How Can I Be Gifted If I Did Not Excel In School? And Other Conundrums Surrounding The G Word

Not all gifted kids are high achievers in school. Not all gifted kids score well on tests. There are many reasons:

(photo by nikhita, Unsplash)
  1. The school structure is often designed for linear-sequential thinkers. It may use lots of repetition, worksheets, rote-type learning, memorization, approaches where children are all required to work at the same pace on similar assignments. These structures are usually methods that do not appeal to gifted learners who may be random/creative thinkers, do not need repetition to learn, and move faster through material. The children who are less concerned about grades or who are less compliant might refuse to do homework or only complete the minimal amount of work to get by. Others may feel discouraged, question the purpose of school, and rebel. (Note: I was a teacher years ago when it was much easier. There are teachers in my family. Teaching today is a tough job. It’s important to acknowledge this even as we notice what may not be working.) (Another note: Some gifted kids love school and have special teachers they remember their whole lives!)
  2. Some gifted children have learning differences that affect their ability to achieve in traditional ways. They may be dyslexic or autistic or have other twice-exceptionalities. They may be particularly anxious or feel extra pressure during tests because they are supposed to be so smart. Some gifted children are bullied and might intentionally underachieve to hide their abilities. If a gifted child is a particularly deep thinker, perfectionistic, or extra empathetic, they may be slower completing tasks and so appear less able.
  3. In some families, parents might make assumptions about children that may not be accurate. If one child excels in school because it is a good fit, that child may be seen as the gifted one. A sibling who does not shine in the same ways may be labeled a slow learner and then fulfill those expectations. If there is trauma in the home, a child might be anxious, depressed, or hungry and find it difficult to focus at school so achievement might be below expectations.
  4. Even in higher education, there may be barriers. If the academic setting is extremely competitive and political, the sensitive gifted student may feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. A highly creative student may be frustrated with the lack of interdisciplinary opportunities. The student with multiple interests might change majors a number of times and appear to be less capable, indecisive, or shallow. High ethical standards may create conflicts in some cases.

So, yes, you can be gifted and do poorly in school. You can be gifted and not perform well on tests. You can be gifted but incorrectly assume you are just a lazy, indecisive, weirdo who needs to lower your standards and stop thinking so much!

There are other reasons you may not think you are gifted. Even within the field of gifted education, the experts don’t agree: There is the emphasis on achievement and IQ. Children who do not show motivation and enthusiasm in the classroom may not be selected for gifted programs. Kids who come from BIPOC communities can be overlooked. Some educators in the field identify kids talented in certain skill areas such as music or mathematics as the only gifted ones. Film and television still tend to focus on the more stereotypical versions of giftedness. Traits such as empathy, sensitivity, and creativity are generally not included in the definition.

Enter the rainforest mind (RFM)! This has been my way of addressing what giftedness looks like. (But, first, let me remind you, not all folks who are gifted have rainforest minds, but all rainforest-minded humans are gifted.) The RFM definition of giftedness includes high levels of intelligence that may or may not show up in achievement and test scores. But there is more. In brief: Empathy, sensitivity, multipotentiality, intense emotions, creativity, curiosity, and social responsibility. Just to be clear, RFMs are quite capable of achieving at high levels, and often do, just not necessarily in schooling settings or in traditional ways, although they might also have a 4.0 average and a PhD. Just to be clear. Or more unclear, as the case may be.

So, my dear readers, I hope the G Word conundrums have become a bit less conundrum-y for you, especially if you have been wondering how someone can be gifted and not achieving at school. How someone can be gifted and indecisive, anxious, overwhelmed, or self-doubting.

How someone like YOU can be gifted.


To my bloggEEs: You may know that The G Word is actually the name of a documentary in process due out in 2024. To find out more go here.

If you are a parent of a gifted child, a great resource is Bright and Quirky. They are holding a conference in May 2023 about screen time, mental health, and gifted children. Find out more here.

