Why Do Smart Kids Underachieve in School?


Why is it that some very smart kids underachieve in school while others with the same abilities earn top marks? Is it that the underachiever is lazy or simply doesn’t care or is there something else going on?

Underachievement in Washington, DC

At Educational Connections we hear this concern from parents in the Washington, DC area frequently. Their students are very intelligent, but their smarts don’t necessarily translate to high grades.

In Tracy Alloway’s new book, The Working Memory Advantage: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster, she argues that there is more at play than a lack of motivation. It’s likely that many smart kids who underachieve have poor working memory. Consider this scenario she describes in her book:

“Jeff was one of those precocious children who was inquisitive about the world and seemed to know more than anyone else in his kindergarten class. Most people would probably assume that Jeff has a high IQ. And they would be right. A child needs a score of at least 130 on an IQ test in order to be deemed gifted. When schools are identifying gifted children, they may take others factors into consideration, but many rely heavily on IQ scores.”

“You would probably also assume that Jeff grew up to be a successful professional – a top business executive, a lawyer, or a doctor. But that wasn’t the case. He bounced from job to job for years before ending up being a handyman. What happened? If Jeff was one of the “gifted” students, shouldn’t he also have been highly successful? You would think so, but we have found that the general concept of giftedness isn’t quite that simple.”

Low Working Memory and Underachievement

In a review of the research and in her own studies, Tracy has found that students with a high IQ but low working memory are more likely to underperform than those with high IQ and high working memory. Students with strong working memory are more likely to excel in school and in their professional life.

When kids underachieve, it’s easy to think they have a character flaw, such as lack of motivation or willpower, but before jumping to that conclusion, we as parents need to dig deeper. One culprit could be low working memory. If you’re as interested in this topic as I am, check out the Working Memory Advantage. Let me know what you think!