Many academically gifted children underachieve in school classrooms as a result of the fact that they do not know how to achieve higher a or they feel they cannot achieve a task that they are expected to be able to but find it too difficult. Underachievement is a pervasive problem which results in a tremendous waste of human potential among our most able students. In fact, in 1972 the U.S. Commissioner of Education estimated that 17.6% of gifted ( both academically and non-academically) students drop out of high school, and that percentage is probably even higher today. (Schnieder, 1997) and to add a New Zealand perspective, Moltzen (in McAlpine and Moltzen, 1996) suggest that 10-20% of students who do not graduate are gifted. These students hold a negative self concept of themselves as they have not received the support necessary to be able to work and achieve at their own level. There are many different contributing factors to the establishing of self concepts and how they affect gifted children. . This paper addresses how gifted children form negative self concepts of themselves and how can affect their achievement in an academic school setting. First it is necessary to provide the background knowledge and the definitions on areas that are to be discussed. For the purpose of this paper the definition of self concept is a person’s view of self, in relation to their perception of feed back from others. This view occurs in both academic and non-academic areas. (Fox, 1993 in Rawlinson, 1996) To specifically focus on the academic area of self concepts which is being addressed in this paper , an academic self concept is a relatively stable set of attitudes and feelings reflecting self evaluation of one’s ability to successfully perform basic school related tasks such as reading, writing, spelling and maths. (Boersma & Chapman,1992 in Rawlinson, 1996) Self concepts tend to be domain specific, meaning that pupils have different self concepts towards different areas of the curriculum (Schunk,1990) but to avoid complications throughout this paper all academic subjects will all be inclusive with each other.

The definition of underchievement is not as straight forward as that of self concept as many people have different ideas on what it means to underachieve. Wellington and Wellington (1965) suggest that under achievers have a low level of aspiration. In its simplest form it can be defined as a unfulfilled potential (Moltzen in McAlpine and Moltzen, 1996) but neither of these definitions provide much capture the essence of underachievement in gifted children as they do not provide enough detail as to the difference between what they are achieving and what they could achieve. The definition of the purpose of this assignment is provided by Davis and Rimm( 1994 in Moltzen, 1996) who define underachievment as a discrepancy between the child’s school performance and some index of his or her actual ability such as intelligence, achievement, or creativity score or observational data. Because a gifted student underachieves it does not mean that they are failing in the school system. Gifted students are generally capable of performing at least two levels ahead of their age peers. If they are not identified as being gifted, they are seldom challenged to perform in accord with their potential. In fact, these capable students may be considered underachievers even when they get “good” grades.( Schneider, 1997) All children are natural learners and begin life with a drive to acquire knowledge, understand it and make use of it according to their abilities. Children do not begin school with the intention of seeking failure or frustrating their teachers. (Schnieder, 1997) And gifted children definitely do not go out to seek failure. How pupils use this newly found information that they have learnt and how teachers react to how they use this information or how well they achieve, contributes to the forming of self concepts. An individual’s self concept is formed as a result of interactions and experiences with others and is learned and acquired over time. (Rawlinson, 1996) In reinforcement to the idea that self concepts are learned, Scheirer & Kraut (1979) suggest with specific reference to academia that a self concept is a product of interactive outcomes with ones academic environment with an emphasis on accumulated pattern of competence in conceptualisation of self and on social environment for changing behaviour. It is important to acknowledge that as self concept is learnt it can be changed.

School children receive many opportunities to evaluate their skills and abilities and this evaluative information contributes to the formation and modification of their self concepts.(Schnuck, 1990) Gifted children can obtain a negative self concept by being exposed to people who either are not informed about their abilities therefore the child does not know what they are capable of or people who are not supportive in fostering their abilities. But despite the fact that they may not be totally aware of their gifts they are still gifted and the intensity with which many gifted children approach life increases their vulnerability to criticism and consequently enhances fearfulness. Dismissive, or, judgmental responses from adults simply confirm their belief in their own inadequacy whilst achievement based teacher and parent expectations determine a child’s worth as ‘conditional. (Eckhaus, 1997) As the formation of self concept is learned through the child’s environment, both at home and at school, the people who have the biggest effect on the children are teachers and parents. Causes of underachievement due to negative self concept that has come from the home, are parents who have not acknowledged their children’s abilities or are unsupportive of their talents. If they have acknowledged their abilities, they can have unrealistic, unobtainable expectations of their children. The classroom is one of the major challenges in pupils lives so the feedback that teachers give them will shape their whole perception of themselves. Within the school environment the classroom can provided a gifted child lack of respect, a strongly competitive environment and inflexibility and rigidity, exaggerated attention to errors and failures, and unrewarding curriculum. It can also be simply the lack of knowledge that the teacher has about the identification of gifted children therefore the teacher does not expect that the child can do better. (Moltzen in McAlpine & Moltzen, 1996) Teachers always from expectations about their students and it always involves aspects of intellectual achievement. Teachers mainly form expectations from the students past performance which is usually less biased and the most appropriate information available. (Stipek,1993) but if these children have not been identified as gifted previously then the expectations that are formed at the beginning of the school year may not be as high as what they should be. Teachers can communicate these expectations through various kinds of interaction with the pupils such as verbal and written comments on work.(Good and Brophy,1987) This reinforces to the gifted child where their abilities lie so they know that they only have to achieve to the level that the teacher expects of them.

