If you clicked on this article, odds are that there is a young gifted underachiever in your life, or someone who is at least perceived as an underachiever by others. It's so frustrating when we care about someone who seems not to be living up to great intellectual or creative promise, or who has been labeled as "...not working up to potential." There are many thousands of publications on motivation and the gifted, and if you're interested in the scholarly perspective, you can check out the articles cited at the end of this brief list of tips. While all of the tips are based on empirical research evidence, they are also parent and teacher tested!
TIP #1. Is the student truly underachieving, or are they just not achieving at what their parents and teachers wish they were? We may despair when a student fails to do homework, but if they are tinkering with inventions in the basement or writing and performing music, they may be developing passions and skills that will carry them far. If they don't appear to have any interests or passions at all, it's probably time for a mental health check. Depression or anxiety can be root causes of some underachievement.
TIP #2. Intrinsic and/or extrinsic motivation? Research indicates that gifted students have motivation patterns similar to other students, though they may tend to be a little more intrinsically motivated. We are all motivated to put forth effort both by what we like to do (intrinsic) and by external desires/pressures (good grades, money, avoidance of punishment). It’s important to save the extrinsic motivators for tasks/situations that don't interest the student but seem to be important for life success. And if you can connect the unexciting task (taking out the trash) to something about which the student is passionate (recycling and the environment), so much the better!
TIP #3. Is being labeled "gifted" or "talented" good or bad for motivation? Research considers this something of a mixed bag. The label can serve as validation - an outside authority considers the student capable of high-level accomplishment - and this can be important especially in cases where untrained teachers may overlook underrepresented gifted students. The label can also result in some performance anxiety, but those effects can be mitigated with a "growth mindset" approach. Teachers and parents can emphasize the joy of mastering challenges and point out that errors and failures are just part of developing a talent.
TIP #4. Speaking of challenge - is the school providing an appropriate level of challenge for the student? A state of "flow" (a motivation concept defined as being deeply immersed in an activity) depends on both interest AND appropriate challenge. It's fine now and then for students who finish work early to help the others, but that should not be confused with programming that is appropriately challenging. If you are ready for algebra, tutoring other students in multiplication is not an adequate substitute.
TIP #5. Can underachievement be reversed? There are a number of studies, particularly case studies, on gifted underachievers who showed considerable success later in life. One thing that many of those studies have in common is that the students generally had at least one adult in their life who was non-judgmentally supportive, often an adult who shared an intellectual or artistic passion that was not necessarily offered as part of regular school curriculum. So there is hope for long-term underachievers!
For more scholarly/academic discussions of these and similar issues check out these articles:
Clinkenbeard, P. R. (2012). Motivation and gifted students: Implications of theory and research. Psychology in the Schools, 49, 622-630. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21628 (FYI, this article has been requested frequently by other scholars.)
Clinkenbeard, P. R. (2014). Motivation and goals. In C. Callahan & J. Plucker (Eds.), Critical issues and practices in gifted education: What the research says (2nd ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Pamela Clinkenbeard, Ph.D.
WI Association for Talented and Gifted Board Member