Facebook Twitter

Ask an Expert: I have a really smart kid who struggles in school

Q. My eighth grade son is extremely smart, according to various assessments and IQ tests, yet he still really struggles in school. Is this common? What can I do?

A. When you attend parent-teacher conferences, what do you typically hear about your son?  Does it vary depending on the content area (reading, writing, math, science, social studies, etc.)?  Do his teachers talk about his behavior in a negative way?  These are some questions to consider because there may be a few different reasons why your eighth-grader struggles in school although he has been identified as gifted.


One reason your son might struggle in some school subjects is that children often are gifted in a single area, and not across all areas.  Howard Gardner (1983, 1999) identified nine different intelligence areas.  Your son may have a strength in mathematical-logical intelligence.  However, he may struggle with verbal-linguistic intelligence.  That means he may find math and science fairly easy and yet struggle with subjects that depend more upon verbal skills such as reading, writing, and social studies.  Here are some examples of Multiple Intelligence Inventories.

Through these inventories, you can work with your son to find out his strengths. You will be better able to help your son when you know his strengths and can use them to build upon. For instance, I am strong in intrapersonal intelligence. This means that I need a lot of time built in to reflect and think about what I am learning.  It also means that I learn best when I see an authentic way to use what I am learning to help people.  As an adult, I can set aside time to reflect and think about ways to use what I am learning.  As a child, I would have to depend on the adults in my life to see that I needed time to reflect and to allow me that time.  Knowing your son’s strengths may allow you to structure time or learning activities in ways that help him be more efficient with his learning.

Another reason your son may struggle in school is that he may be in a school setting not geared towards meeting his academic needs.  Students identified as gifted typically learn new information rapidly.  They often enjoy delving into a topic.  Students like this who are placed in typical classroom settings may lose interest quickly.  If they must sit through several repetitions of a new concept or idea, they may become bored.  It is not unusual for gifted students to become behavior problems or appear as if they struggle in this type of situation when the problem really is lack of attention due to boredom.  If this is the problem, you will need to work closely with his classroom teachers.  For example, he might be able to set up independent learning contracts that allow him to move quickly through the required content and then delve into his own learning project.  He may need to be placed in classes designed for gifted and advanced students.

One last possibility is that your son might be twice exceptional—that is, he is gifted and he has a learning disability.  If so, he may have some significant issues that impact learning that need to be addressed.  In this situation, he has likely used his strengths to compensate for learning difficulties.  But, as he gets older and the expectations become more challenging, his learning disabilities may become more apparent. Very few educators are experienced in working with twice exceptional children.  If you think your son may fall into this category, it is critically important that you identify an advocate within your school system to work with you.  The advocate may be someone in gifted learning or in special education.  The most important thing is that this person is willing to learn about twice exceptional children and work with you and your son.

As a parent, you know your child best.  What do you think?  Is your son is gifted in a specific intelligence area? Is your son disengaged from learning due to boredom?  Or, do you think your son may be one of the few children who are twice exceptional?  Answering these questions will help you determine the best ways to support him.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.