By Joanne Rand Whitmore


Generally it is not difficult to understand that handicapped, disadvantaged, or culturally different children are "at risk" for learning problems in our schools. However, it seems to be very difficult, even for special educators, to accept the fact that intellectually gifted and creatively talented youngsters, as a group, are equally at risk in school.

Misconceptions of Giftedness

Persuasive misunderstandings of the nature of giftedness have created conditions in homes, schools, and communities that exacerbate the natural vulnerability of gifted children to underachievement. Those misunderstandings result in inappropriate expectations for gifted students and, consequently, adult responses to giftedness that place those students even more at risk. For example, when parents and teachers believe that learning and school achievement are easy for all gifted youngsters, they tend to demand more effort and tolerate little error or imperfection. This feeds an unhealthy vulnerability gifted children naturally have toward perfectionism, which can result in a desire to avoid the risk of being less than "the best" or "failing." Similarly, when adults believe that gifted children are more mature than their peers developmentally, they tend to expect more mature behavior than is reasonable and forget the childishness that is necessarily present even in gifted children. Adults also often believe that gifted children have exceptionally strong egos and require extra firm discipline to curb their independence and foster humility. The myths and misconceptions about giftedness, and their potentially damaging consequences to the child’s self-esteem and achievement motivation have been well documented for many years. (Freeman, 1985; Haggard, 1957; Hildreth, 1966; Hollingworth, 1942; Pringle, 1970; Strang, 1960; Whitmore, 1980).

Factors Influencing Underachievement

As Morse (1987) has pointed out, children in school learn socialized behavior. That social learning process is altered in exceptional children by the effects of being different from the "average." These effects are influenced significantly by the specific characteristics of the environment (e.g., cultural values, personalities of adults and peers, educational opportunities) and of the exceptional students themselves, who vary greatly on attributes not directly related to the specific exceptionality (e.g., nonintellectual characteristics of intellectually gifted students)

Gifted children placed in classroom in which their personal and intellectual characteristics are socially rewarded and nurtured while their more age-typical behaviors in non-gifted domains are accepted, usually will not be at risk for learning problems. On the other hand, gifted children who are significantly different from their peers not only in cognitive capabilities but also in personality characteristics, and are in an educational setting that is academically unchallenging, socially unrewarding, and generally stifling to the expression and development of their giftedness, are acutely at risk. The most vulnerable gifted children are those for whom the interactive effects of school experience socialize them into patterns of asocial or antisocial behavior and academic underachievement. The professional literature has described several groups particularly at high risk for academic underachievement: the most highly gifted and creative children, young boys, adolescent girls, gifted students with mild to severe handicaps, and gifted students whose cultural backgrounds are different from the dominant culture of the community (Whitmore, 1987).

Intellectually gifted students, in contrast to those gifted in athletics, arts, or leadership, generally are at risk for learning difficulties in school for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, their perceptions of the social aspects of schooling and their feelings about the academic tasks shape the behavior of these students into patterns of mild to moderate academic underachievement or even school failure (Whitmore, 1979, 1980). The pattern of underachievement inevitably produces, to some degree, consequences of low self-esteem and poor mental health that, particularly when severe result in "problem behavior." Specifically, a sense of academic failure to lack of satisfaction in curricular tasks fosters tendencies to withdraw (e.g., nonparticipation, daydreaming) or to be disruptive (e.g., clowning, talking, being defiant). A sense of social isolation which is common among gifted students (AAGC, 1978), and perceived penalties for behaving in "different," "gifted" ways often exacerbate the problem. Without accurate perception of this dynamic and early intervention to redirect such a child’s expressions of feelings and needs, a negative cycle of interaction often results in which the child and the teacher, as well as peers view the child’s participation in the classroom negatively (Whitmore, 1980).

This article discusses four key sources of vulnerability that place intellectually gifted children at risk for learning difficulties in many American classrooms: parent and teacher understandings and expectations of giftedness, the child’s developing self-concept for academic achievement and success in school; the gifted child’s learning style and educational needs; and the potential influence of the peer group.

Parent and Teacher Expectations

Parents and teachers may place a gifted child at risk either by failing to recognize the child’s giftedness, and consequently holding inappropriately low expectations for the child’s performance, or by recognizing the child’s giftedness but responding with inappropriately high expectations. Both types of error occur because of misunderstandings regarding the nature of giftedness. When parents or teachers err by failing to recognize a child’s giftedness, the child may be understimulated intellectually and encouraged to set low standards and goals. This condition may adversely affect the child’s cognitive growth and foster habits of laziness, feelings of boredom and a desire to be "average" and "fit in" comfortably. Gifted children who are assertive and highly independent may seek the educational opportunities in and out of school that will develop their giftedness and minimize their vulnerability to underachievement in school.

