Dyan Branstetter | February 2018

4 Surefire Ways to Reach Unmotivated Gifted Students

Have you ever had a student in your class whom you know is brilliant, yet they are producing nothing? Or have you written a comment such as, “Kevin is not working to his potential,”? When working with advanced and gifted learners, this is all too common. Some teachers find students such as these annoying because the student behavior can seem disrespectful, oppositional, and arrogant. As such, they are not as quick to reach out to that student. Before we look at strategies that can help students find their full potential, we have to understand the reasons for why students are lacking motivation.

gifted students

Watterson, Bill. “Calvin and Hobbes.” The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. N.p.: Andrews McMeel, 2012. Print.

Is it the instructional design? 

Before we start to analyze the behavior of our unmotivated students, we have to determine if the cause of the underachievement is due to instructional design. Students who feel that they don’t have a voice in what they are learning tend to eventually tune out. Some feel it is a lack of respect for their passions. 

In addition, if tasks are monotonous or not authentic/vigorous enough, students may not see the value in them. This could lead to a lack of motivation. The lack of intellectually stimulating opportunities will have students dreading school and wishing for more free time to learn. (Remember, if a student can prove mastery of a skill after a few problems, they shouldn’t have to do a whole page of similar problems.) If you find that your lessons need some help in this area, check out EducationCloset’s many lessons and units. Integrating the arts, and project-based, interdisciplinary units are rigorous motivators for all students, especially advanced learners.

Is it student behavior? 

Other motivation problems relate to specific student behaviors. Some advanced students are “selective producers”, viewing school as a buffet where they choose what they want to put effort into. Other students will work for one teacher but not for another. Perfectionism is also a quiet block for some students. Their fear of failure prevents them from putting forth their full effort.

Some students don’t have the skills to manage their workload. It overwhelms them and thus, they shut down because they don’t know where to start, or because they can’t do it all. So instead, they do nothing. Finally, some gifted students simply haven’t developed the grit required to learn something new because concepts have come so easily for them in their early childhood years.

Let’s take a look at each of these behaviors and some possible interventions to help students work to their potential.

Step 1: Identify the root of the behavior.

  • Conference with the student to gain some insight.
    • Sometimes, they will come right out and tell you. Be careful to listen objectively if the student shares concerns/dislikes. It is easy to get defensive- we know we put a great deal of time and effort into planning, and criticism, especially from a student, can be hard to hear. Listen for the student’s rationale and try to determine if you should modify your instruction or if it is more of a behavioral concern.
    • Other students won’t share so willingly. Maybe they have already shut down, maybe they’re afraid you will push them, or maybe they can’t pinpoint why they aren’t motivated. Ask students probing questions like what their favorite school subject is and why. Or perhaps, what their least favorite subject is and why. Ask what makes something easy and what makes something difficult. And most definitely, use this opportunity to find out what this student wants to learn about and see if he or she knows how he learns best. If you can begin to determine the underlying problem through this conversation, you are one step closer to helping.
    • Make sure that the student is accountable. The way this is presented can either help or hurt the situation, so pay attention to the sensitivity of the student as you go forward. The student needs to be aware that his or her underachievement is not his teacher’s fault and it’s not his parent’s fault, but instead, he needs to own it and work past it. Ensure that student that you will do everything in your power to help him succeed, but without teamwork from all counterparts, the problem won’t be solved. End the conference by sharing the goal that you have made to help the situation and a goal that the student will work on to help the situation.
  • Communicate with the student’s family
    • Have a conversation with the student’s family. While it is very true that students perform differently at school and home, parents have great insight into their child’s learning behavior. Ask what causes frustration at home and how parents’ see their child’s ability to complete homework tasks. Explain what you see at school, and ask what motivates that student at home. (Note: Be careful not to vent to parents- you are presenting an objective view of what you see and asking for tips. Many times you’ll find that parents are also frustrated with the same things that you are. It will be most helpful if you present this as a team approach. Let the parents know that you will seek expert advice to help if your own ideas aren’t enough, and make sure to follow through.)
    • You can identify similarities and differences in the student from home to school behavior, and you can also gain insights into the parental response to the student’s lack of motivation. (Could the child be used to unclear boundaries, so they consider school work optional? Could the parent frequently jump in and help when things get challenging, preventing the student from developing grit?) Setting some clear initial goals that parents can support at home can be very beneficial. Sometimes, just knowing that parent and teacher are on the same page can be enough accountability to jumpstart some motivation.

