From Overt Behavior to Developing Potential:
The Gifted Underachiever

by Josh Shaine

Home > Giftedness - An Overview > Underachievement

Gifted underachievers are usually lumped in with the rest of a school's malcontents. Teachers, counselors, and administrators look too shallowly for underlying factors, while ascribing too readily mental, physical, or emotional handicaps to underachievers. (Crow, 1978; Rimm, 1986; Kos, 1993) This tendency leads to disregard of the effects of that decision, for both the children and society. The children develop low self-esteem, while either under-utilizing or misapplying their abilities. (Kos, 1993) Society, at best, gets less of a contribution than it might; at worst, a very bright criminal may emerge. The cost, either way, is incalculable, but very large both to the individual and to society. We need to identify the potential hidden behind the problems of these bright and unhappy youngsters, and help our students to recognize and develop their abilities.

What We Have
In the vast majority of schools, the emphases are on knowledge and behavior. (Sizer, 1992; ASCD, 1988; Orlosky and Smith, 1978) If a student behaves poorly, by absences, undone homework, wandering attention, or "normal" acting out (Crow, 1978; Plucker and McIntire, 1995), he/she is seen as rejecting knowledge and authority. (Tempest, 1974)

The perceived rejection of knowledge and authority is seen as rejection of the school, and, typically, the student is punished - by low grades, diminished and negative expectations (Whitmore and Maker, 1980). Other punishment might include behavioral restrictions, and, potentially, placement in special education classes, grade retention, suspension, or expulsion. (Holt, 1969; Plucker and McIntire, 1995) These systemic responses are designed to correct the behavior by showing the student the error of his/her ways. Unfortunately, not only does the punishment fail to teach the underachiever to change his/her behavior, but it also does not address the underlying causes of the behavior and therefore exacerbates an already threatening situation. (Seeley, 1993; Delisle, 1994)

Students who are punished for behavior which stems from their innate nature are likely to become sullen, angry and/or desperate. They are also likely to develop distrust the system that has treated them inappropriately. (Kos, 1993; Peabody, 1991) If, when you walked into a hospital emergency room with a fever of 103, the doctors put you in a refrigerator and then, when your fever didn't go down, threw you out, would you crawl back inside to try again? If the same treatment were repeated, would you readily trust another doctor?

Effective teachers of underachievers frequently spend more time unteaching learned negative attitudes and behaviors than teaching academic subjects. (Supplee, 1990) Each student's issues vary, as one would expect, but these students tend to have two important characteristics in common. "A child can be pictured in the center of a field of forces all exerting pressure, from within and without, to shape a self-concept, self-esteem, and behavior." (Whitmore and Maker, 1985) Underachievers do not hold themselves in high regard. (Supplee, 1990) Through their behavior, they "announce" the underlying causes of their situation. It is left to us to learn to hear that announcement.


What would have happened if DC Comic's Superman had been raised by a less sensitive and aware person than Pa Kent? Picture Superman shuffling along the street, with his eyes shut and his hands in his pockets.

o He doesn't shake hands with people, because he would hurt them.

o He takes only small steps. Otherwise, he tends to leap the buildings in a single bound, and everyone makes fun of him.

o He claims to hear voices and sounds that no one else can, and it makes him seem and feel more than a little crazy.

o The worst of it is when he opens his eyes. Part of the time, he sees things others don't, or things he's not supposed to, and nobody will believe him. Once, when a teacher said, "Look at me, young man!" he opened his eyes and she burned. He tried to explain how it happened, but the police just ignored him, and tried to solve the mystery. He couldn't or wouldn't prove it, as he was too ashamed of what he'd done. He almost never opens his eyes, now.

