Some Smart Kids Get Bad Grades

A concerned Mom was telling me the other day about her daughter whose IQ is very high but whose grades are lousy. I told her that lots of other kids have the same problem and that we do have strategies that work.

Who are the underachievers?

Underachievers are kids who have a lot of potential but don’t live up to that potential in school. Underachievers span all social, economic, and ability levels. Many underachievers have very high IQ’s. Teachers and parents often accuse underachievers of being lazy, of having attitude problems, or of not caring about themselves. Sometimes these kids get into trouble at school and at home. Nobody realizes that underachievement is the issue.

How do I know if my child is an underachiever?

Sometimes it’s easy to tell. Lots of smart middle-school boys underachieve because it isn’t “cool” to get good grades. If they did well in elementary school and are now getting bad grades, “forgetting” to turn in homework, and not completing in-class work, underachieving could be the culprit. You’ll want to rule out health issues, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition. Teachers can usually spot these “trying-to-be-cool” boys right away.

Often an IQ test answers your question. If a child has a high IQ and is doing poorly, underachievement could be the reason.

But the problems can also be so subtle that they escape detection through the usual tests. Huge numbers of children end up “falling through the cracks” in our schools every year simply because they aren’t doing school work that they’re quite capable of doing. 

Many factors can cause underachievement including ADHD, boredom, disruptive family situation, lack of sleep, health issues, even something as simple as a child needing glasses.

And, of course, underachievement can come from low self-esteem. If your child has been told that she’s stupid, she may do poorly in school because she thinks that’s what is expected of her and that’s all she can do.

Research has shown that many children will perform in school according to what the teacher thinks about them. When teachers were told that certain children (chosen at random) had extremely high IQ’s and other children (also chosen at random) had low IQ’s, the children’s grades reflected the teachers’ perceptions.

Fortunately, the cycle of underachievement can be broken if the problem is diagnosed and the child is given the attention he needs. You, your child, and your child’s teachers will have to work together. If you know that your child can do better work, you need to make sure your child’s teacher knows this also.

How can parents help underachievers?

1. Learn why your child is underachieving. Talk to your child’s teachers, school psychologist or school counselor. Or go to a learning specialist or psychologist for an outside evaluation.  You can ask your child’s pediatrician for referrals. In many cases, a child counselor or psychologist with a strong background in education can do wonders to improve a child’s achievement in school and her self-esteem.

2. Accept, support, and respect your child. Are you someone your child battles against, or someone who can be relied upon for support and encouragement? As the most important significant others, parents, more than anyone else, help establish how kids feel about themselves. So accept who your child is. Let your child know you are proud of him. Just simple phrases like “good job,” “great idea,” and “I knew you’d come through” help a lot.  Show your children respect. If you expect them to say “please” and “thank you,” are you also saying “please” and “thank you” to them?

3. Be a good role model. Children have a better chance of developing high self-esteem when their parents demonstrate high self-esteem. Children learn by your example. Are you an achiever at your job? Or an underachiever?  Do you talk about doing the least possible amount of work on your job just to get by? Or do you tell the family about a challenging project you just completed successfully and that you’re pleased with what a good job you did?

For many children supporting them in positive ways by accepting and respecting them goes a long way in helping them become achievers. And because children learn from parents, modeling achievement yourself is essential. You can help your child be successful at school.

Do you have kids who don’t work up to their potential? How have you been able to help them? We’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.


  1. I am a kid who has gotten bad grades since I was in 5th grade, and all my teachers told my mother in conferences how incredibly well I was able of doing. I always thought it was just something they said to all the kid's parents who did crappy in school, but they've said it to my mother year after year as I pull through every semester with C's and D's. Honestly, I believe that the reason I do so bad in school is because school doesn't attend to my needs well enough. I go to school and have to ask when I want to take a piss, can't wear a hat, and I'm treated like I imagine criminals in federal prison are treated. (Of course I realize that I'm being extreme, but you get the point, right?). Anyway, I've found that in the workforce I do a lot better. I work 72 hour weeks and never miss a day of work. I just want to keep working and living at home to save my money up, then I'm going to start writing. School just isn't that important to build real knowledge, not for me at least. School is a place for the kids who are going to do the jobs that make the infrastructure of America. I believe that I am needed in some other realm of work, a kind that you can't learn in school.

