“He’s smart, but he just needs to apply himself.” Just Wondering Out Loud

“Susie is not applying herself in class”


“If he applied himself, his work would improve”


“He needs to work harder and apply himself”


What does it mean when we hear that our child is not applying himself in school?  We often read or hear this sentiment when it is brought up in parent-teacher conferences, or scribbled across failed tests, and written as a comment on poor report cards. When this educational statement is made, it is usually because a child is not as successful in school as we assume he should be.  The logic used here is that if a child is not performing in school as expected, then the problem lies with the child.  Any number of issues could be occurring and are subsequently investigated such as hearing or vision problems, learning disabilities or possibly a poor home environment.  But, if there are no issues or conditions found that would prevent a student from performing as expected in school, then do we just conclude that the student is just not applying himself and needs to work harder?


I have been musing over this undesirable student behavior a lot since I saw a cartoon recently that humorously presented a paradigm shift in how we look at poor student performance in the classroom.  In the drawing, a student is standing in front of his teacher’s desk as she sits there with a look of shock and bewilderment on her face.  The student, who obviously had not been doing well in school, announced to his teacher that he feels he may not have a learning disability, but that maybe she has a teaching disability.  Now, before you go and think I’m bashing teachers, you have to know that I was a former public school teacher and I truly believe that the majority of our teachers are excellent educators.  But, properly educating a child involves many factors such as school and classroom environment, curriculum, class size, teaching strategies used, and the range of grade-level abilities of each student in the classroom just to name a few.  All should be considerations when investigating the cause of a child’s lack of performance in school.


So, why do we so often assume when a child with no learning road blocks, is not doing well in school that the problem lies with the child not living up to his potential?  Further, if no obvious learning disabilities or issues are present, why do we then conclude the child is lazy, and needs to work harder and apply himself in school?  More so, when a child who has above-average intelligence or has been identified as gifted with no diagnosed learning disabilities and he is performing below expectations in school, why do we then determine that the only possible explanation is that he is not applying himself in school?


Think for a second: She is smart, she is a gifted learner, but her grades are below average.  What would anyone logically conclude?  This “needs to apply herself” conclusion seems more misguided when the child is gifted.


When it comes to gifted children, we have an arsenal of information from multitudes of credible, professional articles and educational research studies about gifted children and such common issues as underachievement, perfectionism, twice-exceptionalities, resultant behaviors from boredom, and a visual-spatial learning style.  We also most recently have been seeing compelling data on the misdiagnosis of emotional and psychological issues among our gifted students.  Unfortunately, we know that all this information is usually only well-known among those associated with gifted students in some way and can unfortunately be a non-consideration in the regular classroom.  For sure, giftedness is complex and often misunderstood.  So, when a gifted child is under-performing at school, shouldn’t we look beyond the first simple conclusion of “he’s smart, so he just needs to apply himself more in school?  Still wondering…


In recent months, many in the field of education have been bringing forth ideas that essentially are saying we are pushing our students too hard simply because we need them to perform well on standardized tests.  These professionals are warning us that creativity, enthusiasm, engagement and love of learning are being ignored, trashed and kicked to the curb.  Making learning fun has been replaced with the need for skill-and-drill.  This hampers any student’s ability to “apply himself” in school; it can especially harm a gifted learner who usually does poorly with repetition, rote learning and skill-and-drill.


Another consideration I have about the decision that a child just needs to apply himself more in school, and this is from my personal experience in the classroom and with my own kids: when a child is performing poorly in school and not living up to the expectations set in school, couldn’t it possibly be that she may feel ashamed and embarrassed to the point of pretending not to care just to save face or ward off any teasing or bullying?  This pretense of not caring may further convince the teacher that the only conclusion is that she just needs to apply herself and work harder.