The Concept of Power
Though none of us is Superman, each of us has a set of abilities, of various types and to various degrees. (Guilford,1967; Gardner, 1983) A person may be a brilliant mathematician, a brilliant actor, or a brilliant gymnast. Conversely, that person may be average or below average in these or other areas. How well we do something is not only indicative of our potential, but also of how we have been able to develop and apply that potential. 'Power' is, perhaps, a better term because the connotations of that word include the need to learn to use the power, and to use it wisely.

Any power can be used well or misused. The star quarterback and the neighborhood bully serve as easy examples of that. Less often discussed, and less well understood, are the ramifications of not identifying and therefore not nurturing the unplumbed power within the child. The trick, or, rather, the need, in working with gifted people with negative behaviors, is to identify the unnurtured ability. This is frequently the gateway to a program of helping that individual to change his or her life for the better.

Negative vs. Positive View - Syndrome or Potential
It's all well and good to insist that one should look for power behind children's negative behavior, rather than just condemning or excusing it, but society demands more than just one's feelings to justify such an approach. There are two standards to be met, prior to adoption of such a radical change in approach. The first is efficacy - if it won't make a difference, why bother? The second is theory - if it can't be explained, who will believe it?

The first is an easy question to respond to, at face value. Each of us knows from personal experience that when we feel good about something, or feel appreciated or respected, going forward is easier. Likewise, when we know that a problem we are having is a common issue, rather than a result of some "unique" inadequacy on our part, we feel a sense of relief.

Unfortunately, with negative behaviors it is more customary to seek a problem which causes the behavior. This leads to causal determinations such as attention deficit disorder, bi-polar disorder, hyperactivity, and suicidal tendencies. (Crow, 1978; Kos, 1993) This is not to suggest that such diagnoses are always wrong, but, rather, that the diagnosis is based on a symptom rather than the causal factors.

Whether such behavior is attributed to underlying chemical balances or psychological causes, the view is that the individual is flawed: "there is something wrong with you, but we can overcome it." This dictum serves as a relegation to second-class citizen status. To approach, instead, from the Power perspective tells the person: "there is nothing inherently wrong with you; you've just been inappropriately taught." There is then no stigma attached.

It feels a lot better to be taught to use an ability than it does to be taught to overcome or cover up a disability. "You could do extraordinary things!" "You could live a normal life." Which would you rather hear?

In examining the literature on giftedness, there is ample discussion and evidence concerning the sensitivities of gifted children, especially in their emotions. (Harms, 1947; Whitmore and Maker, 1985; NAGC, 1995) In recent years, there has been increasing awareness of physical sensitivities as well. (Gross, 1993) One theory seems to address the various components of this issue most effectively.

Kazamierz Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), which is a view of personal development, includes a component of five heightened potentials or sensitivities known as "Psychic Overexcitabilities" (OE): Psychomotor, Sensual, Imaginational, Intellectual, and Emotional.. These can go a long way toward explaining the roots of certain negative behaviors.As Michael Piechowski (1991) put it:

"(Dabrowski) took the intensity of (intellectually and artistically gifted youths') emotions, sensitivity, and proneness to riding a roller coaster of emotional extremes, as part
and parcel of their psychophysical makeup. Rather than view this as neurotic imbalance
or the brink of insanity, he saw it as a positive potential for their growth. [emphasis added]

While there is another major components of TPD, the dynamisms, OE's are more central to the lives of these children, as they are at lower levels in their development. (Dabrowski, 1967; Jackson, 1999). The Overexcitabilities play "a fundamental role in the development of the dynamisms." (Dabrowski, 1996)

"With sensitivity comes vulnerability." (Maxwell, 1996) Each of the OE's its own vulnerabilities. The potential problems can manifest themselves either as a reaction to tension, or as the product of negative or insufficient training and education.

1. Jack was rocking in his chair again. No matter how often the teacher spoke to him, he wouldn't hold still. When she spoke sharply to him today, he slammed down his book, and ran out of the room. He didn't stop until he got home. He couldn't say why he ran - he just had to.