    • I'll take the F" says:

      Hi im in the 7th grade, I’m basically what they are saying here im a under achiever the work is easy but i don’t do it because it just down right bores me is there anyone with the same problem? thx. BTW my teachers say im smart in disguise but i really don’t wanna hear there bs there just trying to make me confident if you want me to work whats in it for me?

  2. I am a 20 year old currently enrolled in college, I have a 2.5 GPA which is pretty much a high C+, I don’t go to a very challenging school, nor do I spend a lot of time on school work. I know I am capable of getting a 4.0 I just can’t seem to find the motivation to study things I find easy, that being said its obviously not that easy if I’m not doing as well as I want. I have had this problem for as long as I can remember, as soon as my grades were ranked on an A-F scale at 8 years old I began getting C’s despite my extremely high test scores (mainly because I wasn’t doing the work). In middle school I realized my grades would have no effect on my college application for the last time in my life. This is when I began to do extremely poorly, mainly receiving D’s and F’s with a handful of C’s and if i was lucky the occasional B. High School I knew my work in school would effect my future so decided to put in my full effort, not for the sake of learning but for the sake of getting the grade, but unfortunately still received multiple C’s. My sophomore year was the first and last time I made honor roll. After that I had at least one or two Cs a semester. As my high school career progressed I tried to take on more and more challenging classes, this mainly was done through persuading teachers to allow me into honors based on my test grade instead of my overall grade. My freshman year I was in honors math (from passing a standardized test) and honors spanish (because of my test grades not overall). By senior year I was taking 5 or 6 honors classes, still getting Bs and Cs. No matter my age or class level I can get a B or C but no higher. I received a 2010 on my SATs, and have always received Proficient in English and L.A. and Advanced in Math for the state standardized tests in my area. My main problem is that I haven’t struggled with understanding concepts or internalizing facts, but I have continuously done poorly.
    My younger sister has been going through a similar but more extreme struggle, she always did very poorly in school (for her she also struggled with tests) she was diagnosed with adhd, and given an IEP in second grade, the school ran many tests before this all of which came back negative until my parents tested her at a third party, at then end of middle school with her IEP failing her miserably because of her “laziness” my parents had her tested on a more broad scale for learning disabilities, she was diagnosed with dyslexia and it was discovered she had the reading level of a third grader.
    Both of us were constantly told by our school administration that we were lazy and did not try hard enough. I can not speak on my sister behalf but to be honest I for one did not try very hard in school but I think saying this is just because I am “lazy” is a cop out and so far has not helped me improve my grades. I do not want, nor do I purposely choose to do poorly in school. I come in with the ambitions to get a 4.0 every semester(to be honest my goal this semester was a 3.2, it would be far fetched to think I could start pulling in 4.0s like the flip of a switch) but when the work piles up some tends to fall through the cracks despite the fact that I understand the material
    I am wondering if anyone has had a similar struggle or can offer me any advice on what to do. Is it possible I am also dyslexic and fell through the cracks because of my high test scores or do high test scores mean I am not dyslexic? Could this be simply habits I formed from not being challenged by school at a young age? If so, how can I break these habits?

    • I think not being challenged growing up is a huge problem. I made stellar grades throughout middle school, then quit trying because I was sick of the pressure. When I got to university, I found that I was very far behind. Of course this was not my fault; I didn’t get to choose my high school, but I still regret this very much.

      I am not surprised to read that teachers are not very good at evaluating students. I find this even at work. At every school or job I am a different person, not because I myself have changed, but rather because of how I am perceived. I study math, and I am sure that I have faced discrimination from some of my male professors (especially when I was attending school in Texas). Oddly, I did not have this problem in community college, where I found my professors to be lovely people.

      I had undiagnosed add for many years, and this definitely caused problems. There’s all sorts of nonsense going around about how add isn’t real, but it is definitely real for me. It is hard to be very bright and have a learning disorder as I enjoy learning, but have a hard time accessing the material, as remaining focused is sometimes a problem. I got yelled at all the time when I was a kid and this was no help at all. I wish someone had taken the time to understand…

      • Dr. Linda Silbert says:

        Perhaps counseling to help you with strategies for overcoming ADD would help. You’ll also find lots of resources online for adults with ADD. ADD is not simply a problem kids have in school. It can affect adults at work as well.

