Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: My Twice-Exceptional Child Is Failing High School

Twice-exceptional students who are both academically gifted and living with ADHD may lack the tools and opportunities to showcase their talents and learning in some classroom settings. Learn how to stem the self-esteem crisis that often ensues in high school, and help your teen engineer their own systems for success.

“My 15-year-old son is twice exceptional. He’s intellectually gifted yet faces challenges with executive function. He also has been identified as having autism spectrum disorder and has had trouble completing assignments since he began middle school. Now that he’s a high school freshman, getting him to complete and turn in his homework has become a crisis. He is failing two core classes and is in danger of being held back. Given his social issues, and the fact he’s already one of the oldest in his class, we fear this could be catastrophic for him. It used to motivate him if I sat with him to do challenging assignments. Now he seems completely disengaged. It’s killing me and his father. His 504 review is approaching. What can we do to help our twice exceptional teen reach his potential? (I have ADD as well, so I’m very sensitive to his struggle.)”


Dear LoveMyBoy,

Twice-exceptional (2E) children have great abilities, but often lack the tools and opportunities to demonstrate their gifts and strengths — as well as their needs — in ‘traditional’ classroom settings not designed to foster neurodiverse learners. Talking to a 2E child, you may assume that his obvious knowledge and skills will translate to success in school. Intellectual capacity, however, is in no way correlated to the executive functioning and self-management skills that help teens navigate the demands of school and social relationships.

Twice-Exceptional Teens Face Unique Challenges

As twice-exceptional children move into adolescence, their executive dysfunction can become a source of personal frustration. They begin to recognize their own great potential — and the fact that they are not achieving the expectations of others, or of themselves. As a result, 2E kids may become frustrated, anxious, and moody in middle and high school.

Happiness, Not Homework, Is the Priority

Given your son’s apathy and recent failures at school, it makes sense to first address your concerns related to his mood and self-esteem. In other words, put a lot of effort toward improving his mental health and self-esteem. School will follow.

I’d seek intensive individual psychotherapy with a therapist who works with teens on the autism spectrum. The therapist must be able to connect with your son and learn about the things that motivate and interest him. The therapist should use a cognitive behavioral (CBT) approach that can address the depression and negative thinking you said your son may be experiencing. Finding his spark, improving his self-esteem, and connecting him with a few peers can go a long way in helping your son.

[Self Test: Could My Child Be Depressed?]

I also encourage you to consult with your child’s pediatrician. The pediatrician may have some thoughts about whether medication or another treatment would be appropriate.

Finally, work with your son to find areas that engage him. If possible, find ways to leverage his interests into activities that connect him with his peers. If he is interested in science, you could encourage him to join a robotics club. If he loves technology, encourage him to play multiplayer online games or to attend a live class on coding or computer programming.

Time Management for Twice-Exceptional Children

You also mentioned that your son struggles with time management and has received poor grades at school. Rather than managing his time for him, help him learn and refine some of his own time-management skills. This may improve his sense of self-esteem and give him the autonomy needed to grow and develop. Here are some sample conversations you can direct to your son to help him improve his time-management skills:

Solutions to Discuss with Your Son:

Use a smartphone or smartwatch. Smartphones are one of the greatest technologies for improving time management. Program your mobile device with alerts to remind you of regular appointments, deadlines, and to stay on task during homework time. The timer on a phone or smartwatch can also help you keep track of how long you’re spending on a given task. It’s always illuminating to compare your initial estimate to the actual time a task required (see below).

[Time Management for Teens: Scheduling Is Power]

Learn to estimate. Before starting a homework assignment, cleaning your room, or taking on some other task, write down how long you think it will take you. When you are done, see how close you were to your estimate. If you write down and track your time on a regular basis, you will get better at estimating how long tasks will take you. This will help you make sure you have enough time to complete what you need to do so you’ll have time left over for what you want to do.

Reward yourself. Recognize what an accomplishment it is to finish something quickly and efficiently. For example, set a realistic amount of time to complete your homework and, if you are able to do so, reward yourself with an activity you enjoy such as texting your friends, having a snack, or playing outdoors when you meet your goals.


Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.

2 Comments & Reviews

  1. I’m right there with you. Super high IQ but you would never know it by looking at his grades. So many F’s. And then he shines at the most peculiar times and blows me away. I cry, a lot. I’m always at the end of my rope, then we make a little headway, and right back to the end of that rope. It’s exhausting. My son just finished his sophomore year at the expense of my sanity.

    We had a full psychological and educational evaluation at the end of 8th grade which showed an extremely high IQ, major anxiety, clinical depression and ODD. ADHD was diagnosed a while ago. Treating the ADHD made everything worse. Our Psychiatrist recommended treating only the depression for a while hoping to lessen the other issues, it did help, quite a bit. Having the full diagnosis helped us change our expectations and direction. Not saying that we accepted everything that easily, we still hit issues that leave us depleted, but I have a better understanding who my son is. Sounds like you’ve already been down that road as well.

