Gifted or Overachieving?

by Barbara Prashnig



A friend of mine told me this story recently and made me think about the problems highly intelligent children have. It brought home the fact that success and failure in learning can lie so closely together and that failure can be experienced by high achieving students so very differently from underachieving ones. 

I was a gifted child. By the time I was 4, I could read books and write proper sentences and create rhyming poetry. I remember my father boasting that his 4-year old could count to a hundred.

“I can count beyond a hundred,” I chipped in.

“Oh yes? How far beyond?”

I thought for a bit. “I’m not sure what you call a thousand trillion.”

So that’s how brilliant I was at 4. At 7, I understood non-decimal systems and that 1+1=10 in binary. By the time I hit the age 8 and percentages, however, I was stumped. I just didn’t know what to divide into what and what it all meant.

After the test, I came home in tears. For the first time ever, I didn’t know whether I’d got the right answers. My peers taunted me, in that particularly cruel way only known to children, but that was nothing compared to what I was feeling inside. I thought it was the end of the world and of course I survived but for a long time I could feel the emotional pain and the memories are still with me. 

If you are a parent of a gifted child who has not experienced failure yet, maybe these Action Steps below can help should such an event occur.  


Definition of failure

To gifted children, ‘failure’ does not mean ‘failure to pass’. It may mean failure to obtain the highest mark in the group, or failure to get every question right, or failure to produce a piece of work that’s up to their own - often impossibly high - standards. Once they are on top, their record is impeccable and they are labelled ‘gifted’ or ‘top student’, that’s when they will become petrified of not living up to that label.

One slip-up may, in extreme cases, be enough to change a top student into a dropout. The more successful a gifted child is, the bigger the pressure to remain so.


Action Step 1:

Recognise the emotions

Children who are used to success will probably experience most of the following emotions the first time they fail to excel:

  • hurt pride,
  • a sudden loss of self-confidence,
  • fear of disappointing their parents,
  • acute disappointment with oneself,
  • confusion and bewilderment that come with unfamiliar territory,
  • sadness or even depression,
  • anger,
  • loss of motivation.

Action Step 2:

Understand the child's style

Every person has his or her unique Learning Style. Part of that is the renowned Visual-Auditory- Kinesthetic label, but our Learning Style Analysis instruments (LSA) also contain Tactile features in the Senses and define an individual’s motivation style (internally motivated or depending on external rewards), persistency (whether a person gives up in the face of failure), conformity (whether a person is likely to rebel in adverse circumstances), as well as their attitude towards authority figures (teachers and parents). Those are all important ingredients when it comes to helping your child through a failure episode and LSA Profiles are a reliable tool for finding out how to give the best possible support.

Action step 3:

Tackle the most important problem first

Identify the most intense emotion your child is experiencing following her failure. Is it anger with herself? Anger with the environment (the teachers, the parents, the system)? Is it depression? Perhaps even denial?

If your child is externally motivated, for example, her biggest issue will be the disappointment she’s caused the people who are proud of her, as well as the fear of not getting her external prize (that of a top student in maths or that of having the highest grades among her peers for the last five years).

Part of the solution here would be to reassure her that you’re proud of her and to chart out a strategy to hold onto that external prize.

If she’s internally motivated, her biggest worry will be the work she didn’t understand properly. A plan of how to get back on track will be key to her coping with failure.

Watch out for children whose learning style indicates low persistency: they are the ones who will most likely give up the first time they hit an obstacle. Because they’re gifted, learning has always come easy to them, so naturally they excelled. When they fail, however, they may decide that excelling is too much trouble, after all.

Be particularly aware of a child who shrugs off her failure, saying it doesn’t matter, or joking that it’s high time to prove she’s human and imperfect. A gifted child will always take failure hard, so an indifferent attitude may be a sign of denial or an indication that the child has failed on purpose (in order to rebel, or to “punish” her parents, or to fit in with the crowd, or to impress a boy).

Action step 4:

Deal with the rest of the issue

Once you’ve dealt with the overriding emotion, it’s time to deal with the rest of the issue.