As to avoid this occurring it is necessary to discuss how teachers can identify underachievement in an academic situation. Identification of the underachieving child is going to be very much up to the classroom teacher but parents should also be considered an important source of information.(Moltzen in McAlpine and Moltzen, 1996) Identification of underachieving gifted children can be very difficult Moltzen (in McAlpine and Moltzen, 1996) suggest that testing is the most effective means of obtaining an accurate picture of the ability of an underachieving gifted child as if a child scores higher in a test than what is expected is quite significant. Providing students with access to programs, activities and experiences that they would not normally be considered for can sometimes demonstrate a previously unnoticed ability. Also, self concept is often shown in their attitudes toward learning .Pupils who are confident of their learning abilities and feel a sense of self worth display greater interest and motivation in school which enhances achievement. Higher achievement, in turn, validates one’s self confidence for learning and maintains a high sense of self esteem. (Schnuck, 1990) All children like to feel success, it makes them feel good about themselves especially when they achieve a challenge which is really what gifted children need. They also need to be taught the strategies so that they can achieve a challenge at their level also. Problem behaviors of gifted underachievers are often efforts to cope with an environment which isn’t meeting their needs. (Schnieder, 1997) Ideally all human beings need enough success so that they see themselves and their possibilities as within the successful range. ( Wellington & Wellington, 1965) Teachers need to not only know how to identify an underachieving child with difficulties in their own self concept but what can be done about it.

As a negative self concept is learned it is then important to acknowledge that it can be changed. There are many strategies that can be use inside and outside the classroom to help gifted children achieve academically in the classroom and overcome negative self concepts. Much research shows that pupils benefit from instruction on strategies. Strategies enhance achievement and provide pupils with a higher self concept. (Schnuck, 1990) Gifted children benefit mostly from meta cognitive strategies which are strategies that reflect on cognitive processes. (Flavell, 1989) These strategies include such instructions as goal setting, planning and evaluation of their work. In independent work this is so student get a chance to plan what they want to achieve or what they think they can achieve and reflect on the process of doing the task. This helps with gifted students who have either difficulty achieving to what they can achieve and those who are expected to achieve but do not know how to get there. It is important for both parents and teachers to change their expectations of the students as the student makes process. This can help with students changing their own self concepts. and the reinforcing behaviors of their underachievement should be changed also. (Moltzen in McAlpine and Moltzen, 1996) Moltzen (1996) also suggests that it could be helpful to provide a role model for the particular students. Davis and Rimm (in Moltzen, 1996) suggest that all other treatments for underachievement dim in importance with strong identification with an achieving model. The most important point to conclude from this paper is that children need the support from both home and school so that they can build a healthy self concept and achieve at their own level. Teachers need to develop skills to identify when a gifted child is underachieving but acknowledge that this is not always easy. This is all necessary when trying to reduce the high percentage of gifted students in New Zealand not graduating.


Flavell, J.H (1989) Speculations about the nature and development of metacognition. In F.E Weinert and R.H Kluwe (eds.), Metacognition, motivation and understanding Hillsdale, N.J: Erlbaum Good, T.L (1987) Two decades of research on teacher expectaions: Findings and future directions. Journal of Teacher Education 38(4), pp32-47. Moltzen, R (1996) Underachievement. In D. McAlpine and R.Moltzen (eds.), Gifted and talented: New Zealand perspective. Palmerston North: ERDC Press Rawlinson, C (1996) Self concept, self efficacy, and programme enrichment. In D. McAlpine and R. Moltzen (eds.), Gifted and talented: New Zealand perspective. Palmerston North: ERDC Press Scheire, M & Kraut, R.E (1979) Increasing educational achievement via self concept change. Review of Educational Research Winter Vol. 49 pp131-150 Schunk, D.H (1990) Self concept and school achievement. In C.Rogers and P. Kutnick (eds.), The social psychology of the primary school London: Routledge. Stipek, D.J (1993) Motivation to learn: From theory to practice (2nd ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Wellington, C.B & Wellington, J (1965) The underachiever: Challenges and Guidelines. Chicago: Rand McNally and company.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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