The Catch-22 of Gifted Underachievement

by Emily VR

Imagine you’re a school counselor, and you have parents sitting in your office.  They say their child isn’t being challenged in school.   They ask you to arrange higher level differentiation, enrichment, or subject acceleration.

At home, they say, the child shows ability far above her grade level.  Prior testing identified her for gifted services.  You agree to investigate options, and you speak to the child’s teacher… who shows you the child’s work.  It’s full of careless errors, some of it is incomplete, and the child’s grades have dropped this year.  In the teacher’s opinion, the child should not try challenging work until she gets her act together.  In the past, the child produced above-level work; now, she daydreams, distracts classmates, and occasionally, even corrects the teacher.  The teacher agrees the child is bright, but feels the child should work harder on behavior and grade-level work.

What do you do?

If you haven’t received training in gifted education, the teacher’s perspective might make perfect sense.

If you’re familiar with the characteristics and outcomes of gifted students, the situation may ring a warning bell.  You see a student who might qualify as gifted, who has likely lost motivation, and who, if the situation continues, could be considered at-risk for a negative academic outcome.  You want to help, but you face a problem:  now that the student is underachieving, she is no longer producing work which allows easy assessment of content mastery.  You don’t know what material she already knows, and you don’t have classroom evidence showing that a higher level placement is likely to be successful.

This is the catch-22 of gifted underachievers.

A “catch-22” is defined as “a dilemma from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.”  The term was introduced by Joseph Heller’s World War II novel of the same title: in the book, the main character, Yossarian, desperately wants to stop flying bombardier missions.  He discovers that under a fictional military policy, a bombardier can be grounded for being “crazy” – but the bombardier must first request to be grounded, and since the desire to avoid death during missions indicates sanity, the request can never be granted (Heller, 1955).

Students suffering from a loss of motivation may find themselves trapped by policies which require them to excel before they can be challenged, though challenging work may be necessary to motivate them to excel.  Educators bound by state testing requirements can feel equally helpless.  School factors have been studied as a cause of underachievement in gifted children (Webb, 2007), in children assessed as highly to profoundly gifted (Gross, 2000), in creative-type gifted children (Betts & Niehart, 1988), and in twice-exceptional children (gifted with a disability).   Insufficient challenge in the classroom can lead to problem behaviors in gifted students (Webb, 2005).  Even when a child has been identified with gifted needs, our counselor is still faced with schoolwork which does not reveal the mastery needed to skip material and immediately tackle higher level content.

All is not hopeless:  with training and/or aid from a gifted specialist, underachieving gifted students can get help.  How?

1)  Look for other forms of achievement.

If a child is believed to need acceleration, information other than grades may help in decisions.  While students are considered better candidates for a grade skip if they are “already motivated to perform well in school,” according to the manual for the Iowa Acceleration Scale, “[t]eam members responsible for making an acceleration decision for a student must take into account not only how motivated the student is at school, but also how motivated that student is in other learning situations.  Parents or guardians are good sources of information about the learning activities that their children have been involved with outside of school” (Assouline et al., 2009).  A gifted child who is currently underperforming may still show higher subject level needs through an achievement test, such as the WIAT.  Tests used for credit by examination can also be useful in determining readiness for full-grade or subject acceleration.  Scores indicating readiness to accelerate may range from 80% to 90%, depending on state or local rules.

2)  Try other interventions.

When acceleration is not a current option, other interventions may help gifted students.  Unit pre-testing and curriculum compacting can be implemented without skipping grades (Reis & Renzulli, 2005).  These strategies allow a student to pursue either higher-level work or projects of interest instead of grade-level work; requiring students to complete grade-level work first is rarely successful (extra work is unlikely to motivate).  Successful strategies may differ depending on a gifted student’s personality and strengths.

Training or assistance from a specialist may be necessary to provide teachers with a nuanced understanding of challenges faced by gifted students, and to help implement in-classroom solutions.

3)  Collect objective data; seek expert advice.

