High-ability student profiles

There are three main types of high-ability students that you should be aware of in your classroom. High-ability student who are:

  • achieving
  • underachieving
  • twice exceptional.

The high-ability student who is achieving

High-ability students who are achieving account for about 90% of identified students in schools. Some of the characteristics they may show are easily identifiable and may include:

  • a generally high self-concept
  • cooperation in the form of appropriate behaviour
  • a capacity to challenge themselves.

The high-ability student who is achieving is entitled to rigorous learning experiences that meet their needs. This is the best way to ensure continued success at school.

The high-ability student who is underachieving

High-ability students who are underachieving may show the following characteristics:

  • a lack of motivation to apply themselves
  • low self-esteem
  • consistently negative attitude toward school and learning
  • a lack of perseverance
  • a lack of goal-directed behaviour
  • social isolation
  • weaknesses in skill areas and organisation
  • disruptiveness in class and resistance to class activities.

Teachers need to understand the types of circumstances that might lead to these characteristics.

Types of underachievement

Ther are four types of underachievement amongst high-ability students. Understanding these can help teachers recognise underachieving high-ability students.

Involuntary underachievers

These are students who would like to achieve but are often overlooked. This could be due to things such as their cultural background or the school they attend. 

These students are often bored and distracted. Some may be hard-working but are not challenged. Others may coast through school, give up, or act out.

These students' underachievement results from a lack of suitable learning opportunities. High-ability students most at risk of not being recognised include:

  • those with a learning disability
  • those with a physical disability
  • those from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • culturally diverse students
  • those from rural and remote areas.

Classic underachiever

These students underperform in all areas of the curriculum. Their underachievement usually starts in the early years of high school. This is when students may feel they have to choose between peer acceptance and success.

Selective underachievers

These underachievers will choose to achieve in classes where they like their teacher. They may also achieve in subjects that interest them. In other subjects, they apply very little effort.

Underachievers who fly under the radar

These are the high-ability students who coast through school. They receive good grades but are not meeting their potential. Their lack of effort often goes unnoticed. As a result, they go unchallenged. They do not take academic risks, learn from failure, or develop resilience.

The twice exceptional student

Twice exceptional students are those who are of high ability and who have a disability. This could be a learning difficulty or disability, and/or a physical disability.

High-ability students may be twice exceptional in the following ways:

Specific learning disabilities

Examples include:

  • dyslexia
  • dyspraxia
  • dysgraphia
  • dyscalculia
  • processing disorders
  • trauma-induced learning disabilities.

Physical and medical conditions

Examples include:

  • spina bifida
  • arthritis
  • muscular dystrophy
  • cerebral palsy
  • chronic health conditions.

Sensory disabilities and disorders

Examples include:

  • hearing loss
  • visual impairment
  • sensory processing disorder.


Examples include:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • schizotypal behaviour.

Social, emotional and behavioural disorders

Examples include:

  • oppositional-defiant disorder
  • emotional behaviour disorder
  • anxiety disorder
  • depression, mood disorder, personality disorder, dissociative disorder
  • trauma-induced behaviours.

Patterns of difficulty

The twice exceptional student may experience three patterns of difficulty:

  • discrepant
  • deficit
  • deceptive.

However, there will be twice exceptional students who do not experience any of these. These students will likely be successful in their learning.


These students often score highly on one type of test and lower on others. For example, they may score highly on verbal items and lower on non-verbal items on a cognitive assessment. These students often achieve average results at school, with an occasional high grade.


The difficulty occurs for these students when a disability hides their high ability. The teacher may know about the disability but be unaware of the student's high potential.


Students who experience a deceptive pattern of difficulty are very hard to recognise. Their disability masks their potential, and their high-potential masks their disability. 

Teachers are often unaware of either their disability or their high ability. These students may seem like daydreamers, uninterested in school, or lazy. They usually achieve average results at school.

Video: working with a twice exceptional student

In this short video, a year 5/6 teacher from Warrnambool Primary describes his experience working with twice exceptional students.



Betts, G. T., & Neihart, M. (2010). Revised profiles of the gifted and talented. Retrieved from Revised Profiles of the Gifted and Talented - Neihart and Betts.pdf

Porter, L. (2005). Gifted young children: A guide for teachers and parents (2nd ed.), Allen & Unwin.

Silverman, L. (1993). Characteristics of giftedness scale: Research and Review of the Literature Gifted Child Development Centre.

Gagné, F. (2008). Building gifts into talents: Overview of the DMGT 2.0 Paper presented at the 10th Asia Pacific Conference for Giftedness, Singapore.

GERRIC. (2005). Gifted and Talented Education Professional Package for Teachers Module One – Understanding Giftedness.

Merrotsy, P. (2013). Invisible gifted students. Talent Development and Excellence, 5(2), 3–42.

Montgomery, D. (2006). Double exceptionality. Gifted children with special educational needs – what schools can do to promote inclusion In C. Smith (Ed.) Including the Gifted and Talented. Routeledge.

Post, G. (2016). Who is the gifted underachiever? Four types of underachievement in gifted children