Lastly, while researching information about this “needs to apply himself” concern of mine, I was looking on the many websites that provide canned report card comments for teachers to use.  Out of curiosity, I just wanted to see for myself how often the “needs to apply himself” turned up.  As I read the many comments to be used to let the parents know their child could do better in school, it really struck me how so much of the responsibility of learning is placed on young children.  Comments like: needs to focus, needs to stop fidgeting, needs to stop being distracted, does not use time wisely, poor work ethic, and spends too much time daydreaming. This just begs me to wonder, are we simply just expecting too much from our children especially in an educational era so focused on teaching to the test?  Expecting them to sit focused for hours and eager to learn dry, unrelated facts and figures just so they can do well on the high-stakes standardized tests?  And then we are holding our children solely responsible when their performance is not up to our expectations?  More to wonder about.


And wonder I did.  I tried to think back to as many of my own students as I could recall who just flat out didn’t care about learning or trying to do their best – as in they “didn’t apply themselves”.  I even asked my teen if he could recall a friend or classmate who really didn’t try to do his best, or who didn’t care about learning.  Between us, we came up with one child who probably would have fit the behavior of “needing to apply himself in school”.  I believe every child truly wants to do well in school.  And when they don’t do well and there are no barriers to his learning, should we assume it is entirely the child’s fault?  If it is a gifted child who is not performing well in school, then the conclusion seems, of course, to be his poor work ethic and a need to apply himself because hey, he is gifted and should be making good grades!  Considering the fact that education is consisting more and more of rote learning and teaching to the test, shouldn’t education rethink this conclusion for all students?


Much like the boy in the cartoon, maybe the problem doesn’t lie with the student, but with the system delivering his education.  Maybe our school systems do have a teaching disability.


Just wondering out loud…




16 Comments on ““He’s smart, but he just needs to apply himself.” Just Wondering Out Loud

  1. My daughter is in 6th grade. We have many times made the remark that the school is failing my daughter. All because they are more concerned with the LEAP test than teaching the children what they need to really know. They are so focused on these tests!

    There are no text books to come home, a lot of things in class are done online, they are not allowed to talk in gym or in the cafeteria, and my child comes home with weekly behavioral reports that say things such as “off task” and “talking in class”. They have taken away the parents ability to aide in our kid’s homework and school has pretty much banned the kids ability to socialize with one another and enjoy their lunch and gym time. I believe that hinders a child’s ability to learn due to the lack of a real break from their studies. They are, after all, children!

    I have asked my husband several times to pull our daughter out of public school and home school her. He is terrified of the idea! I’m aware of all of the access you can have to learning materials online, plus the books that can be purchased to use at home. I’m still working on him, but it’s difficult when we both work full-time jobs and I’m about to be a full-time student myself. I really don’t see any other options, though.

    My daughter’s grades are suffering and we are constantly telling her that she needs to apply herself. After reading this article, I won’t be saying it too much any more. I’m glad I’m not the only one to feel the way I do and to know others share the same opinions.

    • Margie,

      I can definitely relate–we went through the same thing, including trying to goad my child into just “playing the game.” He knew much of the curriculum was geared to the tests and he rebelled against being forced-fed what he thought was useless information. We had much more success and happiness with homeschooling.

      If your husband is reluctant, there are two books I would recommend: my book which chronicles how, when and why we made the decision to homeschool and I share a lot of homeschooling advice from homeschooling all three of my boys at various times. Also, the book “How to Work and Homeschool” by Pamela Price.

      If you need any other resources, help or support, please reach out again!

  2. My child is having lots of difficulties also in 5th grade. Mainly in math. He is “passing” according to his report card but he has not passed many test this entire year. We have tried tutors and other avenues with no results. All we are told from the school is he is getting all the help we can give him. He is on the 504 program. This is only for help in testing but not learning. His grades are good in science, spelling and have gotten better in reading since they changed from a standardized test format recently. I know motivation is the key to all of this. But I just don’t know where to start. The teachers said he has ADD. Which he is now on medication for. Which I hate! But it has helped some. Me and my wife feel lost. It is hard to find help.

    • James,

      I would read widely, read differing opinions, and then go with your gut–you know your child best. I personally found out the hard way with one of my sons that failing or lower-than-expected grades can sometimes mean your child needs to be challenged more with more advanced information. I’m not saying that this is what is going on with your son, but sometimes the source of problems are not always so straightforward.

      Also, since your son is in 5th grade, he is likely old enough to have some ideas about what is going on. Maybe find our why he thinks he is having trouble in math. His thoughts on this might reveal some good information.

      But, again, the internet is full of articles, blog posts, Facebook groups for parents, etc. where you can look for support, help and maybe find some solutions. Explore them all!

      Lastly, I’m not anti-traditional school, but not all schools and teachers are experts and can “misdiagnose” your son, so be aware that their solutions are not always the right solutions.

      Good luck and if you need specific resources, check out my resources page!

  3. I’m doing A-levels and I’m bored in Science 1 which I love, am currently being stretched enough in “drama” by a separate institution as well as in class, and hate my third subject (which I took in replacement of my first love math – scared of failure after finding it easy for 3 years 🙁 ).

    I wish I had the guts and the confidence to homeschool myself – I’d breeze these subjects by in a year (obviously I’d want to do math in this scenario) and I’d be able to go by at my own pace – less time, more depth. I am not bragging, just stating.
    I want to specialise in a certain subject – A-levels say learn “A+B+C+D+E+F+G” before you get to do what you like.

    I don’t always apply myself because I have better things to do. I may be tired, bored, over concentrating or….

    I wish I could say I love school, but for a kid like me, who rates learning, I can’t say I do. Yes, they have an extra “gifted” class – but I found the blooms taxonomy two years ago – and besides, it didn’t work for me. At least they’re actually trying to accommodate everybodys needs.

    • Hey Kid,

      I understand completely where you are coming from and I want to apologize for all the teachers and public schools who have been unable to meet your learning needs. Public education is in a bit of a mess trying to meet the learning needs of ALL children and because of funding often being tied to test results, it is the children struggling at the bottom who most often are the focus. It’s the reason but not at all a good reason to neglect any student’s learning needs.

      You also understand that there is a danger in school being too easy because at some point, you will encounter challenging classes. Please confide in your parents or a trusted teacher your concerns about school and try to explain your learning needs to them. You have a right to an education which challenges you and fuels your love of learning. Put you and your education first and reach out to your parents and teachers to see how this can be accomplished. When learning is challenging, interesting and meets your needs, you will fully engage in learning!

      Good luck and remember you have an excellent head on your shoulders!

  4. I kinda have the same problem, smart but I don’t feel like applying myself, just kinda looking for friends. If you wanta talk, hit me up on my email. My interested included maps, video games, cards, and collectibles. Just looking for similar smart and lazy friends

  5. I really enjoyed reading this and seeing that there is no obvious answer! My 14 year old attends a fantastic boarding school (his choice!) where endless amounts of assistance are available to him and he knows this, yet I still receive report cards saying that he is capable of so much more and simply doesn’t apply himself. I also get told that he seems to always learn lessons the hard way.

    As an academic, I find this very difficult to resonate with. However, I am at the stage where I just don’t see what more I can do. I am constantly advising him, checking his assignments, getting him tutors during holidays but it makes no difference. I have now decided that I am not going to interfere anymore. I had no one getting involved in my education as a child yet I still got the qualifications to attend a top law school (from a state school).

    I may be making a huge mistake but as they say, you can take an ass to water but you can’t make it drink!

    • Virginia, I can understand completely. My son did the same and many times, I just let him fail. But, when given something which we thought was way out of his range, way over his head or too far above his level, he took it on and excelled at it. That is when we realized he was a “leaper”. Some classify learners as “steppers” and “leapers.” Steppers are able to excel in school because that is how information is delivered – step by step. Leapers seem to fail at school because information is not given in huge, accelerated, above-grade-level units. I’m not saying all underachievers are leapers, but their learning approach does go against popular thought.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and you have given us all more to think about!

    • Honestly, I don’t think you are making a mistake especially given his age. I see some of my fourth grader’s homework but I don’t really check it. My sixth grader tends to get royally annoyed if I ask him about assignments so I stopped. He especially moans and groans about reviewing spelling words so I stopped suggesting it. He knows that is the difference between an A and a B and that is okay with him so I really can’t worry about it too much. I don’t think a spelling grade will stop him from getting into the collge of his choice.

  6. How are we defining “underachievement”? Bad grades? Why is the criteria for achievement grades especially in a day and age where curriculum is defined by business interests and not educators and is demonstrated by performance on standardized tests? There was a time when teachers sometimes reassured concerned parents- “don’t worry, s/he will get there”- learn to read, add, speak. I have books that lay out developmental milestones but reassure the reader that every child is different.

    That is rapidly changing. Kindergartners are expected to read by the end of kindergarten- or else! A tremendous emphasis is being placed on pre-k programs- not all of it bad- to teach young children letters, numbers, and kindergarten readiness skills. Standards dictate exactly when and how a child must demonstrate mastery. I was chastised by a principal because my gifted five year old could not tie his shoes and that was an important developmental skill. No it is not. His fine motor skills (which is really the point) were just fine. His tested skill in shoe tying was limited because because his exposure was limited. Most kids shoes are made with Velcro straps. He did not really have the need to tie shoes until he was nine. Then he learned. Should an alternative evaluation of fine motor skills been used? Sure.

    It is ironic that we parents talk about our kids not being challenged and simultaneously bemoan underachievement. I have yet to meet a teacher that responded to “underachievement and not working to potential” by assigning work that demonstrated potential. In other words, rather than accuse a child of underachievement, give him work that would allow that child to demonstrate achievement. They may be out there, but may not be as common as we would like.

    One of my worries about my sons is that they have not had all that many experiences where they had the satisfaction of struggling with something, working it through, and being successful. Rather, most of their academic experience has been do the work, write neatly, take the test. Most of the work does not demand hard work for them- it demands patience in repeating a mastered topic once again. Sometimes the challenge is to be patient and suck it up.

    Why, at a time in human life that we know is most able to absorb information and to learn do we hold our children back and force them into artificial learning? Why don’t we have assignments that require daydreaming? Why do we giggle and think its cute when a five year old predicts that there will be 10,104 inches of snow? (After this winter that does not seem improbable)!

    Real life- real work- the kind that our gifted kids will most likely enjoy and be successful with- will not require proving over and over that they know something. It will not require knowing the exact date that the Civil War began. It may well help them to understand the social and economic forces that started the war, and to understand that is was not just “good guys and bad guys.” It will help them to understand racism and the different economies of different parts of the country. It will help them understand that moral, social and economic choices have intended and unit ended consequences.

    The future may not be known, and in some ways the world is changing so rapidly that is is increasingly difficult to predict what the world will look like in ten years. We do know that their future will require taking what they know and developing it further or applying it in a new and different way. It will require day dreaming and imagining a machine that will compute complex algorithms, a telephone that can slip into a back pocket and settle an argument. They will need to grapple with complex social problems, warring nations, unexpected consequences. They will not need to take multiple choice tests or do the same math worksheet fifteen times.

    So yes, they will need to apply themselves. I hope and believe they will want to. But hopefully they can apply themselves to problems they are passionate about and that will allow them to achieve, rather than being labeled underachievers when there is nothing to achieve.

    • “But hopefully they can apply themselves to problems they are passionate about and that will allow them to achieve, rather than being labeled underachievers when there is nothing to achieve.” YES, absolutely! You said it all so perfectly; school work should reflect real world, real life!

  7. I resonate with this so much. My husband and I are struggling with our 11 year old. We always get the, “he’s so smart, his grades should be reflecting that” response from teachers. We are seriously discussing homeschooling him next year. How does homeschool work, when you’re at the age where you need to do labs, etc?
    We’ve only begun to discuss this and I’ve kept up with blogs like yours for insight, but I know absolutely nothing about where to even begin researching homeschool options. One concern my son has mentioned, is that he would miss band. If that’s the one thing he likes and enjoys about school I don’t want to take that away from him.
    He’s the youngest in his middle school 6th grade class (late summer bday) and his maturity most definitely reflects that, ADHD has been brought up, and he’ll come home thinking there is something wrong with him.
    The last two years of school have been painful for him and as his parent. We want what is best for him.
    We know, yes, he is intelligent, but how do we keep him passionate about learning. He so often just tunes it all out and doesn’t care.
    What advice do you have for a struggling mom trying to navigate these delicate waters?

    • Every child, every family, every situation is different, and I want to try to refrain from telling you what I think is best, because I don’t really know. What I can tell you is homeschooling is AWESOME! The options, the freedom, the everything!

      Depending on which state and community you live in, there are usually always homeschool groups around. I think I would start there first. Talk to the moms who are homeschooling in your community and they will surely be happy to give you all the information you need to make the right decision. Go on a few outings or attend a meeting or two, and bring your son to see how he likes it.

      In my case, I wish I would have homeschooled my two youngest sons; my oldest loved school and he was happy there. But my two youngest would have NEVER known failure, bullying, defeat, lack of self-esteem and lack of self-confidence. They would have never, ever thought that learning was so painful, boring and difficult. That is my experience and I am biased towards homeschooling especially for gifted kids!

      Good luck and don’t hesitate to ask more questions!

  8. As a former student who heard that many times over her school career, I can absolutely say yes! You are totally right. It isn’t always the student. Yes, if I had worked harder, I would have gotten better grades, overall. But I can think of two specific examples where they told me I was being a lazy good-for-nothing and it was totally not me. In third grade, doing the timed math tests, because I had really high standardized test results they would NOT believe that I was genuinely struggling to finish the tests. Now I know that I have terrible processing speed. At 8, I didn’t really know about such things, and was incapable of explaining that I was moving as fast as I could. And in 9th grade, in geometry, I had trouble understanding nearly all of it, but the teacher, I don’t think, did, either, and she couldn’t explain it any differently than what it said in her book, so I got zero help from her. Not a lot the student can do when the teacher doesn’t even get it.
    In addition, a thing nobody ever seems to discuss is motivation. So often school work is deadly dull, and we just expect kids to knuckle down and do it anyway. The excuse given is that we don’t always enjoy everything in life and kids need to learn how to muscle through the unpleasant chores. I don’t really buy it. We do unpleasant chores when we have motivation to do so. I don’t like cooking, but eating at restaurants is difficult with my food intolerances, so I either cook or go hungry. I don’t like cleaning, but I don’t like being humiliated, so when company is coming, I pick up. I think those external motivators are more potent when they are pertinent (as opposed to avoiding punishment). And I don’t think there’s anything you can do to motivate a kid, not really. I have a particularly unmotivated child (as was I), and he is so bent on not doing anything resembling work, he would rather go all year never getting a new toy than lift a finger to earn any money. He can wait for his birthday and Christmas. I am trying to learn to let that kind of thing go. I want him to find his own motivations. He sees zero value in all school work, and we were going at it every stinking day, until finally I quit. I just stopped. I refuse to keep fighting day in and day out for he next 8 years (not to mention my mother forced me to do all this stuff, and as soon as I left home, I just quit–didn’t do much good in the end, with an unmotivated target). If he wants so desperately to be ignorant, well ok then. I have decided to pick my battles. He has to take the medicines he needs to breathe, and calcium supplements, and he has to brush his teeth. He has to change cat litter, and if he borrows money, he has to work it off. Everything else is his responsibility. Eventually, he’ll have to start paying rent or find his own place. He has about 8 years to figure out how that’s going to happen. Plenty of time to get as much education as he wants to earn as much as he needs. He has all the materials, and the internet at his disposal.
    His father isn’t quite on board with my plan, and told him if he doesn’t apply himself, he’ll be going to public school next year. Lol! I think they might both be surprised at how little that helps… But he has been doing more work recently, with little to no nagging from me.

    • You make so many great points to consider that really add to my “wondering out loud.” Now I am wondering about motivation – how much are we, as parents and teachers, responsible for providing motivation for our kids and when do we let go? Do we teach and guide our kids to try and develop intrinsic motivation, or do we wait and allow them to develop it on their own? You gave us all a lot to think about! Thank you SO much for sharing your story, thoughts and your ideas!

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