Can We Get a High School Underachiever on Track? Reader Q & A

helping a highschool underachiever

I’ve written about the homework battle before, and I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but it doesn’t usually get better as the student gets older.

Gifted kids frequently resist homework and have other executive function issues that lead to stress and mismatched expectations. Will someone please tell me again why people think we’re bragging when we mention that our kid is gifted? It’s not like it’s some kind of nirvana.

Homework resistance is a key component in academic underachievement, and it’s a struggle in hundreds of thousands of homes. Friends, you’re not alone.

Can We Get This Kid on Track?

I received this letter from a (very nice) parent about her (very nice) son:

I wanted to reach out and see if you have any suggestions for my struggles with Max who is in 10th grade. He is a very bright, over 140 IQ kid who, by my definition, is definitely underachieving. He is pulling mid-B level grades in his core classes.

He is inconsistent with turning in daily work and does very little studying outside of class. I think he has a combination of perfectionism, laziness, poor executive function, teenage rebelliousness, and immaturity.

He also loves to learn, but he doesn’t care for homework.

I’ve considered getting him a tutor just to help him with planning since my attempts at helping him use a calendar, planner, or bullet journal have all failed.

I was wondering if you have any guidance to help me help Max to get back on track. My goals for him would be to pull A’s in his classes, learn how to keep track of his assignments and schedule, and consistently meet deadlines.

He is more than capable of achieving these things. He’s a really nice kid and his teachers love him so he’s not in any way a trouble maker. 

 He does have trouble with getting side tracked with technology which I have tried to limit but I have not been entirely successful. 

Thanks in advance for any words of wisdom you might have!

Note: Frequently I get questions from parents or teachers about their children and students. It’s frustrated me that I don’t have time to write back to everyone, and so I’ve decided to begin a “Reader Q & A” feature on the site. You can find all responses here.

If you have a question about your child, your student, best practices, or anything Giftedesque, shoot me an email or comment below, and we’ll see what we can do!

Answering the Student Instead of the Parent

I had seen this student before at an event (I changed his name), and when I got the email, I asked if I could speak directly with him. Mom said yes, and he and I had a phone conversation. With his permission, I’m sharing some of what transpired.

First, he is delightful. He is bright and personable and truly a wonderful kid. That doesn’t happen by accident, so kudos to mom and dad (and Max).

Secondly, I would not label him an underachiever. Stay tuned for why.

Laying it on the table

I read sections of mom’s email to Max and asked him if he agreed with her assessment. He said yes.

I asked if anything in it seemed untrue or made him cringe. Nope.

So, that tells me that mom is a pretty good reporter of what’s going on. I also don’t think the behaviors make him an underachiever. Keep reading to find out why.

I asked him what he thought the issues were. He said (paraphrasing), “Grades aren’t the end-all-be-all. I just don’t think it’s as big of a deal as she does. The grades are just because I don’t turn in work.”

I asked Max what his goals were, and he said he wanted to go to a decent four-year university that had a bio-chem/genetics program. He wanted to potentially minor in English because he wants to be a writer, too. I love this kid.

He said that because bio-chem/genetics is a niche program, there aren’t that many universities that have a program.

He is also not as concerned about his grades because he read Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out).

Apparently (I haven’t read it), Newport argues that grades and SAT scores are important, but it’s not necessary to get the best grades.

He advises that you can still get in if you’re in the mid-50th percentile, so if you aim there, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get in.

Max felt that his low A’s/high B’s were good enough (combined with his other activities) to get in, so he didn’t need to put in 100% effort.

Currently, he was earning B’s in a few subjects including Pre-AP PreCal, Spanish III and AP World History.

This is why he’s not an underachiever: he has a rational plan based on a reputable scholar’s work. He understands that grades aren’t what life’s all about, and he’s not going to be popping ADHD meds he bought on the black market at school like some kids whose parents aren’t (but should be) worried about them.

Breaking down the goals

Let’s revisit what mom wrote: My goals for him would be to pull A’s in his classes, learn how to keep track of his assignments and schedule, and consistently meet deadlines.

In The Four Disciplines of Execution (thanks to Jolene Teske from Des Moines schools for recommending it!), the authors discuss setting goals that work.

They make a clear distinction between the goal and statistics that indicate if you’re making progress towards the goal.

They divide those statistics into lag measures and lead measures.

Lag measures are things that tell you if you achieved a goal, and lead measures tell you if it’s likely you’ll achieve a goal.

I think that two of mom’s three goals are lag measures, one is a lead measure, and none of them is really a goal big enough to sustain motivation in Max. Let me explain.

Grades are a lag measure

Grades tell you what has already happened. Once you see them, they cannot be influenced (typically).

They lag behind the behavior that influences them. Now, for some kids, a certain level of grade point average is a goal, but that’s not the case with Max. Max sees grades as a means to an end and of little value on their own.

I agree with Max.

Meeting deadlines is a lag measure.

