said “you know the textbook company–the SRA people.” Wow…

  8. Awesome article. I agree 110%.
    My son is now 21 and went through school just as you stated and sadly, at the present time, he is depressed and isolated.
    If you don’t mind, I would like to ask everyone for feedback on my story. I am at a total loss at this point!
    Hi, I pray I can get some good suggestions for my son!!!! My son is 21 yrs old and has been brilliant since age 1. He was reading & writing at the age of 2. He was tested at the age of 5 and received the Highly gifted/brilliant status. He amazed everyone with his knowledge. He was/is quirky, not like all the other average kids, and this started to take a negative effect on him as early as age 10. My son has zero common sense and doesn’t interact with people the way most would expect. School bored him to death, there was not GT programs offered. This ended up getting him into trouble. He started to hate school and although he dreamed of college, he barely graduated high school. He has always said that no one “gets him” and he feels he doesn’t belong in any group. I have introduced him to a few others who I thought he might jive with but it didn’t work. He always had better conversations with selective adults then children while he was growing up. He is a member of MENSA. At age 12 he taught himself to play the guitar and piano. He is an introvert, antisocial, very depressed and hates his life because it is not what he thought it would be. I have tried many, many things over the years to help my son feel better about himself, but nothing has helped. He has been to therapy & going again now. We moved to a new neighborhood to try a fresh start, that did not work. Music and writing are his only loves but yet he doesn’t follow through with them either because he feels ‘what’s the point, his life is going nowhere”. He has been feeling this way for 7 years and nothing is changing for the better. I can not stand to see him like this any longer. My heart is beyond broken. Such a gifted an talented young man and he is so lost he find his way out. What can I do? What do I do? I beg for answers!

    • I am based in the Uk and have experienced a similar problem since leaving university. I was doing everything to please the education system but not myself. Nothing that really stretched me and now I am home, misunderstood and isolated too. I am based in the Uk, I never recall there ever being any testing for giftedness and I don’t think there are any gifted schools here.. not that I have heard of. I would really appreciate any support advice or contacts that you know of that may help. It’s such a struggle and without the support and love of your family around you and minds that may get you, I don’t know how long term anyone can survive.
      Thanks, Emma

    • Again I recommend Summit Center IN CA (Dr. Dan Peters is wonderful) and finding a SENG parent support group. There is a directory on the Web site. can call their office for help. They are very caring and supportive.

  9. Funny but I saw you share that link on Twitter, retweeted it, and then wrote my post for the GHF hop next week off of it. 😉

    Although I agree with what you say here, I take a slightly different approach in my post. I think the problem is MUCH bigger than schools and has to do with narrow cultural definitions of “success” plus the issue of cognitive giftedness not necessarily being equal to what I call “academic giftedness.”

    • Yes, I agree cognitive giftedness is different from the more well-known, “academic giftedness”.

      Gifted underachievement is a huge problem, and complex. Do you think, though, that our traditional school system, a huge, influential institution, perpetuates those cultural definitions of success? Then, our cognitively gifted children, as well as many in society, adopt that definition of “success”, and then they fail to thrive in school and therefore in attaining that success.

      We tell them, “go to school, make good grades, get into a good college, and BOOM, you will get a good job and have success. It’s like a continuum and not every child is made to find success on that continuum or path. They will fall off that path at some point because it is the wrong one for them. Which then makes me wonder, should schools have a responsibility to adjust that path as needed to help more students find their “success”?

      I’m just thinking this through with your take on it too. Interesting. This would make a wonderful,long discussion. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing that interesting take! I like that.

      • The central problem, for me, lies in insisting that *gifted identity* be tied solely to academic settings. That works for some–the academically gifted, but not for all. If we can create some diverse thinking around gifted identity both within and outside of schools, we can jettison the “underachiever” and “failure” talk.

        The question we should be asking of each kid all along the way is: “is this kid living optimally?” And that means asking THEM what feels right, what needs work. Most kids don’t encounter that kind of talk–if they get it at all–until high school or college. That’s too late.

        Do schools contribute? Sure. But then so do parents and other stakeholders. Schools, for me, just reflect larger cultural values of the key stakeholders–minus the kids.

        For me it’s less an issue of “changing schools” and more one of changing hearts and minds to think about individuals (gifted or not) and personal goals and potential.