The most serious adult error occurs when misunderstandings and/or ego involvement result in inordinately high levels of pressure for achievement being placed on the child. Parents and teachers may slip into a pattern of thinking a gifted child is chronologically older because of accelerated development in the area(s) of giftedness. In such cases, the adults tend to view the gifted child as immature or undisciplined when age-typical behaviors occur (e.g., tears of frustration, forgetfulness, silliness). They consequently may admonish or punish the child for behavior that is accepted in agemates. Unknowingly, these adults may press the child to strive to be "the best," "number one," and "perfect," reinforcing the child’s natural vulnerability to unhealthy levels of perfection.

At the extreme, the proud adult is acutely involved in the potential and actual achievements of the child, becoming the coach obsessed with winning, the teacher set on no less than top honors for the child, and the mentor who demands perfection. Anxiety and fear may be generated by these excessive adult pressures, often impairing the gifted child’s sense of adequacy and self-esteem.

A third type of vulnerability is created for some gifted students by adults who deny the child’s giftedness. In such a case a child either becomes convinced that he or she is not gifted or learns to mask and deny superior abilities in order to avoid embarrassment, social discomfort, or adult rejection. The child does not acquire from these adults an accurate understanding of what giftedness is and is not, and this creates further vulnerability to being at risk academically and socially because of inappropriate self-expectations (Roedell, 1986; Callaham, 1986).

Expectations for gifted children that place them at risk for learning difficulties are generated by inaccurate assessments of their ability and inaccurate conceptions of giftedness. To avoid contributing to this problem, adults must acquire accurate information regarding a child’s abilities and the precise area(s) of giftedness manifested by that child. They must first view the child as a normal youngster who shares many of the characteristics of his or her agemates, and they must seek to eliminate pressure and perfectionistic tendencies while encouraging the full exploration of the child’s potential. The key strategy for successful guidance and teaching of a gifted child is to be responsive to the child’s natural desires to learn and master skills, nurture the child’s special interests and manifested abilities, and provide a balanced lifestyle in a stimulating and supportive environment.

Self-Concept for School Achievement

Generally, gifted children enter school with a positive, healthy self-image as learners capable of acquiring information and skills quite readily. It is during the first 3 to 5 years of schooling that children acquire a self-concept for school achievement, develop feelings of worth associated with that self-concept, and begin to behave predictably in patterns of participation reflecting those self-concepts for school achievement (Purkey & Novak, 1984; Whitmore, 1980). During this time, gifted children are vulnerable to patterns of underachievement, aggression or withdrawal, and emotional instability in response to school experiences that shape a negative self-concept that contradicts the self perception they have developed in out-of-school experiences.

The principal factors placing gifted children at risk in school are teacher failure to recognize their giftedness and failure to modify the curriculum and instruction appropriately to accommodate and nurture giftedness.

There are many examples of how gifted children are at risk for learning problems in the basic curricular areas of elementary school. Accelerated learners who are "high achievers" are at risk because they often gain no significant sense of success or satisfaction from work that is too easy (e.g., reading skill development work for children who are advanced readers), lacks relevance to their interests (i.e., reading, science, and social studies textbooks that are far beneath their advanced interests), and is too simple and unchallenging (e.g., practicing handwriting for neatness, severe time limits that force simple responses to assigned activities in language arts, excessive drill and practice in math facts.)

For intellectually gifted children who have significant uneven cognitive and motoric abilities, there are conditions in the early school years that place them at acute risk for failure (Terraisier, 1985). For example, a gifted child may be able to concoct a complicated story for a creative writing task, yet be unable to complete the assignment accurately and nearly under the constraints of a time limit. If teacher feedback emphasizes those standards of form as more important to success than the quality of thought or content, the child may sense even greater failure. Thus, if young gifted children have difficulty acquiring the basic skills of reading or writing, it seems inevitable that they will judge their probability of academic success to be very low and will conclude that they are not smart, but "dumb," since the work appears to be so simple for others. These feelings, if augmented by an uninteresting, unstimulating curriculum, may result in low motivation to participate along with a negative self-concept for school achievement.