    504/IEP plans
    We pushed for many things in my son’s plan – time extensions on tests if needed (typically he is the 1st to turn in his tests, so we also have an item for teachers to push back and ask him to sit down and check his work before turning it in), and more recently time extensions on turning in assignments and getting help with EF skills. We are incredibly lucky, our school has an amazing program for such kids. Our IEP includes a one-o-one counselor that my son meets with daily to help with any issues/frustrations that come up during the day and also help with reminding to make sure all assignments are getting passed in (doesn’t always work, but the constant reminder is great), then a weekly group counseling session with other kids going through the same program, then there is a study hall for kids in this program where the teacher helps with EF skills – however my son refuses to do the work in this study, really causes the ODD traits to come out. We talk often with the all the adults that are part of my son’s IEP so we are constantly refining what works and what doesn’t with getting him to complete assignments and cooperate. Thankfully they are all on board. Another wonderful thing they have is an area where the kids can let off steam so if they are struggling in class, they can go down to the room where these kids meet and they can exercise, or relax for 10 minutes and then go back to class. It’s more for the kids with hyperactive issues, but any of the kids can use it. Having that choice to leave a class when you are feeling overwhelmed and anxious gives a sense of control over their anxiety which is wonderful or simply recharge. Not sure if anything like this exists in your school, but might be something you can see if they can accommodate.

    Keep in touch with teachers – daily or weekly
    From my experience, I recommend staying in close contact with your son’s teachers as often as possible. I find teachers like to really understand their students. And kids like our who may seem aloof sometimes just need a nudge to stay engaged. The teachers also then understand why this child comes across as aloof. At the beginning of the school year and again when they switch teachers mid-year, I email all of my son’s teachers or meet with them, letting them know his typical tricks of getting out of doing classwork and his history of not turning in projects/assignments. All of them have worked with me – letting me know what projects are late or any behavioral issues, what needs to be completed and they have also passed that info along to those in the program that can help him. If he had something that was late, we now nudge him at home but not call him out on it. If we know the details, we try to find ways to get him to tell us the details so he feels more in control and not like we are nagging. We would also have him email his teacher to tell them when to expect him to finish it and turn it is. Most of the teachers would give him partial credit for turning it in late. We also learned to not constantly check on his grades. We had a big talk about how he was responsible for his grades, that we would like to see him keep it above a D and that we would have a conversation if a grade was too low, but would not judge him for it, no yelling, no criticism over it. Giving him more responsibility for his own grades has helped a lot, I was terrified at not pushing him, but he managed to pull everything except one class to As, Bs and Cs. There is a class he will need to take over, but doesn’t need to stay back.

    Therapy and more therapy
    We’re constantly learning how to communicate with our son via therapy. My son has a counselor he meets with weekly or sometimes every other week, working on cognitive behavior and depression. If things get bad (too many F’s, detentions, etc) I send her emails to keep her in the loop of what is going on in school and at home so she can help guide the conversations. She is also in touch with the school counselors and my son’s teachers. Then we meet with a psychologist for family therapy. Sometimes that is once a week when times are tough. That has been the most helpful for the sanity of the family. He stays in touch with my son’s therapist. And then there is our Psychiatrist. We meet with her monthly regarding medication and overall mental health. My son is now at the point where he will ask when our next appointment is or remind me to schedule one as he is finding it very useful. We are lucky, our therapists are all wonderful, it did take us a while to find ones that fit our personalities. All this therapy has helped him become more aware of this grades and why they are important. He still things grades are stupid and holds out until just before the term ends to bring up his grades, but he understands why they are important.

    We remind our son that he will have a life time of therapists, they are there to help you find your strengths and navigate through life. I remind him he can say anything, especially all the things I do that drive him crazy. He knows that they are not allowed to share anything that he says but can share if he mentions causing harm to himself or others. We are very upfront with him about who we contact, when and what we say. Nothing is hidden from him and we always remind him that everyone involved is on his side. He is incredibly smart so we try to stay as transparent and honest as we can. We remind him he doesn’t need to be the smartest, richest, or happiest person but he is going to have to find a job and fit into this society in a way that works for him and those around him.

    Kids like ours are tough. We love them so very much, but it is so incredibly frustrating to be their parent. Some days I want to give up and walk away, some days I cry in my pillow or out loud, some days I loose all sanity and say words I can’t take back. Well meaning parents try to give advice, I’ve learned to listen to them and simply say thank you for passing on their advice and have stopped trying to get them to understand, they don’t know, how can they, I had no idea until my son came along and had me googling everything there was to know about how to be his parent, and I’m still learning, adjusting, trying and continuously failing. We do learn from failure, and oddly enough, these kids need to fail a lot to learn. But the way our schools are set up, failure shouldn’t happen. Yet some of the smartest people of all time failed or dropped out of high school.

    The response above mentions finding the thing he loves that will motivate him. We’ve been trying that for years and nothing much motivates my son, if it takes effort, then he’s not interested. He is amazing at anything he puts effort towards but he gets board and drops it all too quickly. He finds nothing engaging – if it’s in a class or course like structure, he gets bored or frustrated. He learns things in a different order – I’m ADHD as well and struggle in the same way. I learn from back to front to middle – no particular order, just not the order in which it is given to me, order eludes me and my son. The one thing I do agree with is finding a group that meets after school that he may be interested in. Our school has many groups and anyone can start one. My son found a video gamers club and Anime club which got him excited and helped to find other people he could talk with. Didn’t help the grades, but his overall interest in school changed which was helpful.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to write so much but your post really hit me. I felt it, the exasperation and wanted to respond. I hope something in here helps. I wish you the best of luck, sanity and cooperation for the up coming year!

  2. Yes, all the above-discussed ideas are too good, There are 2 things that we can add up with other ideas if possible.
    1. Keep motivating your son-
    Motive him by telling a real story of big achievers, who once failed or lacking in something/opportunity but due to their perseverance, they are on top of the world.
    -2. Indulge him in any of physical activities – As exercise is a key for the healthier brain.
    According to me these things must include and follow with the above-mentioned points.

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