Underachievers Essay, Research Paper

This paper adresses the issue of how a negative self concept can effect achievement

of gifted students. it specifically focuses on the effect of acedemic achievement,

discusses what it means to be both an underachiever and have a negative self concept,

how to identify these students and what family and teachers can do about this.


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 effect gifted children. . This paper addresses how gifted

children form negative self concepts of themselves and how can effect 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 persons 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 ones 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 childs

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 individuals 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,

judgemental 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 childs 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 feed back 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 programmes, 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 ones 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 behaviours 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 meteacognitive 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 behaviours of their underachievment 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 underachievemnt 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:


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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