Learning Style and Educational Needs

All intellectually gifted students are at risk for learning difficulties when the instructional style of the teacher is not well suited to their own learning styles. In recent years, the values expressed in the "back to basics" movement, as well as many practices encouraged in the application of Effective Schools Research findings through "School Improvement Projects" (Goodman, 1985), have placed gifted students at all levels, K through 12, at much greater risk for learning problems and for failure to fully develop their exceptional potential for school achievement. Although some gifted students are motivated to master memory work with the greatest speed and proficiency, most respond adversely to excessive amounts of drill and the use of time to repeatedly demonstrate mastery instead of learning new facts and acquiring other skills. The current tendency of schools to encourage teachers to use a rigid textbook-workbook approach conflicts seriously with the natural tendency of gifted students to learn through creative or scientific problem solving. Gifted students enjoy learning activities that make full use of their higher cognitive abilities, challenge them to make intellectual "leaps," and flexibly structure or guide their learning processes.

If classroom conditions discourage or punish a child for expressions of giftedness (e.g., creative responses, extensive verbalization, pursuit of advanced interests), the child is even more at risk for learning problems and underachievement in school, with behavior disorders often developing.

Influence of Peer Groups

Any child who is significantly different from the majority of classmates is apt to experience feelings of social discomfort and sometimes isolation or alienation. Because it is so important to children to belong and "fit in," gifted children who are placed in classrooms where they are alone in their differentness, without "buddies" or clusters of peers with similar abilities, are at risk for learning difficulties. An isolated gifted student may cope with the sense of ostracism by repressing anger and resentment and working hard to achieve. But often in such a situation the child seeks peer acceptance by masking giftedness, conforming to peer behavior patterns, and purposely underachieving (Whitmore, 1980). Sometimes disruptive behaviors result as the child seeks attention. In other cases, the child withdraws and claims no interest in having friends. When a gifted child is teased and ridiculed for being "different," severe damage to mental health and social development may occur.

Feelings of isolation or alienation can be minimized by placing gifted children in regular classrooms that include some gifted peers. The teacher can use discussions of literature, socio-drama, and role playing, group work on projects and pairing students for learning activities to develop social understanding and skills (Whitmore, 1980, Chapter 10). In addition, the teacher must set standards for student conduct that do not permit ridicule or exclusion of individuals and use class meetings and conflict resolution techniques to solve social problems in the classroom. All of these techniques are most effective in a climate that fosters the valuing of individuality and different types of students.


Gifted children are at risk for learning difficulties when the interaction between their characteristics (personality and educational needs ) and the characteristics of the school environment (affective messages and academic curriculum) produce a negative self-concept for school achievement, negative attitudes toward school attendance and participation, and patterns of academic underachievement. These negative effects can be found in gifted high achievers who "play the game" to achieve success, but function at a level significantly below their ability level in school.

The most highly gifted and creative students are especially at risk because of the degree to which they deviate from the norms of their agemates regarding intellectual abilities and interests, willingness to conform and follow directions, personal goals, and sources of satisfaction. Young boys are particularly at risk because of their high energy and activity levels and their aggressive response to pressure, frustration, and psychological conflict in school. Adolescent girls are vulnerable to underachievement when academic excellence is not perceived to be rewarded for females, advanced education and careers are not encouraged and there is a lack of positive role models. Disabled students are most at risk when placed in a classroom or educational program that focuses on assessed disabilities and fails to appropriately address and develop areas of giftedness. Culturally different children are at risk when the majority culture fails to recognize their giftedness and provide appropriate educational opportunities (Gallagher & Kinney, 1974).

Gifted children are not significantly at risk when the adults associated with them have acute understandings of the nature of giftedness and, thus, hold appropriate expectations, guiding them to develop self-understanding and self-acceptance and effective coping strategies (Webb et al., 1982). The potential for being at risk is reduced when the peer culture accepts and reinforces individuality and giftedness, especially when it values high achievement.

An appropriate educational program for gifted children reduces the risk of underachievement by guaranteeing (a) an understanding and skilled teacher who serves as a model, (b) a group of intellectual peers (at least five) as classmates, and (c) an individualized curriculum that is appropriately challenging, personally meaningful and rewarding, allows accelerated learning, and accommodates the student’s specific learning style. These conditions should not be difficult to create in any school. The fact that they are not universally present is an indictment of our educational system for its lack of recognition of the unique problems experienced by gifted youth.


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Teaching Exceptional Children, 1988


Joanne Rand Whitmore (CEC Chapter #185) is Dean, college of Graduate School of Education, Kent State University, Ohio.