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Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

17 responses to “How Can I Be Gifted If I Did Not Excel In School? And Other Conundrums Surrounding The G Word”

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  1. Al Avatar

    Hi, I’ve just found your site and am finding it very interesting. I am a 49-year-old male who has always privately struggled with much of what I see you are talking about on this site. To cut a very long story short, I knew early on that I was going to struggle. Everything felt hard, harsh, high-definition, poignant and bewildering. My dad ridiculed me for it. And it didn’t seem to me like most of my peers felt the same way, or at least had the questions about everything I had swirling round my head. I was very bright at school and gained the top result in my university year. Anyway, fast forward several decades and I feel like I still haven’t ever really managed to get off the ground, or at least fly for very long. Professionally, emotionally, socially. Always feeling like I’m wading through treacle, on the back foot, weighed down with worry, questions, battling the absurdity of it all, trying to tie all the threads together, knowing that’s impossible but also knowing I’m running out of time and trying to make the most of it. I get solace from learning about the cosmos, and from spending time with my lovely kids. I’ll keep reading to find out more about your ideas. Thank you for your insight.

    1. pprober Avatar

      Oh, you have come to the right place, Al. Yes, keep reading!

  2. Eline Avatar

    Hey Paula, what is your vision on IQ scores?
    During my burnout recovery, I mentioned the heaviness of my G-ness (I had just found out about it) to a “control doctor” (in my country it’s a doctor that decides whether you’re still sick enough to get money from social security, always stressy conversations).
    She asked my IQ score and didn’t approve of my reply that I have no idea. “You have to get that tested and diagnosed!”
    So I never did that because knowing that I have a RFM is enough for me. Actually I guess I just don’t want to see how much I differ from a “normal person” black on white.

    Any thoughts, anyone?

    1. pprober Avatar

      I don’t think it is necessary, Eline. And IQ scores are only one part of being gifted and not all RFMs are comfortable taking tests so results may not be reliable.IQ tests themselves are often questioned for their biases. I would say the only reason to get tested would be if the “proof” is helpful for a specific situation, say, to show a school that your child really is gifted and needs special services.

  3. Marina Avatar

    Thanks, Paula, this comes at an excellent time for me. I’m trying to find a part-time day job and go to job interviews (always has been an impossible task to me, I’m always TOO MUCH)… it’s exasperating to see how much is required of candidates when the HR people don’t even bother to read my CV and I’m supposed to be super efficient and present 40 years of studies and work experience in 2 minutes. And finally, the only thing they care about is to see whether I can get the job done efficiently and immediately (they don’t care about who I am or if I fit into the team). Just like school! I know that I am different (I have not really doubted that), that I am the G word. But I feel very sad that I’m not really able to identify with ‘the others’ and ‘fit in’, though. So thanks for everything that you write about RFMs, that is a real comfort!

    1. pprober Avatar

      Oh, Marina, I hope you find a job where you are seen for the smart, sensitive soul that you are!

  4. Clignett Avatar

    I have to admit, I liked school. In a certain way, that is. As an expat-child, I’ve had the experience of different school systems (and languages). British school, American school, Belgian school, Dutch school, university (Dutch), and college (Dutch). They are all so different from another, not only the system, but also the politics. Which, in my humble opinion, is not something that anyone should put on the shoulders of a child! Especially a RFM child! We FEEL the politics, we FEEL the system.
    That said, my best experiences of school life (not all good, for obvious reasons for our tribe, I guess) were at the American school in Brazil. There were some teachers (yes, yeey, more than one!) who did understand my mind and acted accordingly. Which meant I was “upgraded” to the next grade, which made me the youngest child in that grade, but I flourished! I needed to step up my game, was challenged and I loved it!