1. The Psychomotor OE is most often noted for its surplus of energy. Concomitant with that can be a pressure for action or acting out - especially under stress. Impulsive actions can frequently land one in trouble. The explanation of "I couldn't help it..." doesn't improve the situation.

2. The teacher asked Frank why he cut himself with the razor blades. Frank responded, "I was bored." The teacher persisted by noting that Frank could have done many things when he was bored. "Why cut yourself?" After some more discussion, Frank explained that it was the sensations that he received that prompted his cutting himself.

2. The Sensual OE can lead either to overindulgence of the senses of touch, taste, and/or smell, or to blocking out of or being overwhelmed by any sensual impact. The first type can be seen in some "fetishes," nymphomania, overeating, sniffing glue, or even injuring oneself. The second type may be represented by those who may find that classrooms are too noisy to think in, that television is impossible to pull away from, or that pictures may be too intense to look at without getting a headache.

3. Barry started avidly reading at an early age, and by the time he got to school he was reading books aimed at fourth and fifth grade students. It was easy to see why the teachers loved him. He was curious, analytical, and introspective. It was also easy to see that his age-mates didn't love him quite as much. He started getting into fights in the second grade, and while he said he didn't start them, his teachers were sure that he must be doing something to cause them, or he wouldn't be involved in so many.

3. While the intellectual OE may not directly include overt behaviors, endless curiosity, the refusal to break away from an activity, the insistence on getting answers to questions to which others see no relevance, and the moral thinking that frequently comes with this OE can give a child a reputation as a trouble-maker, and lead to other negative situations.

4. Meredith belonged to a wide spread inter-galactic religion, which required her to use her mental powers to kill anyone who challenged her. She had trouble making friends.

4. The Imaginational OE lends itself to ready misinterpretation. Isaac Bashevis Singer once noted: "When I was younger they called me a liar. Now they call me a writer." The concerns, dramatizations, and blendings of truth and fiction, which may abound with this ability, lead many a gifted youngster into the system's doghouse.

5. Mary had always been a moody child. The least bit of criticism or taunting would bring her to tears. Other students would be encouraged to tease her more, and nothing her teachers or parents did would stop either the teasing or her reactions. While she had always been an extremely good student, after she was placed in the special education program, as an emotionally disturbed child, she did less and less work, and, finally, stopped talking altogether.

5. Perhaps, the most difficult situations arise for the child with a strong emotional OE. Intense sensitivity can lead quickly to feelings of rejection, inadequacy, guilt, and loneliness. This is compounded by a combination of factors which arise regularly in almost any elementary school setting. In the classroom, the majority of the students must have their apparent needs met. This is pragmatic. An unfortunate ramification is that the sensitive child learns that he/she, as an individual, is not valued. While this may be a half-truth, it is a potentially devastating lesson. It is followed by the disapproval of the teacher and classmates for being too sensitive - which makes the seeming rejection even more real to the sensitive youngster.

Going Deeper
This description only scratches the surface. Many destructive behaviors are reinforced by the sensations that students derive from their experiences. Discussions at Massachusetts Academy, a school for gifted underachievers, delved into some of the more extreme behaviors in which some of the students have engaged. Hallucinogenic drugs gave them feelings they say they could get no other way. In trying to explain vandalism and robbery, their focus is on the rush of barely getting away. One student who swallowed a bottle of tranquilizers just wanted to block out the new feeling of caring for others, and the pain that brought. A return to numbness was the goal, not death. What do these revelations mean?

Overexcitabilities are a result of heightened sensitivity. Heightened sensitivity leads to unease. (Tillier, 1998) Unease, if examined, might lead us to find areas of heightened sensitivity.

A Starting Point
The kinds of overt behavior that serve as hints (or screaming declarations) of underlying power are often readily seen. Wild stories like "the chair bit me;" the students who can't hold still or who jabber at a mile-a-minute; or the child in tears or rapture about everything are hard to miss. Even con games, screaming, self-mutilation, and extreme self-doubt are signs asking for examination.