Step 2: Try Some Interventions

There is no “quick fix” for many of these underlying reasons for underperformance. But, here you’ll find a few ideas to help get started.

  • For the student who lacks “buy-in”:
    • Increase that student’s perception of school. Connect his or her interests to the content that you’re delivering. Work to create a relevancy for all students, but especially the student who is a hard sell. Chances are if you can reach that student, the other students will be on board as well! In addition, make sure to give pretests to make sure you’re not directly instructing that student on skills they have already mastered. Take interest inventories. These help you know how much you need to “sell” the curriculum and how you can make those connections to that student’s interests.
    • Make sure not to “stand and deliver”, but instead design instruction to help students learn on their own. Some students would prefer to learn at their own pace from a YouTube video rather than slowly move step-by-step while following a teacher’s directions.
  • For the Perfectionist:
    • These are our students who don’t like to take risks, who try something and tearfully tear it up, resolving to never do it again, and who have high anxiety about getting answers correct. Sometimes this is loud and clear, and sometimes it is quietly masked by what looks like apathy, opposition, or incomplete work. Sometimes this can be further compounded with a label of giftedness- teachers think because a child is “gifted” means that they should perform better than others. Comments like this can push a child further down a path of self-doubt. To help with early perfectionism, books like “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg is a great read aloud which you can frequently refer to. Carefully presented feedback can help students work through their perfectionism, as well as parent education on helpful feedback. Praise affects both motivation and resilience, and should always focus on the process rather than the child’s intelligence.
      • Example: Focus on the process: “I love how you persevered by trying multiple strategies to solve that problem!” versus a focus on intelligence: “You’re so great at multiplication!”
    • Learning about growth mindset vs. fixed mindset can help students conquer perfectionism as well.
  • For the Fixed Mindset Learner: 
    • This student doesn’t think he can learn so he has negative feelings about it. Because he has negative feelings, he doesn’t put in effort, hence, he doesn’t have success. To help with this, share scientific knowledge of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset. (Here’s a great video series from ClassDojo on this topic.) Make sure to build in opportunities for this student to be successful. Quietly celebrate these successes. If the student gives permission, use their work (with or without a name, depending on permission) as an example during instruction. Pointing out these little successes helps build confidence and is a great stepping stone for reversing a fixed mindset.
  • For the Unorganized Learner:
    • Some students just need some assistance with time management. They have trouble breaking tasks down into manageable steps. Meet often with these students. This is helpful for all students at first. But for those who continue to struggle, meet often in small groups or one on one to set up and manage a calendar. Teach them how to prioritize and make to-do lists and set daily goals. Make sure to continually check on these students to hold them accountable until these organizational skills become habits. It takes some time up front but sets students up for great success in the future.

Don’t let these learners slip away

These ideas are specifically geared towards our advanced learners. But many of them are simply best practice and will work for all learners. Sometimes, we need to focus extra attention on those who have given up on school… even if their scores are “proficient”. They deserve as much of our effort as those who are struggling to meet mastery. For these are the students who will be the next Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Lin Manuel Miranda, J.K. Rowling or Misty Copeland. Unless we let them slip through the cracks.



The ideas presented are a combination of my own experiences combined with ideas from the webinar “Motivating the Gifted but Reluctant Learner” by Diane Heacox, Ed.D.

Watterson, Bill. “Calvin and Hobbes.” The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. N.p.: Andrews McMeel, 2012. Print.

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.