To reach the best possible solutions during negotiations, the authors of the bestselling book Getting to Yes recommend using objective criteria (Fisher and Ury, 1991).  Information such as testing reports and work samples in a child’s areas of strength or interest, when considered with research on gifted learners, may help facilitate next steps.  If a specialist, teacher, or administrator has training in gifted education, he or she may be able to assist with problem-solving.

4)  Practice listening and empathy.

School challenges are frustrating for parents, educators, and the students themselves.  Parents and educators may find common ground by seeking to understand the situation from other perspectives.  Fisher and Ury recommend that negotiators “focus on interests, not positions.”  If parents and educators can share and listen to the concerns behind others’ positions, better communication can facilitate better problem solving.

5)  Learn about gifted motivation.

According to A Love for Learning, a number of factors can impact motivation, including a lack of school challenge (the “turn-off effect”), learning disabilities, and physical, emotional, or social factors (Whitney & Hirsch, 2007).  A child’s social or classroom environment, perfectionism and fear, asynchronous development, and rapport with his/her teacher can all impact the desire to achieve.

6)  Don’t try to oversimplify.

There’s a reason educators pursue graduate degrees specializing in gifted education!  Like other special needs, gifted needs can be complex.  A student may need a dedicated, open-minded team of educators and parents to problem-solve and find a successful solution.

In some cases, parents and educators may need to dig even deeper.  Creative-type gifted learners often have strong interests outside school, and these can sometimes be brought into the classroom.  Underachievement is not uncommon in students evaluated as exceptionally to profoundly gifted, and acceleration is cited as reversing underachievement in this population (Gross, 2000).  Undiagnosed learning or attention disorders can also cause school difficulties: a gifted child with another special need is known as twice-exceptional, or 2e (Webb et al., 2005).   Further complicating matters, some typical gifted characteristics look like symptoms of other conditions, creating a possible increased risk of misdiagnosis.  When evaluating a child for possible disabilities, parents may wish to seek a practitioner familiar with research on children identified as gifted (Webb et al., 2007).

7)  Don’t write off public school.

In some situations, especially in states without gifted education laws, parents may be forced to consider alternatives to public school.  A number of states have gifted education requirements and laws permitting acceleration, however, for good reason:  as with students with other special needs, gifted children can suffer harm if adjustments are not made for extreme learning differences.  Students with gifted needs exist in all populations, and not all families of gifted children can afford other alternatives.  Many public schools do work hard to meet the learning difference needs of all students.  In some states, gifted children qualify for an IEP (Individualized Education Program), just as children served by Special Education.

8)  Don’t give up on a student.

If a single approach worked in every situation, fewer books would be published in the field!  Fortunately, in addition to learning about differentiation, enrichment, and independent projects, educators can access research on twenty types of gifted interventions through A Nation Deceived and A Nation Empowered, available through the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa.

Contrary to myth, many gifted children will not be fine on their own (NAGC).  According to the research of George Betts and Maureen Neihart, gifted students with certain problem behaviors “may be ‘at risk’ as eventual dropouts for drug addiction or delinquent behavior if appropriate interventions are not made by junior high” (Betts & Neihart, 1988).  Betts and Neihart offer specific recommendations for challenging/creative and “at-risk” students.  To prevent gifted dropouts, researchers have noted the importance of improving student-teacher relationships, as well as students’ attitudes toward school and teachers; one researcher found that fewer students drop out when their teacher is “flexible, positive and creative” (Renzulli & Park, 2002).


Unfortunately, there is no magic motivation wand.  Finding solutions may take some teamwork – but both research and personal stories show it can happen.  Returning to our school counselor:  if she consults the school’s gifted specialist, has attended gifted training, or investigates material provided by parents, she is less likely to miss potentially critical information.  Prepared now with a more complete picture, the child’s team can explore to find causes, to make a plan, and to inspire the child.

Are there strategies you’ve found successful with your students or your child?  Please share your comments below!  We would love to hear them.


We are proud this post is part of the Other Achievement Blog Hop on Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page!


Blog Hop graphic by Pamela S Ryan – click above for more Blog Hop posts!

