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Gifted but Underachieving Teen

Gifted and Talented Expert Advice from Rita Culross, Ph.D.

Q: My 14-year-old is currently in ninth grade at an honor academy. If she is not interested in any of the material, she just doesn't do the work.

Her problem is English. She has proven by taking the FCAT test that even though she might have a low-C to mid-B average, she can max this test.

She really excels in math and has a musical talent of being able to play any instrument. She bores easily, and if the work is not interesting, that makes it worse. What can I do?

A: It's very frustrating for parents and teachers to see a gifted student not perform up to her potential. Underachievement can have many origins, but there are strategies that help to reverse it.

If your daughter has "maxed" the FCAT in English, you can be confident that she is more than mastering the material. Likely, the material presented in her class is information she already knows, even though she is in an honor academy. Research has demonstrated that often the best intervention in such a case is to modify her environment to present more challenging material. It may seem paradoxical to accelerate or enrich the instruction for a student who is only getting a B or a C, but it does work.

I would suggest you make an appointment with your daughter's English teacher. Describe the problem and offer to work with her to address the issue. The teacher may be amenable to modifying your daughter's instruction. Given your daughter's age, you may want to involve her in the discussions and enlist her in changing the situation to effect a more desirable outcome.

In addition, since you have indicated that she excels in math and has great musical talent, focus on providing additional experiences that play to her strengths. A local college or university may offer summer or Saturday programs for advanced work in math. Encourage her to take musical lessons, if she does not already do so. If she does, pursue opportunities with a youth symphony, orchestra, or band. Again, colleges and universities often have music faculty or graduate students who are willing to take on young students. There are some excellent music camps throughout the country that provide additional training for talented young musicians. Remember that many underachievers have interests outside of school that they develop into careers or hobbies.

Some good books on underachievement are Sylvia Rimm's The Underachievement Syndrome and Joanne Whitmore's Giftedness, Conflict, and Underachievement Two other excellent references are Up from Underachievement and Reversing Underachievement among Gifted Black Students.

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Rita Culross is Associate Dean, College of Education, and Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Curriculum and Instruction at Louisiana State University. Culross has served as the consulting school psychologist for a public school elementary gifted program, and has written a book and several journal articles on gifted education.

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