It is a myth that high potential learners are always motivated. True, their drive and enthusiasm can be powerful; however, when motivation wanes, how can they steer away from underachievement?

Motivation: a definition

“Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested and committed to a job, role or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal. Motivation results from the interaction of both conscious and unconscious factors such as the (1) intensity of desire or need, (2) incentive or reward value of the goal, and (3) expectations of the individual and of his or her peers.” (Source:

This encapsulates how motivation is complex, may not automatically last and is dependent on a combination of external and internal factors.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

‘Extrinsic’ – external motivators are factors that lie outside of the individual. Examples in a young learner might be: aiming for extra pocket money or peer group kudos by scoring highly in a test; believing success only comes with good grades; or ‘people pleasing’ parents and teachers.

‘Intrinsic’ – internal motivators would drive a child via their natural curiosity or a tendency to ‘get lost in thought’ when working on a project. In studies, intellectually talented adolescents showed a stronger than average intrinsic motivation for reading, thinking and solitude,i whilst those with an IQ over 130 registered high academic intrinsic motivationii.

A tendency towards extrinsic or intrinsic motivation is thus thought to be part of our character, however, we are naturally swayed by the nature of any particular task or reward.

Other Theories about Motivation

Expectancy-value theory maintains that motivation is driven (or not) by individual- and peer group expectations and values. Expectations decide whether someone believes they are capable of succeeding. Values determine whether an individual perceives a project to be useful or appropriate; if so, they are likely to concentrate better and already know something about the topic (for example, due to a long-held passion for the periodic table). Motivation flourishes with the belief that one is capable of tackling a task that is worth doing.

Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ theory describes how an intrinsically motivated individual can reach a state of deep involvement (‘flow’) when the level of challenge matches their capability. A high-achieving gifted student is likely to attempt any work assigned; however, ‘flow’ theory predicts that too high a challenge leads to anxiety, whereas boredom results from the bar being set too low.

Self-determination theory centres around a person’s need for autonomy. It is important to feel simultaneously connected to others, yet individually competent.

What is the Relevance of Motivation for Young People with High Learning Potential?

Research is clear that even amongst high potential learners, motivation is not a ‘given’. There is a strong link between ability and achievement – and between motivation and achievement. An unmotivated (albeit highly able) student is set to underachieve.

Encouragingly, gifted adolescents have been seen to reverse underachievement by nurturing intrinsic motivators, linking their academic success to personal goals, pursuing strong intellectual or creative interests outside of school/home education and learning in a way that allows advanced and independent study.

Some studies show underachieving gifted students are motivated by high grades and positive feedback. Conflicting research suggests that they perceive grades to be of little value.iii – Therefore, learn what works well for your particular child and be prepared to mix motivational means in different areas. For example, they may be passionate about science and therefore intrinsically motivated in that particular area, but perhaps they need extrinsic motivation for a subject like music.

Motivation is also one of the core traits recognised by Potential Plus UK and singled out by specialist tools such as Gifted Rating Scales as being observable in children with high learning potential. The six traits generally screened for are Motivation, Academic Ability, Intellectual Ability, Creativity, Artistic Talent and (for Year 2 equivalent and above) Leadership.

Inspiring Motivation in a High Potential Learner

  • Nurture their intrinsic motivation – this should always be your end goal, even if extrinsic ‘bribes’ seem easier!
  • Provide a learning environment that allows focus and attention.
  • Empower your learner with appropriate autonomy.
  • Focus on their strategy and the quality, rather than the quantity, of their effort. Reward this.
  • Be sure that both of you emphasise personal bests and avoid comparing them(selves) to others.
  • Use these 21 strategies for enhancing motivation in ‘high ability underachievers’ (
  • Pique their curiosity! For tips, see Curiouser and Curiouser – Activities to Engage Curiosity
  • If they are weak in an area, they may struggle and lose all motivation. Advocate for an appropriate level of challenge (as per expectancy-value theory).
  • Practise breaking tasks down into sections that match their capability and ability.
  • Encourage them to become aware of their thinking style and to begin forming useful ‘metacognitive’ strategies.
  • Identify role models. Potential Plus UK’s blogs include a series which focuses on inspirational figures for high potential learners, including those with dual or multiple exceptionality (DME), at
  • Find the long-term value of ‘boring’ studies. If the goal is to become a doctor, meaning that even the unpopular aspects of science will be necessary to get into university, this might well boost motivation to learn.
  • Build a ‘growth mindset’ that overcomes perfectionism, grows resilience and supports the ‘expectancy’ that success requires effort. See 10 Questions about Mindset and High Learning Potential
  • If your child lacks motivation, but the activity is a must, then consider providing a short period of extrinsic motivation, which you then phase out. If, however, your child lacks motivation, and the activity is not a must, then consider letting them stop it; reluctance can easily turn into hatred for a subject if forced to do it when it isn’t necessary and discontinuing it will make room for a more positive learning pattern.

 Role of Parents and Teachers

Children and young people with high learning potential will benefit from a secure home life and a consistent relationship with their carers and educators, from whom they should receive support, but not undue pressure.

Conversely, inconsistency and disagreement between those in authority is likely to damage their motivation and ‘buy-in’ to a project.

Underachievement can sometimes be traced back to an unavoidable ‘initiating situation’ – perhaps a family breakdown, birth or bereavement. Parents can promote mental stability by discussing large changes in advance and planning support accordingly.

Carers should also be vigilant for signs of a mental health issue or physical problem. Challenges such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or Dyslexia, can lead to great difficulty in maintaining focus and motivation even if the child is inherently fascinated. Consult your child’s GP, Occupational Therapist, Psychologist or other support worker if you suspect this is the case.

Additional Resources

Articles and blogs

Fact sheets



[i] Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Whalen (1993)
[ii]Gottfried & Gottfried (1996)
[iii]Snyder & Linnenbrink-Garcia (2013);

About the author: Gillie Ithell is a writer and editor for Potential Plus UK with a B.A. degree in Modern Languages & Communication. Having worked internationally as content manager of classic board games and ‘edutainment’ software, Gillie now writes to inspire others like herself; on a daily journey with High Learning Potential.