Experiencing Challenges and Failures

Helping gifted and advanced learners during transitional periods.

Recognize These Students?

Bryce stopped doing his homework in ninth grade. His backpack was a disaster, and he could never find the planner his homeroom teacher distributed in August. It was now mid-October. Earlier in his schooling, he was identified as gifted with an individual IQ on the WISC-IV of 135. He taught himself to read at age four and had excelled in math throughout elementary school.

In middle school, he had all As with little studying and was on the soccer and Math Counts teams. When his parents logged into PowerSchool, they saw missing and late assignments, incomplete study guides, and erratic test scores. Bryce always had an excuse; the teacher hadn’t graded or recorded his score yet, it was a stupid assignment, it was too boring, he already knew that old “stuff.”

He always seemed to be on his Chromebook. When they watched him with it, he did seem to be doing some kind of schoolwork. Bryce quit the freshman soccer team after the first week of practice. He was having trouble sleeping and getting him up for school was harder and harder.

Janine had lots of friends in elementary school. All her teachers liked her and she excelled in every subject. Her careful and complete writing was often held up as an example, and she felt confident and proud of herself. Her report card comments stated, “Janine is a pleasure to have in class,” and at teacher conferences, her parents always heard, “I wish I had a whole room full of Janines.”

But when she started sixth grade at the middle school, her parents noticed Janine cried a lot more often. She seemed sad or worried a lot of the time and her grades had plummeted from As to Bs and Cs. She was texting constantly or on Snapchat or Instagram. Janine was never more than a few inches from her phone or tablet.

Her English teacher reported that despite an excellent rough draft, Janine had never turned in a final essay. The teacher from her advanced math class called home to say that despite an enthusiastic start in the first few weeks of the school year, Janine had stopped volunteering to answer questions and her homework was often incomplete. This teacher wondered if anything was going on at home or if Janine had mentioned anything about math.

Yet, Janine had almost completely stopped talking to her parents. Their formerly chatty, social daughter had turned sullen, often angry, and she had started to bite her fingernails. They were thinking of taking her to see a counselor.

What do both of these young adolescents have in common? A painful and confusing transition from middle to high school and from elementary to middle school.

Both Bryce and Janine had “hit a wall.” The sad part about their stories is that many gifted and advanced learners experience the same challenges as Bryce and Janine. Yet, one variable is often the different transitional period during which these students first encounter these problems: elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, or even, for some students, high school to college.

What This is Not and What Does Not Work

Far too often, we make assumptions about what is happening for these students. We assume they are lazy. We assume they do not care. We assume they were misplaced in advanced classes. We assume they were misidentified or their abilities were over-estimated. We assume that the students acquired the advanced skills and knowledge they possess as a result of mastering school-based academic skills (studying, reading, or taking notes).

Then, professionals often make the worst possible decision: we move the students “down” into an “easier” class. Never, in more than 40 years as a teacher, have I seen this solution work to improve the grades, the academic habits, the attitudes, or the achievement of gifted and advanced middle grades learners. Why? Because the underlying cause is usually neither the content nor pace of instruction; the root causes are in the students’ emotional and psychological experiences and in their self-perceptions.

Root Causes and Solutions

Many of these students were not adequately challenged in elementary school and thus have learned that “smart” means not having to work hard—or work at all! Oftentimes, these students enter middle or high school as the “star pupil” in earlier grades without much effort. They may not know how to collaborate or perform when they encounter a class of equally advanced peers, difficult content, a more rapid instructional pace, or text- and lecture-based instruction. They have, what Rimm (2008) calls, “specialitis.” They may have acquired it at home or at school, but once acquired, it is very difficult to help a young adolescent realize that many of their peers are equal to or more advanced than they are in different aspects of development.

The existence of other gifted and advanced students does not diminish their abilities. But in order to continue to grow as a student and as a person, gifted students need to work harder in school, acquire new skills, develop a more realistic self-concept, and learn more mature and effective executive function skills. They need to learn that their identity goes beyond their grades or intellectual potential.

Our first step in helping these students move forward is to be proactive. We need to ensure that from the earliest elementary and intermediate grades, students are challenged adequately so they learn how to work on learning new material and skills. During transition periods, we need to watch for underachievement, understand possible causes, and scaffold strategies for success in our advanced classes.

One example of an effective scaffold is making sure all students are writing every assignment down (by hand!) in a paper planner. This is especially true for fifth and sixth grade students. Once this skill becomes a habit, students may be ready to use electronic calendars during later grade levels.

It is not enough to distribute or have students complete study guides. Asking students who may not have met expectations whether or not they studied, they often say, “Sure, I looked over the study guide.” Unfortunately, “looking it over” is often not sufficient.

When teachers hand out a study guide or prepare to give a test, we need to teach students how to study specific content: make flashcards, trace maps and charts, re-do practice math problems, rehearse orally with a friend or family member, draw diagrams or webs, or write down ideas.

Students need to learn how to read science and social studies texts and take handwritten notes
from both texts and lectures. Ninth grade teachers and teachers of advanced middle grades students often take for granted that students have mastered these skills. Teachers and parents need to collaborate to help students develop organizational skills regarding time management, handling materials, and setting goals.

We need to involve guidance counselors to address issues such as anxiety and perfectionism. We must frequently present academic role models for students of every race, gender, and ethnicity. Students need
to develop a sense of self that is based on effort and the reality that “smart” is neither a static concept
nor ability.

Guidance counselors and teachers can also help parents who are used to students earning straight. As better understand the developmental changes and needs of young adolescents.

Using a multi-faceted approach to addressing the issues of underachievement, uncertainty, and first-time challenges encountered by many gifted and advanced young adolescents when they experience challenges and failures may help them develop greater self-efficacy and self-understanding, increase their ability to work hard, and improve their capacity to contribute to their school and society.


Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Rakow, S. (2011). Educating gifted students in middle grades: A practical guide (2nd ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Rimm, S. (2008). Why bright kids get poor grades and what you can do about it: A six-step program for parents and teachers (3rd ed.). Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.