Unfortunately, tracing from "poor" behaviors to powers is rarely simple. Sometimes one needs to approach the mystery as a detective might, by looking for little clues. What are the most outrageous behaviors? What are the loudest arguments about? What sorts of situations does the student avoid, or seek out? Also, look at history - what positive anecdotes are told about early childhood? What kinds of adventures, discoveries, or misunderstandings were there? What sorts of things happen that seem out of the ordinary? These are some of the places to find missing, necessary clues.


"Even in the (dropout) group there are resources in talent that the school has completely ignored. Able students who should have been encouraged to prepare for positions of responsibility leave with no assurance that they will ever obtain training suited to their abilities. Adequate guidance has apparently been lacking for these students..." (Eckert and Marshall, 1939)

As teachers, our own perceptions come first. We must recognize that we are working with people whose development has been misguided, if guided at all. The kinds of behaviors which arise come not as a consequence of disability, but, rather, of unchanneled ability or power. By our recognition, we can help students to see that way, as well. The resulting increase in self-understanding and self-esteem can bring about a growth in their control and a decrease in their despair. (Kardaras, 1996) A most gratifying development for a teacher.


Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (1988). Content of the curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Crow, G. A. (1978). Children at risk: A handbook of the signs and symptoms of early childhood difficulties. New York: Shocken.

Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality shaping through positive disintigration. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Dabrowski, K. (1996). Multilevelness of emotional and instinctive functions. Lublin, Poland: Towarzystwo Naukowe, Katolickiego Uniwersytetu lubelskiego.

Delisle, J. (1994). Dealing with the stereotype of underachievement. Gifted Child Today, 17(6), 20-21.

Eckert, R. E. and Marshall, T. O. (1939). When youth leave school - Report of the Regents' Inquiry. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gross, M. (1993). Exceptionally gifted children. New York: Routledge Press.

Guilford, J. P. (1956). The structure of intellect. Psychological Bulletin, 53, 267-293.

Harms, E. (1947). The guidance of the superior child and the prodigy. in E. Harms (ed.) Handbook of Child Guidance. New York: Child Care Publications, pp 112-132

Holt, J. (1969). The Underachieving School. New York: Dell

Jackson, S. (1999, May). Authentic Life: Three Headless Horsemen. Paper presented at the Hollingworth Conference on Highly Gifted Children, Manchester, New Hampshire.

Kardaras, K. (1996). "Spiritual Emergency," The potential for emotional growth, and the case of "Ann Hedonia." Unpublished paper.

Kos, R. (1993). "Nobody knows my life but me!" The story of Ben, a reading disabled adolescent. in R. Donmeyer and R. Kos (ed.) At -risk students: Portraits, policies, programs, and practices. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp 49-78.

Maxwell, E. (1997). Private communication.

Orlosky, D. E. and Smith, B. O. (1978). Curriculum development: Issues and insights. Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing.

Peabody, J. (1991). Origins of despair. Unpublished paper.

Piechowski, M. (1991). Emotional development and emotional giftedness. in N. Colangelo and G. Davis (ed.) Handbook of gifted education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, pp 285-306.

Plucker, J. and McIntire, J. (in press). Academic survivability in high ability, middle school students. Gifted Child Quarterly.

Rimm, S. (1986). Underachievement syndrome: Causes and Cures. Watertown, WI: Apple.

Seely, K. (1993). Gifted students at risk. in L. Silverman (ed.) Counseling the gifted and talented. Denver: Love Publishing

Sizer, T. (1992). Horace's school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Supplee, P. L. (1990). Reaching the underachiever: Program strategy and design. New York: Teachers College Press.

Tempest, N. R. (1974). Teaching clever children 7-11. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tillier, W. (1998). Private communication.

Whitmore, J. and Maker, C. J. (1985). Intellectual giftedness in disabled persons Denver: Aspen Press.