Sources and Further Reading

Assouline, S., Colangelo, N., Lupkowski-Shoplik, A., Lipscomb, J., and Forstadt., L.  The Iowa Acceleration Scale: A Guide for Whole-Grade Acceleration K-8.  Manual.  Scottsdale: Great Potential Press, 2009.

Betts, G. and Neihart, M.  Profiles of the Gifted and Talented.  Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Reprinted from Gifted Child Quarterly, National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) 1988.  Web.  Jan. 2016.

Delisle, J. R.  Parenting Gifted Kids: Tips for Raising Happy and Successful Children.  Waco:  Prufrock Press, 2006.

Fisher, R. and Ury, W.  Getting to Yes.  New York: Penguin Group, 2011.

Gross, M. U. M.  Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Students:  An Underserved Population (section on “Reversing Underachievement”).  Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page; originally published in Understanding Our Gifted, Winter 2000.  Web.  Jan. 2016.

National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).  Gifted by State.  Web.  Jan. 2016.

National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).  Myths about Gifted Children.  Web.  Jan. 2016.

Reis, S. M. and Renzulli, J. S.  Curriculum Compacting: An Easy Start to Differentiating for the High-Ability Learner.  Waco: Prufrock Press, 2005.

Renzulli, J.S. and Park, S.  Giftedness and High School Dropouts: Personal, Family, and School-related Factors.  University of Connecticut.  The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, Dec. 2002.

State Acceleration Policy: State List.  Acceleration Institute, Belin-Blank Center, College of Education, University of Iowa.  Web.  Jan. 2016.

Webb, J. T., Amend, E. R., Webb, N. E., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, F. R.  Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc., 2005.

Webb, J. T., Amend, E. R., Webb, N. E., Goerss, J., Beljan, P., & Olenchak, F. R.  Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children.  Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted.  Web.  Jan. 2016.

Webb, J. T., Gore, J. L., Amend, E. R., and DeVries, A. R.  A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2007.

Whitney, C.S. and Hirsch, G.  A Love for Learning: Motivation and the Gifted Child.  Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2007.

Heller, Joseph.  Catch-22.  Laurel: New York, 1955, 1961 (p. 40).

“Catch-22.”  Def.  The Oxford American College Dictionary.  2002.  Print.

26 thoughts on “The Catch-22 of Gifted Underachievement

  1. Fantastic post! I especially agree with number 7. We have been fortunate to live in a school district that is small and open to change. My hope is to improve the education of all children through advocating for the needs of my gifted sons. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Students suffering from a loss of motivation may find themselves trapped by policies which require them to excel before they can be challenged, though challenging work may be necessary to motivate them to excel.”

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

    So much good stuff here, Emily. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “There’s a reason educators pursue graduate degrees specializing in gifted education! Like other special needs, gifted needs can be complex. A student may need a dedicated, open-minded team of educators and parents to problem-solve and find a successful solution.”

    I wish more folks understood that bit. It is a special need.