If you met the deadline, it’s over. The deadline was the deadline, and you met it. It’s not a goal; it’s an indicator. I think it’s actually a result (a lag) of the lead indicator mom mentioned.

Keeping track of assignments and the schedule is a lead measure

Finally we’re getting somewhere. Lead measures are only valuable as they relate to a goal. Remember that Max’s goal was to get into a decent four-year-college to study bio-chem and genetics (and, yea!, English).

To achieve this goal, Sam needs to engage in a pattern of goal-supporting habits, which is what lead measures are. This one that mom identified is perhaps the most important lead measure of all.

If you keep track of assignments and your schedule, you will meet deadlines. You don’t need a separate “meet deadlines” goal.

If you track your assignments and schedule, and therefore meet your deadlines, you will be more likely to see the lag measure of grades improve.

It’s not that mom’s wrong; it’s that is out of order, and, in a way, redundant.

When Max made me laugh out loud

While discussing this idea with Max, I mentioned this theory to him: you have two years left at home. You should be essentially raised by now and just be practicing while you have parents to support you.

When you get to college, you will see that there are people who don’t know how to do their laundry or make a grilled cheese sandwich.

Max laughed. “A grilled cheese sandwich? I mean, it’s literally right in the name. It’s a sandwich. With cheese. And then you grill it.”

I love gifted kids. I mean, I love them.

Why plan?

We discussed the rationale for planning. Here’s what I said:

Time will pass. Will you tell it what you’re doing, or will you let procrastination dictate what you do? If you don’t schedule your assignments for when you want to complete them, you will be at the mercy of the deadline (or subsequent poor grade).

If you plan it, you can complete it, and then when something cool comes up, you can do it while everyone else is sweating out a last-minute assignment.

Like a budget for money, your schedule allows you to give your time a job.

The big secret of college is that there is little or no homework. Rather, you have a few assignments that count a bazillion percent towards your grade.

The bigger secret is that if you don’t get in the habit of homework, you will not have the self-discipline to manage the no homework in college.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? You do homework now, so you can handle not doing homework later. It’s like the Schrödinger’s cat of time management.

It’s about self-disciple, about habits. (Insert shout out to Max’s pre-cal teacher, whom he said has done a terrific job of preparing them for this idea.)

I wrote about this in my article the role and importance of practice, so you can read more about it there if you like.

How overconfidence can bite you in the tushy

Max said that he’s got a little too much self-confidence, and that’s undermining him.

He explained that when he was younger, teachers would give him a planner, but he could remember the work without really writing in the planner. They’d ask, “Did everyone write the assignment down?” and Max would nod yes along with everyone else, all the while thinking, “Nope.” And it worked out fine. Until…

In high school, there are more assignments, and they are more spread out. They last much longer, with more moving parts.

The executive function burden of them is far greater. And because the habit wasn’t formed younger, it’s hard to create now.

The neuroscience behind all of this

In his book Why Don’t Students Like School? (read my glowing review here), Dan Willingham explains:

“Your brain lays its bets this way: if you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored. Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about.” (53)

It’s asking an awful lot of your brain to hold all of that in your head, and if you’re not constantly running a phonologically loop telling yourself, “I’ve got to do xyz,” then you probably won’t remember.

Never bet against neuroscience. Those synapses will win every time.

I suggested that Max find a system (he likes techy goodness, so I recommended the Todoist app) to track assignments, not because his mom wants him to, but because it is the greatest lead measure to see whether he will achieve his ultimate goal or not.

It will also be the key lead measure to see if he will graduate from college, too, so it’s a two-for-one special.

Embrace the mow

I recommended that Max make peace with homework. This is all about lawn mowing.

Let me explain.

Last year, my lawn was on the Hot Mess Express. I stumbled upon a YouTube channel called “The Lawn Care Nut.”

I started watching and learned his commandments for a healthy lawn. One of his mantras is: Embrace the mow.

It means that healthy lawns need to be mowed every four days in the growing season for optimal growth, and resistance is futile. Stop wasting energy complaining about it, and just mow.

Embrace it! Enjoy it! Enjoy the process, not just the result, and you’ll get better results.

What kind of person are you?

I also suggested that Max not think of it from the point of view of the task itself, but rather what kind of person he is. I got this idea from the truly excellent book Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Instead of thinking about how he has to keep a calendar and do homework, I invited him to consider thinking about whether he wanted to be someone who is responsible about maintaining his schedule, and because of that, the people around him are relaxed and free of anxiety or if he wanted to be someone whose refusal to manage his schedule and assignments causes stress and anxiety for those around him.

It’s less about what you want to do, and more about who you want to be.

Wrapping Up:

Max is an awesome kid who will be just fine. He’s got some questionable habits, but I think he has his head on straight and will make the changes he needs to in order to stay on the path towards his goals.

Just because we don’t like it doesn’t make it underachievement. Opting out of a high school rat race is fine, as long as it’s intentional and aligned with long-term goals.

Thanks to Max (and mom) for this opportunity. It’s an issue in homes of gifted teens all over.

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