    But then, going back to Dutch schools, I was confronted with – again – politics of school life. Being set back with age groups, bored out of my mind, skipping classes because – well, let’s be honest, what’s the point – being punished for it, meetings with principal (alone!), and finally telling the principal at 16 years that if I paid for my school (which I did), that meant that I paid part of his and all the teachers salaries, and simply because of that we had a contract. I paid for my education, which he/they couldn’t provide properly for me, so if he had a problem with me not going to classes that were no challenge for me (mind you, I had straight A’s for everything!), would he be so kind to refund me for my tuition? You can imagine the look on his face…
    After that conversation, I was “liberated” from all classes that were too “simple” for me, I just had to make the tests and exams, but no more. Once in a while I’d show up in a class just to see if they were any further and that I could learn something, but no.. disappointing it was.
    No solution either, not like what I experienced at the American school, that I could be “bumped” up to the next grade. And finish school earlier. Wasted time, if you ask me!
    I did do my own work, though, got copies of the books from higher classes, and just showed up to classes where I could ask my questions so I could move on. Wasn’t particularly well received, but by then I really didn’t care anymore. Lonely school life, although luckily I had some kindred spirits (still my friends!) who understood me and my mind, and were happy that I paved the way for them to do the same. But the teachers.. no, sorry, no good words for 98% of them.
    Exams with open questions.. my mind goes in all directions except the one they want to read. My answers were completely correct, just also completely out-of-the-box and not in the books. Had them thinking hard!
    Oral exam in French, had to pick a topic about one book and tell your version in French at the exam. I couldn’t choose, so I picked the topic of the similarities and counter thoughts, as well as the underlying message the writers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about and to each other (books, stories and letters, all of them). Teachers thought I’d lost my mind and that it couldn’t be done. After I had my exam, they sat talking about what I’d told them for about 1,5 hour.. after which I could come back in the room to hear their comments and get my grades. They were gobsmacked, asked me if they could use my presentation and writings to teach the next generation.. grades were straight A’s again, for both language and content.

    After my graduation I went back to the principal and asked him if what he had experienced with me was a one-off and if he had learned something from me. If yes, what was it? He told me that he had seen first hand now what it meant to be a student who did not fit the standard procedure, who did not accept the standard procedure but who was willing to teach the teachers that there were other ways to teach and to learn. That he wished that he had done more for me and my mind, to give me more challenges and to prepare me better for the challenges that would undoubtedly come my way further in life. I hugged him right there and then! What an honest reply!

    Anyway, that’s a story of a gifted (still not agreeing to that particular term..) child at school, when there is no understanding about a different mind.
    Luckily nowadays there is more information, more visibility and more acceptance of gifted children.
    Although I completely agree with D.K that most articles are written about us to parents/teachers/professionals, instead of to us directly. And almost nothing about the challenges after school. In adulthood, in work life, in relationships, whether that be strangers, acquaintances, friends or romantic partners. There is so much more to us, and about us, to explore. And there are so many differences between us, as well as similarities, to write about. I really hope and wish for all of us that THAT will be in articles and studies and books. About us TO us.

    So, thank you, Paula, for being one of a kind in this! It’s so heartwarming to read your articles and blogs and your take on things to us directly! 🥰

    1. pprober Avatar

      Fascinating to read your schooling experiences, Clignett. Good to hear the principal’s comments at the end. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Marina Avatar

      Thanks for sharing, Clignett. I did quite the opposite in school: when I noticed that I’d gone far beyond what was expected (and sometimes received a bad grade for that because it did not answer the question), I just gave them what they wanted to hear in order for me to have good grades and please my parents. And then, I put my energy on the things I liked, the creative stuff like dancing, singing, playing the piano, impro and literature. So I was never allowed to go faster than the others, nor to skip a year or not to go to class. But when I got bored, I helped my classmates to understand the tasks and tried hard to improve my explanatory skills!

      1. pprober Avatar

        Many kids take that route, Marina.

      2. Clignett Avatar

        Hi Marina, in my eyes that’s a gift as well! To be able to explain to others and to be able to give them the answer that they want to read/hear.
        I just couldn’t do that, my mind couldn’t (wouldn’t?) remember the answer they wanted to read/hear, so I just came up with a different answer, which was also correct, but not in the books..

        As for skipping classes and just not showing up for classes, I guess I was too rebellious then. Insatiable for information, for more, for higher, anything that would satisfy my mind. Back then, there was no internet, no Google, just books and encyclopedias and phonebooks 😅.. I just needed it, otherwise I’d go stir crazy I felt..