    And if you find the magical motivation wand, please let me know 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a psychologist in private practice who specializes in testing/assessment, and this is a recurring theme in my office. Imagine my dismay when, yesterday, a child from a well known “gifted school” in our area came in with the same catch-22. “He’s lazy, he’s defiant, he must have ADD, he shouldn’t be in a gifted school.” This is a wonderful, helpful post, and I will wallpaper my office with it. And share it with parents, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I wish this article had been written years ago; it is an accurate portrayal of “selective learners” with relevant advice that would have been so helpful to our family and school representatives. You could have been writing about our now ten year old son: although he scored “as well or better than 99% of children his age” in multiple cognitive ability tests by the age of 7, he was performing well BELOW average at school. He wouldn’t complete skills tests or homework (unless he had some “buy-in”, in which case he would try and again score in the 99th percentile,) and preferred to engage socially in the classroom, setting himself up to annoy his teacher and isolate himself from classmates. Because we knew of his potential based on what we saw at home and outside of school, we asked for more challenge; however, because our teachers hadn’t received training in gifted education practices, we frequently heard that he couldn’t be given more challenge until he “shows what he knows.” He continued to perform below average until fourth grade, up to the very day he received the ILP that we aggressively pushed for. The ILP was simple but allowed him differentiation and access to Redbird Math online instead of the grade-level curriculum, and suddenly our son was showing effort across all subject areas . His progress with Redbird, private cognitive abilities test, school-administered cognitive abilities test, standardized test scores and private Sylvan Learning Center scores all demonstrated high ability, but it was really the constant, respectful appeal for support to our school district that led them to test him for acceleration using an Iowa Math Skills Assessment two grade levels above his grade level (where he placed six grade levels above his actual grade in the 85th percentile!) Because of these results, he was finally offered to fully accelerate but instead chose to only move into an accelerated math class two years above his level, as he was not ready to leave his friends for a new school. I am relieved to report that he is a completely different person. Finally happy to go to school, he does his homework religiously and is responsible in all areas of his day in and out of school. He feels good about himself, and told us that he feels like he is learning in school for the first time. I honesty believe that this intervention changed a negative trajectory into a positive one. If your child is identified as gifted, is not demonstrating skills expected for his/her ability, and is not thriving, please continue to ask your school to use science-based methods to ensure that your child’s needs are met. I feel like the interventions that resulted from collaboration and dialogue with our school district saved our son from a vicious cycle of lack of engagement, low self esteem and the resulting behavioral problems that lead many gifted children away from a productive and satisfying life, and instead provided him with opportunities to be challenged, grow as a scholar, learn new study skills, and feel good about himself and his future. Thank you very much for this excellent article; I will share it far and wide!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much – I really appreciate it! 🙂 I am so happy that your son is doing well now! Thank you very much for sharing your story and encouragement.


  6. I love the message of the article and agree with all its points. My son has continually not shown his ability and has fallen further and further behind – the gap continues to widen and the school doesn’t see his giftedness despite testing. We moved when he was in 5th grade. Now, in 7th grade he’s in the mid-low level math. It’s so frustrating.

    My question is how to approach a school that doesn’t seem to have any interest in the discussion above. As my patience runs thin, I can’t figure out how to crack their code.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mira – if there is a G/T-trained teacher or specialist in your school or district, you could try starting there, or perhaps a teacher you or your child has connected with in the past. You could try exploring some of the above resources (and there are more out there!) to find examples that sound like your child, and see if there are recommended tools and approaches which might not be hard to share and begin implementing. I especially like A Love for Learning. Flexibility can depend on G/T laws and policies in your area – you could try connecting with a local/state G/T advocacy group to find out what is working for others nearby. Thank you for your kind words, and I hope that helps a little!


  7. Nailed it! Excellent. Many parents (and teachers) are caught with testing and not much ‘evidence’ to back up their gifted needs with underachievement. And the situation is magnified for those of us living or have lived in states without laws protecting the needs of gifted kids or those with rapid acceleration needs which public/private schools are often unable to accommodate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. I agree with you about the need for state laws! Fortunately A Nation Empowered and other Acceleration Institute resources ( show that it is not necessarily hard to accommodate acceleration — though it can require some detective work and flexible thinking. Thank you very much for commenting and reading. I am glad you liked it.


  8. This situation occurred with my son, he was failing simple classes because he refused to do mountains of redundant homework. The geometry class was graded 90% on homework and 10% on test scores – all of which he aced. There were no other options except doing the same dumbed down geometry online. He was refusing to get out of bed and finally we gave up and pulled him out of school. He took a few classes through the school, mostly band, scored a 31 on his ACT and graduated with a homeschool diploma this week and is headed to community college. I got no help from the school whatsoever, they just told him he needed to “play the game.” They watched a brilliant student walk out their door and could have cared less. I really have no idea what we could have done differently – I wish things had been different, but they are what they are and we are going forward from here.


    1. Susan, I am so sorry to hear that. 😦 Hopefully more administrators and lawmakers will learn about the need for gifted curriculum modifications. I am glad you are moving forward, and I hope that everything goes well for your son this fall!


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