Fifth-Grade Underachievement

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

Parent Question: I have a fifth-grade daughter who until recently was an A/B student. She has always scored high on her Iowa tests. Lately, she has been bringing home papers and tests with Ds and Fs on them. She forgets to bring material home from school to study and is making careless mistakes. She seems to like school, her teachers, and her friends. One side of the problem is that she doesn’t know how to prioritize and organize. The other is that her friends seem to be poor students. Can you suggest any ways that I can help her?

Expert Answer: The fifth grade seems to be when some children begin a pattern of underachievement similar to what you’ve described. Academic and social factors contribute to this change. The curriculum becomes more difficult in middle school, including more homework and more competitive grading. For gifted children, it’s sometimes the first time they feel challenged.

Peer groups affect children’s achievement, because children compare themselves to one another. Among many peer groups, particularly at the middle school level, it isn’t cool to achieve high grades. This pressure may be worse for girls than boys.

Begin by asking your daughter how her friends feel about good grades. If your daughter believes that her friends won’t accept her if she achieves, encourage her to find new friends who appreciate the value of academic achievement. The best way for you to do this is to suggest new interests for her to take up. The following activities will provide a new environment and social contacts for her:

  • drama or art classes
  • new sports
  • participation in a religious or scout group
  • academic competitions
  • bringing a new friend on a family excursion
  • going on a trip with a family that has a child your daughter’s age

At this age, it is appropriate to explain to your daughter why you don’t care for the peers she has chosen. You can tell her that while you want her to be polite and friendly to these children at school, you don’t want them to hang out together. Give specific reasons, such as they don’t work hard in school and they think doing well isn’t cool, or they don’t appreciate her for who she is. Your daughter may not think you’re being very cool, she may be annoyed that you’ve voiced your opinion, but she will absorb your message about choosing friends with similar values.

If the issue isn’t her peers but the difficulty of her schoolwork, acknowledge that the fifth grade is harder than earlier grades and that success may not come as easily as it did before. Encourage her to keep trying, and help her understand that working harder often increases the satisfaction of the results.

To help your daughter develop good study habits and organizational skills, show her how to use an assignment notebook, and ask her to check it before she leaves school to be sure that she has all her required books. As she completes each assignment, she should put it in a subject folder in her backpack—that way she’ll know where it is and be less likely to forget to turn it in.

To help her avoid careless mistakes, have her check her work twice, look it over when she is done, and have her correct any mistakes. If she has done careful work, tell her that you’re proud of her improvement and reward her by doing something with her that she enjoys.

You may also consider arranging to receive a weekly report by e-mail from her teacher. Review it with your daughter to encourage her and to ensure that she doesn’t get too far behind.

If these simple approaches don’t take care of the problem, refer to the resources in the sidebar to learn more about underachievement. You may also want to consult with a psychologist to determine if there are other underlying difficulties.

Sylvia B. Rimm, PhD

Sylvia B. Rimm is a child psychologist, director of the Family Achievement Clinic, and clinical professor at Case School of Medicine.

Learn More
  • Social/Emotional Issues, Underachievement, and Counseling of Gifted and Talented Students, edited by Sidney M. Moon, Corwin, 2004
  • Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You can Do about It, by Sylvia B. Rimm, Crown, 1995
  • Hoagie’s Gifted: Gifted Underachievers