​​​Underachievement is where the potential for high or exceptional ability has not translated into demonstrated outstanding performance or achievement.

Causes of underachievement

Underachievement may be caused by one or many elements including:

  • a disconnect between home attitudes to learning and those of the educational setting
  • poor self-belief by the student in their capabilities. This can include fear of failure, fear of not being able to live up to an expected reputation of always being successful in whatever they do
  • extended disengagement from school, potentially leading to poor academic skills and chronic underachievement
  • twice-exceptional students who may suffer from physical or cognitive disabilities that impair their academic performance.  For more information, see: Kids Like Us
  • being 'paralysed' by perfectionism, needing to always give a perfect performance
  • boredom, from a mismatch between the student's current level of learning and the opportunities to learn new content in class
  • forced-choice dilemma, where a student believes that they need to make the choice between peer group acceptance and academic achievement​

Underachievement caused by peer pressure

Underachievers exist in families from all cultures and sectors of society. It some instances gifted children may not want to highlight their 'differentness' in being gifted. This may be especially apparent in girls moving into secondary schooling, students in rural areas or students from culturally diverse families.

This can be a result of a gifted young person not wanting to ascribe to negatively perceived stereotypes associated with being gifted, or not wanting to accentuate an already self-perceived 'differentness' from their peer group. Teachers may also not immediately look for evidence of being gifted in these cohorts of children and young people.

Both these scenarios can often lead to a lack of identification and appropriate learning opportunities, and therefore underachievement.

In a school setting these children may experience a sense of isolation, low self-esteem, anxiety or depression when their ability is not identified, they are insufficiently challenged or they feel 'out of sync' with their peers.

Without the right supports they may fully disengage from learning or deliberately underachieve in order to fit in. This underachievement can lead to the child or young person becoming disruptive in the classroom or leaving school early.

Underachievement in gifted children from diverse cultural backgrounds or those living in a rural community

For culturally diverse families and those in a rural context, gifted children may not always be identified potentially leading to underachievement. If your family falls under one of these categories, see:

Strategies to help address underachivement

If you feel your child is gifted, but this is not identifiable at school, there are several strategies you can use:

  • encourage your child through open discussions and parent modelling to ‘be themselves’ and to be confident about using their advanced ability
  • find opportunities outside school for your child to exercise their advanced ability or skill so they gain confidence in it
  • discuss this situation with your child's teacher. This should include how the classroom environment can be accepting and inclusive of the area of ability displayed by your child. This includes acceptance of their cultural values, and their social and emotional characteristics, in addition to their advanced ability
  • You can also ask how they can support the school to enable their child to fully develop their potential.

Further information