  3. Oh God, any advice would help. My sweet & smart 15 year old is failing EVERYTHING. This is a kid who solves word problems in his head, taught himself to read etc etc. When he was younger, a teacher was concerned that perhaps he had ADHD. A specialist thought not, or at worst, something minimal and suggested he was bored. Fast forward to a science and math intensive magnet school – just his niche. He’s doing worse than ever. Consistently the highest test grades in the class, but then completes NO homework or class work. Second highest PSAT score in class. I just don’t know what to do. Is it too late? We’ve tried reward, punishment, schedules, routines… Nothing. At this point, his potential for his future is precarious at best. I am broken.

  4. Imnotadoucheipromise says:

    I’m currently in school. I know I’m smart. When I was younger people thought i was dumb, because I was a bit of a troublemaker. I had no bad intentions i just didn’t care. Regardless, they put me in a special Ed class for a day. We had been learning all the simple multiplications and I’d never cared to actually give the correct answers despite knowing them. You should’ve seen the lady’s face when I recited them perfectly in the special Ed class xD and then I got an IQ test and they put me in the fastest moving class in the elementary school :/ so yeah, it’s been like that for awhile.

    America’s public education is shit. It’s a whole bunch of meaningless grades, annoying children, childish adults, and terrible food. Not nearly as productive an environment it should be. Yet, I’m forced by law to go to a school to learn things I can teach myself. In fact, the only reason I haven’t failed is because I teach myself. I just zone out the teacher. Takes up a lot of time I could be using to do other things. Which is why I don’t have the best grades. I play first, work later. Unless, I have a day off from school. Pretty disconnected comment, but I don’t feel like fixing it. 🙂

    Oh and I score really high on standardized test. On the SAT I’m 80% better than everyone xD

  5. cvarney15 says:

    Steve C: I am pretty much exactly like you. I have extremely high scores on every standardized test I’ve ever taken, my I.Q. is higher than most people, but I am failing my major classes. I HATE doing homework. Homework is the thing in the world that I can’t stand. I don’t know if I’m too lazy to do it or maybe it’s because I don’t think that we should be given homework to begin with. We spend 8 hours a day at school and then finally get to go home to do more school work.

    I am a sophomore in high school and have been getting bad grades for years. I did really well in elementary school because we never got any homework. All through 5th grade my teacher told us that she was preparing us for middle school, but when I got there it was like nothing I was prepared for. So I hardly ever did homework and justified it by saying “Colleges don’t look at middle school it doesn’t matter” and in middle school if you don’t turn in an assignment it gets put in as a 50 rather than a 0 so it’s still an F but it doesn’t hurt your grade as much. Now in high school I have the habits of middle school but with all of the 0’s I have for homework it just tortures my grade.

    My Algebra II grade is terrible because I not only don’t ever do homework, but because I am doing poorly on the quizzes and tests because I didn’t prepare by doing the homework. I failed American Literature last quarter because I didn’t do a bunch of things related to a book we read as a class. I love to read don’t get me wrong, but I can’t bring myself to read a book that I didn’t personally pick out, maybe it’s because I don’t like people telling me what to do.

    I know that I am smart. My parents tell me that, my guidance counselor tells me, my teachers have been telling me for years. But for some reason I can’t bring myself to care about school. I have told myself that if I don’t do well in school I won’t get into college and will end up with a shit job after high school. But then another part of me thinks about some people in this world. My dad scored an 1100 on his SAT’s (which was almost perfect back in 1978, and he went and partied and drank the night before) but never went to college and makes $90,000 a year. My mom studied for weeks before the test and took the class but scored only 800 something. She still went to college but never got a job where her degree would help her so she makes about $10,000 a year or less. My cousin Jake never went to college but he works at Gillette and makes more money than anybody I know. I don’t know what side I should believe. If anybody has had any success in breaking habits like mine please tell me how.

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