      • I always felt I learned more in my weekend jaunts to the library than I did in school. So much of school was memorization and I wanted to truly understand the deepness of a subject, but there was no time. Questions were frowned upon. Microfiche and the stacks were my school.

        • Lisa, I am certain that your experience speaks for many gifted individuals, sadly. With the pervasive need for testing and documentation in our public schools, there is just no time left for questions or deviating from a lesson plan to go deeper into a subject. Libraries are havens for learning!

          Thank you for sharing your experience, Lisa!

  10. Love your article! In some ways, these “gifted underachievers” are remarkably polite. They are saying “No thank you” to a system that does not serve or interest them.

    • What a great way to put it, Bob! It may even help these children to know that analogy because many of them feel guilt and failure. To know that their situation could be looked at as a positive and polite way of showing that the school system is not working for them.

      In my mind, gifted underachievers were like a unit of measurement, a thermometer of sorts, for how successfully or poorly the system was educating our gifted children.

      Either way, I hope these children are judged to be a symptom of a broken system and not judged as being broken themselves.

      Thanks, Bob!

  11. Hello! I have been reading your blog for a while now and your post have helped me tremendously! I am currently filling out paperwork to have my son tested. I almost did’nt because I was starting to doubt his potential giftedness. 🙁 My son is in kindergarten and right around the sixth week mark, I started noticing a lot of changes in behavior and his mental ability. I could go on and on about this, but I am sure you know what I am talking about. Anyway, it was not until fall break and Thanksgiving break that my husband and I noticed that it took about five days before our son’s brain would “reset” itself. Christmas break was a HUGE eyeopener! My little guy started asking questions again about molecules, the periodic table, and why he could not see micro-waves while I was heating up my hot chocolate in the microwave one day. That is when I read more about these type of students underachieving. So sad. Heck, sad for any student! Needless to say, he is no longer in full-time kindergarten and I am slowly making the transition to homeschooling him. I am floored by how much he can learn in two – three hours.

    Anyway, THANK YOU for your blog and being a loud voice for all of us! 😀

    • School may not be mind-numbing for all children, but definitely for many children and it causes deep scars and a serious hindrance to those gifted children fulfilling their potential.

      Great job, Julie and dad, for seeing the problem and fixing it with homeschooling long before any damage was done. That is one of the points I talk about in my book: getting your child out of school as soon as you notice what is going on. And homeschooling is so much fun, so full of opportunity–yeah, I talk about homeschooling in my book, too. You all have such a great journey to look forward to!

      Thank you for sharing your story and your kind words, Julie! Keep in touch.

    • Hi Elaine,

      I, too, have a situation so similar to yours it is remarkable. My son is 21, and he was found to be “Highly Gifted” in second grade. When he was young, like your son, he was full of questions, laughing all the time, and extremely happy. As school went on, however, his love for learning gradually diminished, and he barely graduated from high school. The best we can figure is something changed somewhere in 8th or 9th grade. Today, he has depression and anxiety. He has extremely low self esteem. He is unable to hold a job, and he is living at home, which only exacerbates his depression.

      I am afraid I have no advice for you; however, please know that you are not alone.

      I wonder if there are any research studies on this phenomenon- either long or short term.

      Take care,


      • Cindy, I have the exact situation with my son. Gifted and confident, somewhere in middle school and definitely 9th grade he started struggling and almost flunked out of high school. We switched him to full time virtual school in 10th grade and his grades went back up thankfully as we learned the traditional brick and mortar setting did not work for him and he loved the new format. However, as a young adult now, he struggles with keeping focus on goals, self esteem and anxiety which hinders his ability to get out there and get the job he wants or commit to the major in college he’s interested in, just to get on some sort of “track” for life.

      • Hi Cindy. I hope your son is getting help for his depression. If you’re in CA you can.connect with Summit Center to find resources or with SENG, which has a nationwide network of Parent support groups. We also have resources and support at our yahoo group, 2E Network LA. ♡

  12. Celi,
    Please send that post to every board of education in the country. It needs to be heard. Better yet, lets make it a movement.

    • Yes, Marilyn, let’s make it a movement! I’ll follow your lead 😉

      Seriously though, I’m tired of our kids having to bend so much just trying to learn in such restrictive, stressful classrooms. And then we pathologize and label them as ADHD, underachievers or learning disabled. They are children. It is the adults–school boards–that should be bending and changing education to fit our kids. (stepping off my soapbox now)

      Thanks for leaving your thoughts, Marilyn!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *