A colleague asked me that question this morning. Seems the young man she is working with is “not working up to his potential”. I see this so often that I am dropping everything to write about this very important topic.

I work with all kinds of kids, from the superstars going to top tier colleges to kids who are barely in line to graduate.

And guess what. I love them all.

Each and every one of these kids has gifts to share – if we don’t pay attention, then we are in danger of losing the kid as well as all that he/she can give to the world.

When I get a student like this, the first thing I want to know is why….why are they D students? Here are some of the possibilities:

  • There is an undiagnosed or unaddressed learning issue. Has the student ever has a solid psycho-educational evaluation to find out learning strengths/weaknesses?
  • Maybe the student has ADHD or other attentional issues. Did you know that anxiety is also something that might seem like ADHD but is not? Or that maybe it co-occurs with ADHD? Think about it – a student that is nervous or upset about a learning or personal situation is not going to be able to concentrate. So it’s important to tease out what’s ADHD and what’s an underlying psychological issue.
  • Anxiety is paralyzing. I have seen too many bright kids who can’t think or perform when they are feeling anxious.
  • Maybe the student has executive function issues going on – that is, he/she can’t find the work they did, forget to turn it in, bring the right book home to do the assignment, etc. These are the kids who can’t manage their time and are chronically disorganized. It can come along with all of the above issues, too.
  • Maybe the kid is super bright – and doesn’t feel like doing work they find meaningless. Motivating these very intelligent kids is a huge challenge. And many gifted kids also have other issues such as learning disabilities, executive function problems, attentional problems, and anxiety. So they get to struggle with all of the above. Nice combo, huh?
  • Then there are kids who are oppositional, or shut down, or angry, or depressed – all of these factors will interfere with learning and attitude. Big time.
  • Maybe the teen is hanging out with the wrong crowd – and starting to make some poor choices. They might also be using substances to mask their feelings because it’s too hard to cope – or they don’t see any reason to stay sober.
  • And maybe they are just immature. Some kids need longer to grow up.
  • What if the kid is just lazy? Then what can we do to give them a reason to have ambition, hope for the future, and improved work ethic?
  • Is the student in the right educational setting? Would they respond or have their needs met better in a different school? Do they need more teachers as mentors in their lives?
  • Do they have the right study skills? It’s actually surprising how many kids actually don’t know HOW to study. They stare at the book but do not know how to organize information in any meaningful way that they can later retrieve from memory. I wish every student would be required to take a study skills course.
  • Do they have anything they can be proud of? Any accomplishments? Abilities? Interests? Talents? I’m always looking for our “hook” so that we can capture their positive attributes.
  • Here is something else I consider to be a very important factor. Because so many of my students are kids on the move, Third Culture Kids, or globally nomadic kids – whatever you want to call them – I also see kids who are struggling with cultural adjustment issues. When I work with therapists, I want to be sure they understand what it’s like to be in transition, start over, question your identity, give up your friends, etc. This is much more serious than a lot of people think. Some kids are just not ready to move forward with their lives until they work these issues out with a professional.

One thing I am convinced of is that every one of these kids can be reached. I’ve worked with all of the above and seen amazing stories of turnarounds. But what has to happen first is to get to the bottom of what’s getting in the way of success. They rarely “just grow out of it”. And by the time they do, they have missed out on many valuable opportunities. The older they are, the higher the stakes.

So back to the original question – is there a college for D students? How about if we reframe the question – why is the kid a D student?

The best part of my job? When I get to work with the student from the first cries for help from the frustrated parents, see the teen transform him/herself over time, and then help with their college applications. This month I’ve read several essays from “my kids” that have moved me to tears as they look back and tell their stories of transformation. It just doesn’t get any better than that.



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