        1. Marina Avatar

          Haha, the ‘good old days’, no Internet but just books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, phonebooks and the rows and rows of unknown books on the shelves of the library! I remember that, too, and being insatiable for knowledge. I’m still into that, it hasn’t changed. And aren’t we lucky, having access to all that information, even though Google makes money on our clicks?!

          1. Clignett Avatar

            Oh, yes! The old fashioned libraries! Only the smell of it can take me back to those days I sat in a corner with stacks and stacks of books next to me.. one book led to the other, wonderful times!

            Me too, haven’t changed a bit since then with my information/knowledge satisfying thingy! We are sure lucky to have Google nowadays, I don’t mind they make money out of our clicks (although I do refuse most of the cookies 🍪🤣), as long as I can find what I’m looking for.
            It was a joke way back to Google “Elgoog”, you’d get the strangest things 😅🤪!

  5. Elle Avatar

    I was today years old when I realized I’d been waiting all my life for this post. I know why I was a mediocre student during my childhood and esp. my teen years. It was a combination of having chronic moderate anxiety, and being introverted and an HSP. I am also Generation X and so there is that baked-in parental apathy/neglect too.

    I’ve been told all my life that I am smart by all kinds of people. Some who knew me well to people I just met. I never understood how anyone would know that. I look back at my school years and see rare moments of shining. Mostly I was a C student. I don’t know how I got through most of my classes. I remember just being lost and not understanding anything. No really! Especially math, computers, science, and those testosterone-soaked shop classes that I got shoved into. Just utterly lost. And when a student feels lost she disconnects and then internalizes the idea that she’s dumb and a cycle of doing poorly in even remedial classes and self-loathing starts. She also starts ditching class excessively in her senior year because it’s just so painful mentally and socially. Ironically, I graduated with honors and top 23% of my class of over 350 students. I don’t know how that happened. Truly.

    The problem wasn’t subjects. Those could have been conquered with tutoring or waiting to tackle some topics later.
    Me: Mom can you help me with this algebra?
    Mom: I don’t know how to do it either.

    I didn’t realize it until just this year! that back then I was chronically anxious. My junior and senior high school is ONE school. 7th grade through 12th. Big school! Something like 2,000 students in the 80s. I can’t stand being in crowds and what is high school? Non-stop crowds. Non-stop peopling, all day, five days a week. Six different social settings all about 50 minutes long. Add puberty to that. Add the unsupportive, unhelpful homelife. No wonder, no wonder, no wonder.

    Fast forward to 2005. I am 36 years old. People still tell me I am smart. I am tired of thinking I am dumb. I enroll in junior college and ace every single course I took. Some courses I took just because I didn’t get it in my younger years and now it’s so easy! Except higher math. I can’t pick a major. Everything is interesting until it’s not. I want to do all the things, until I don’t. I graduated with honors and a little degree in social science. Whoopee ding dong! The point wasn’t the degree, it was to learn to enjoy learning and to kill the negative talk once and for all.

    Gifted? The way you frame it, Paula, yes I can finally agree.

    1. pprober Avatar

      Well, then, Elle. I am so happy I wrote it. Love to you and your realization!

  6. D.K Avatar

    An informative post! But I must say, too much information on gifted kids focuses exclusively on what they’re (in)capable of at school and not on their other qualities. While this in itself is not a bad thing, there is much more to who we are than just school. There are too few articles on how gifted kids play, how varied and sophisticated their coping mechanisms can be, how richly symbolic their stories and art are, and how they tend to form bonds and just generally approach non-school life, especially in adulthood. Even more, compared to other neurodivergencies like autism and ADHD, there are too few articles and perspectives for gifted people and by gifted people, with almost every article concerning giftedness written by either a parent or a teacher singing some kind of elegy about how society has failed gifted kids. Your blog is a welcome break in the mold precisely because you talk about the other areas (especially the joys and not just the sorrows) of our lives, address your words straight to us instead of to another parent or psychologist or some other middleman, and include the raw, candid voices of other members of our kind.

    1. pprober Avatar

      Oh, thank you, D.K. Every once in a while I write the more typical gifted kids article. I think part of my motivation is to reach that audience and pull some of them in and give them my particular slightly different perspective. Thanks for noticing!