Overachievers and Underachievers

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Perfectionism is one of the characteristics of gifted individuals.  According to a SHARE workshop by Mary Lou Beverly, it is “not a neurosis to be cured; it is an inborn drive to be respected.”  It often occurs when the mind develops faster than the body or emotions.  Gifted children certainly present unique needs and challenges in schooling.  Unmet challenges can create obstacles to learning.  An overachiever can become an underachiever if she realizes that she cannot possibly be better than someone else in a particular area. This results in low-self esteem, fear of taking risks, slow work, and school phobia.  How do we prevent this?

According to Mary Lou Beverly, gifted individuals are more susceptible to stress than the general population.  They are easily over stimulated and intense from birth.  They frustrate easily since it is impossible for anyone to always be better than someone else.  They desire to ensure success by choosing activities in which they are confident they are the best.  Help them see and admit that perfectionism is a problem that exists for them.  Don’t expect a consistent high level of performance in all areas (this contributes to the pressure to be perfectionistic).  Over-praise can have a negative effect.  The child may fear having love or approval withdrawn if he falls short.  Encourage activities just for fun.

Golden Rules of a Perfectionist

  1. Practice the art of making mistakes.
  2. Filter your thoughts by remembering your success instead of dwelling on your mistakes.
  3. Admit your mistakes to others.
  4. Learn to laugh.
  5. Learn to say ‘no’ and prioritize your life.
  6. Break down big projects into smaller chunks.
  7. Accept the fact that you cannot be first in everything.
  8. Try to get comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
  9. Be flexible.
  10. Accept praise graciously.
  11. Teach yourself to relax.

Gifted Children …

ü      Are Curious

ü      Have a large vocabulary

ü      Memory for details

ü      Have a keen sense of humor

ü      Are persistent

ü      Are independent

ü      Are creative and imaginative

ü      May be bigger and stronger

ü      Initiate their own activities

ü      Develop earlier

ü      Are interested and concerned about world problems

ü      Analyze themselves often

ü      Set high goals and ideals

ü      Question the status quo

ü      Do the unexpected

ü      Solve problems on a superior level

ü      Are bored with routine and drill

Gifted Children Need…

  • To learn at their own speed
  • To skip over work they already know
  • To study things of interest besides basics
  • Opportunities for hands-on exploration
  • To work with abstract concepts
  • Flexible teachers who are enthusiastic
  • Resourceful teachers
  • Independent study
  • Encouragement to ask questions
  • Parents with a sense of humor
  • Alternative ways of learning
  • Group interaction
  • Freedom of Choice
  • Variety of learning processes/styles
  • Real problems relevant to them
  • Acceleration in one or more areas
  • Curriculum compacting (eliminating needless teaching or practice

Strategies for Parents of  Underachievers

Underachievement can stem from perfectionism (as mentioned in the first article) but it also has its origins in areas such as: popularity, lack of motivation, high parental expectations, activity overload, early empowerment, and overly high self-expectations.  Other underachievement issues may stem from problems with ADD/ADHD or other learning challenges such as speech or hearing impediments, low IQ, depression.  This article addresses some of the characteristics of underachievement, pressures and origins of pressures, and strategies for parents in dealing with underachievers.

Main pressures:

To be highly intelligent

To be uniquely creative

To be popular

Characteristics of Underachievement

q       Unfinished work

q       Poor or no study skills

q       Slow writing or fast and careless work

q       Disorganization

q       Excuses and forgetfulness

q       Blame laid on others

q       Descriptions of school as boring and irrelevant

q       High creativity without completion of projects

q       Inadequate social adjustment or too much emphasis on social life

q       Sometimes highly perfectionistic

How can we help our underachievers?  Avoid over-praising them.  Avoid labeling your kids “the creative one,” “the social one,” etc.  Don’t expect continual excellent performance.  If learning is too easy for them, help to create challenges.  Work with your child on setting goals.  Collect success stories of people who are self-motivated and point out similar characteristics in your child.  Help your child create his own external motivators.  Don’t overload her with activities.  Watch for a drop in grades or poor performance in a particular area.  Address it before it becomes an overwhelming problem.  Set aside a time just for studying.  Encourage your underachiever to teach the things she knows to a younger child.  This builds esteem, importance, motivation, and a driving need to know more.


Underachievement Syndrome: Causes and Cures (1986) by Sylvia Rimm

Get Off My Brain: A Survival Guide for Lazy Students (1986) by Randall McCutcheon

Giftedness, Conflict, and Underachievement (1980) by Joanne Rand Whitmore

Parenting with Love and Logic (1990) by Cline and Fay


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