Executive Function Strategies Blog

Why Do Gifted Students Often Struggle in School?

School should be easy for a child who is gifted, right? On the surface, that's a Why do gifted students strugglesimple answer: "Of course!" But if we take a closer look at a typical school experience for a gifted child, we often see some version of the following scenario...

Imagine you are an 8th grader and that school has always been easy for you. You seemed to almost instinctively understand the material in your classes and if you didn’t, you caught on within a couple minutes. You quickly memorized facts, aced tests without ever studying (or even remembering that you had a test that day!), and most of the time you zipped through your homework while you were at school, without ever having to transport anything in your backpack.

Then one day, a few weeks into 9th grade, the material got harder. Teachers told you to study for an exam, but you had no idea how to study. You had 5 different teachers who had 5 different ways of giving and collecting assignments. Suddenly, you couldn't finish your homework in class. You had no systems in place for remembering what you needed in your locker at the end of the day - and half the time you forgot to bring to school the homework you had managed to complete the night before. You start to doubt your abilities as a student when you see zeros for missed assignments. You start to second-guess your skills as a writer and procrastinate because you think it should be a "perfect" essay draft that you submit to your English teacher. You're overwhelmed and confused. After all, the source of your confidence since you were a first-grader was your performance as a student - what happens when that starts to slip?

Maybe you don’t have to imagine this scenario. Maybe this hits too close to home. This is what it can be like for a child who is gifted yet needs to build their Executive Function skills. Without these critical self-management abilities, even gifted students can struggle in school.

What Does it Mean to be “Gifted”

According to the National Association of Gifted Children, “Children are gifted when their ability is significantly above the norm for their age.” However, giftedness does not mean exceeding the norm in every domain. A child can be gifted in musical ability, or math, or languages, for example, and in the typical range for other domains. Another aspect of giftedness to keep in mind is asynchrony, which refers to having an “out of sync” pattern of development. Many gifted children may exceed the academic ability of their peers, but lack other basic skills. For instance, a student may be able to multiply, divide, and tell time early on, but struggle to tie their shoes, ride a bike, or remember to bring their backpack to school. Clearly, gifted students can have a variety of needs and often have an uneven profile of strengths and challenges.

Why Do Gifted Students Struggle?

While there are several reasons for this, one is that while their peers were learning how to plan ahead, study for tests, and stay organized, the gifted students were coasting by on their areas of intellectual strength. During that time on academic cruise control, they actually missed out on the very experiences that build self-managment skills. Finishing assignments quickly and having little actual homework means not learning to manage your time and prioritize; memorizing facts upon hearing them means not learning to take notes or organize information; never having to study means missing out on learning active study strategies; and never having to write down assignments or take anything home means never learning how to plan ahead. And the list goes on.

The Good News About Learning Executive Function Skills

There is good news, though. Executive Function skills can be taught, practiced, and learned. It is never too late! Here are 3 steps to start gaining the skills your gifted child needs.  

Step 1: Finding a starting place

For a student who has always done well, you can imagine how frustrating it must be to suddenly struggle to remember homework, prepare for assessments, and try to keep it all organized and turned in on time. It can feel overwhelming but the key is to identify a starting place and approach each skill a little at a time.  

Step 2: Where to start?

While many tools may come to mind in order to help a child in this situation, the student must first learn to organize their work and plan their time. For a student that has been able to get by on finishing assignments quickly, once assignments become more lengthy and complex, they end up in a vicious cycle between procrastination and panic. They live half of their lives putting off important tasks and the other half with a sense of panic and urgency because they delayed the work for too long. 

Step 3: Experimenting

The next time your child has a school project, try this experiment. Start by working with your child to brainstorm a list of small steps needed to complete the project. Once you have a list of steps, use the template below to help your child plan out the day they will complete each step leading up to the due date. Next, have them estimate the amount of time they think it will take to complete that task. As you go through the week, help them to record the actual amount of time that each step takes. This is valuable data! When the assignment is complete and the stress of the week has dissipated, take some time to sit down with your child and review the table you've filled in together. Ask your child what went well, what didn't go as planned, and how they might adjust this system for the next project they are assigned. Don't forget to celebrate the small successes in this experiment - this will help your child gain confidence and motivation to use strategies to help them stay organized and on track.

Science Project Steps

When

Estimated Time Needed

Actual Time Used

Research topics

Monday and Tuesday

2 hours (1 hr/day)

 

Choose a topic

Wednesday

30 minutes

 

Create hypothesis

Thursday

30 minutes

 

Complete experiment and record findings each day

Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday

2 hours (30 min/day)

 

Write report draft

Tuesday

1 hour

 

Edit report and complete final copy

Wednesday and Thursday

1 hour (30 min/day)

 

Create project board

Friday, Saturday, Sunday

2 hours

 

 

Remember, it takes time for students to build new skills like this - but as with any skill, practice and consistency are key. Students who are much like the one described earlier in this article may have a hard time accepting help at first. Other gifted children may want help but have no idea where to even begin. Be patient and help your student to be patient as well, because once that Executive Functioning puzzle piece clicks into place, the possibilities are endless!

Photo above by Nikhita S on Unsplash

Alisha KowslyAlisha Kowsky is an Executive Function Coach for Beyond BookSmart who lives in South Carolina. Alisha earned a Masters degree in school counseling from the University of North Dakota in 2014. She is certified in elementary education, reading education, ESL, and counseling. For the last five years, Alisha has practiced as a school counselor. In those five years much of her experience has been devoted to children with special needs as well as children who are highly gifted. Alisha has spent her time in several different environments including public school, charter school, and online education. No matter where she is working, she loves watching her students grow and change not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well.


Nate Case StudyNate is a bright and disorganized student who never had to work hard until freshman year in high school. Read our case study to learn how his coach helped Nate gain the skills he needed.

Read more about Nate >

Share This Article ›