Help your child to face the problem head-on. Brainstorm together for possible solutions. At this stage, the solutions can vary from the sensible to the fantastic: talk to the teacher, get extra tuition, change schools, migrate to another country, build a time-machine to go back in time and erase the poor performance. Once the child has run out of potential solutions, help her evaluate them in terms of practicality and effectiveness.

Remember, because you’re dealing with a super-intelligent child who has a great track record, your problem is not so much her lack of success in that one instance: it’s her reaction to discovering that she has an Achilles’ Heel after all. While that realisation in itself may be a healthy one, make sure that it doesn’t lead to a loss of self-confidence. What your child needs from you now is to have her image boosted.

Action step 5:

Find a positive spin on the situation

If possible, help your child to identify the positive aspects of her failure. Is there anything she can learn from it, like that there are subjects she likes less than others, or a new exam strategy?

Tom (not his real name) was a gifted student whose passion was mathematics. So when he struck a particularly challenging problem in the first exam of his final school year, he revelled in it. It didn’t matter that the question counted only 2% of the overall grade: Rudy thought it would be fun to solve it. What he didn’t know was that there was an error in the exam and that the problem as stated was impossible to solve. He lost track of time and only realised his mistake when time was up and he had to hand in his paper almost untouched (the flawed question happened to be at the beginning of the exam sheet).

Although that error had cost him the Maths Prize, what Tom learnt from his failure was to move on to the next question if he’s unable to answer it straight away. “Before the incident, I never needed an exam strategy,” he says. “Questions were always trivial and there was more than enough time to answer them three times over. What my experience taught me was that an exam situation is not the best place to try to qualify for the Fields Medal.” 


Ultimately, when it comes to gifted children, failure is uncommon. If it happens, help your child deal with it, and, chances are, it won’t happen again.  

Also, make sure the gap in your child’s knowledge that lead to the failure, is ultimately filled. Otherwise, she may end up knowing what a thousand trillion is called, indeed she may end up earning huge sums, but still be unable to figure out how to work out the tax percentage on her latest invention, TV production or blockbuster novel.  

When we consider Learning Styles and the individual factors that make up someone’s overall style, a marked difference can be observed between gifted students and high achievers, often seen as ‘overachievers’ during their school years. The list below gives a good overview and can serve parents to recognize warning signs when their children are overly ambitious, often at the cost of their own health.

LS Differences between High Achievers and Gifted Students:


  • left-brain dominance
  • analytic
  • sequential
  • reflective
  • audio-visual
  • listening/reading preferences
  • sit still, don’t need intake
  • prefer quiet environment
  • need bright light
  • formal work area
  • morning learners
  • want to work alone
  • don’t like peer groups
  • respect authority
  • high motivation to achieve
  • high persistence
  • conforming
  • highly responsible
  • need structure & guidance
  • like routine


  • left-right brain integration
  • analytic & holistic
  • sequential & simultaneous
  • impulsive & reflective
  • strong multi-sensory
  • preferences
  • physical needs are unimportant
  • prefer quiet environment
  • bright or dim light
  • formal work area
  • morning/evening preferences
  • work best alone, but also
  • accept like-minded peers
  • dislike authority, make own rules
  • very high motivation to learn
  • extremely high persistence
  • non-conforming
  • often low social responsibility
  • high ability to self-structure
  • switch between routine & variety

High achievers are often mistaken for gifted learners as they show some similar style features. However, they are often pushed by ambitious parents or peer pressure, study hard for high grades and can show stress and even worse, burn-out symptoms.


Gifted students are often bored in class, frustrated, misunderstood and can be socially isolated. Despite their high intelligence (genius mind), many refuse to participate, become ‘learning disabled’ and often fail in school.

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About Barbara Prashnig

Professor Barbara Prashnig, a pioneer und visionary in the field of style diversity in leaning and working as well as professional development. Her passion is to help people in difficult situations succeeding through better self knowledge. She is the Founding Director and CEO of Creative Learning Systems in Auckland, New Zealand.