Dear Dr. Sylvia

Bright Teen Has Poor Grades

November, 2016


I found your website today and all but burst into tears when I read the content on your site. You are describing my son exactly, and the reason I almost cried is, until today, I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. He is a bright, athletic, super-adorable 15-year-old who is doing terribly in school. I absolutely adore my children and have given them every opportunity. My son went to a private Catholic school since the age of 4. I worked two jobs to afford it, but felt the investment in his future was priceless.

In 6th grade, I started to get communications from the school about his disruptive and disorderly behavior and his grades. He wasn’t turning in homework (that sometimes I’d seen him do) and didn’t seem to be bothered by the grades he was getting or by his behavior in class. He was always, however, admired by teachers and peers for how smart and sweet he was; but nobody could understand why he just didn’t care about school. I thought it was his age.

I started to punish him by taking big things that he loved away. That didn’t work. I’d have them for so long that he’d forget about them. Then I tried rewards. I rewarded him for every little thing he did. Turning homework in was a trip for ice cream. Then I thought about what I was doing. He should be doing these things without rewards. Why doesn’t he want to turn in his homework?

After his first year of high school, his GPA is 1.75, and I am scared that his future is in jeopardy. He has begun lying about his study habits and saying that he studied when he didn’t. I don’t even know if he knows how to study. He loves sports and can tell you every statistic of every current and former hockey and baseball player. I know he’s extremely smart, but I need help motivating him.



The underachieving habit is a hard one to break by high school. It takes some counterintuitive thinking to help your son learn to work hard. Each time you or his teachers intuitively remind him of how smart he is, he might be discouraged from working hard because he assumes that really smart kids shouldn’t have to work so hard. Instead, you should remind him of how much harder high school is than middle school was. You could suggest that his teachers might help him to learn how to study. You can even tell him that smart kids who get good grades usually invest about three hours a night studying. They understand that if they work hard, they’ll be better prepared for college and good jobs.

By high school, your son’s peer group will also make a difference. Here’s hoping he hangs around with kids who are good students. If so, they’ll soon be thinking about college, which becomes a strong motivator for working very hard.

I’m also hoping that you and your son’s father are both giving him that “work hard” message. Teen boys often look to their fathers for advice, and if they only hear about the importance of school from their mothers, they assume it’s a “girl” thing and not as cool and macho as they want to be.

My book, Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It (Great Potential Press, 2008), can guide you to helping him reverse his underachievement. It’s even a good idea to leave the book out on a table so your son knows you’re reading it. It’s possible he’ll pick it up out of curiosity and glance through it for some ideas he can use. He’s approaching an age when many kids are thinking that maybe they’d like to improve their grades.

Try to stay on his team by encouraging him and being firm and clear. It’s also possible that your son has an attention problem or some learning disabilities, but only a full psychoeducational evaluation could give you that information.

Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For free newsletters entitled Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and/or Learning Disabilities, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter and a note with your topic request to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s Articles for Parents and Teachers and submit family questions online at All questions are answered.

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