#1 Gifted Students Do Not Always Excel in School

From "A Gifted Child Checklist for Teachers"

 from the post: A Gifted Child Checklist for Teachers

In my blog post A Gifted Child Checklist for Teachers , I listed ten basic characteristics and traits of gifted children – really nine since I repeated #1 because it’s a biggee.  It is a list intended to easily help teachers and others by providing a brief and basic listing of gifted traits and characteristics which aren’t always so well-known, recognized or obvious.  I also hoped my checklist would bust some myths and correct some incorrect information about giftedness.

Let’s take each listed trait and characteristic on this checklist and delve into it further.  Let’s start with #1, which is also #10:


“Many gifted students are high achievers and excel in school.  Their inner motivation drives them to achieve with the desired high scores and superior grades.  On the other hand, many gifted students are not driven to achieve in school for many reasons – boredom, lack of a challenging curriculum, coexisting learning disabilities, they prefer learning for the sake of learning & not for high test scores, social & emotional issues and others.  If you have a gifted student in your classroom who is not achieving to expectations, look for the contributing factors.  I can assure you that underachievement in a gifted student is rarely if ever due to poor work ethic or laziness.  Simply assuming an underachieving gifted student just needs to work harder or be more conscientious with his schoolwork is always the wrong assumption.  And expecting consistent high scores and perfect grades from all gifted students can be emotionally, socially and educationally damaging to a gifted child.”

Face it, if you polled a large, random group of people and asked them to describe a gifted child, the very first adjective they would use is “smart”.  And if you further questioned this random group of people and asked them to give you the attributes of a smart, gifted child, I’m sure they would say things like, “excels in school” and “makes good grades”.  I would have said the same thing had you asked me before I had my own gifted children.  Yet, gifted children don’t always excel in school and  it happens more often than you would think.

It happens for many reasons such as lack of funding for gifted programs, and the misguided notion that gifted children do not have specific learning needs.  Therefore, schools have been neglecting the learning needs of their gifted students.  Governments and school systems have trimmed down or completely cut out gifted programs.  Why?  Most likely it is because most people believe gifted students are fine on their own and really don’t need any educational extras.  Gifted programs are viewed as optional, as nonessential and expendable.  This belief is also laced with the sentiment that gifted programs are elitist.  To put it bluntly, most believe that gifted children are already smart which is seen as an advantage, so why should we shell out more money to pad their advantage over other children even more?

I get that …

but it is so far from the truth!

It’s wrong.

Like the-Earth-is-flat wrong!

Here’s a good example I pulled out of the trash … virtually but literally.  I moderate the comments on my blog, and I feel it is only right to post all comments as long as it is not advertising spam or really nasty.   Anyway, here is one uncivil comment I chose not to post and I just put it in the trash – it was just too mean-spirited to provide any positive ideas, opposing opinions or solutions for anyone.  But hey, now there is a use for it!  This comment exemplifies the kind of spiteful, somewhat-envious attitudes that suppress efforts to advocate for gifted children who really, truly need educational accommodations specific to the way they learn:

I gotta tell you, this is the way you come across.

“My child is gifted and deserves all sorts of extras. Not because he has achieved anything, but because I have given him superior genes.

“Meanwhile your child, although bright, is not ‘truly’ gifted like my special snowflake. Your child could not POSSIBLY understand things the way my child does, and your child has absolutely no business learning any advanced anything.

“Your child should be grateful to sit in a regular classroom and read from the basal reader every day. Because, you know, she isn’t ‘truly’ gifted.”

Gifted individuals are born with unique brain functioning – a true cognitive difference – which must be addressed in school.  They are simply not smarter – they think differently, they learn differently, they perceive differently, and they sense differently.  Their learning needs, much like students with learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia and others, are outside the norm and must be addressed in order for them to receive a proper education.  This is why specific educational modifications and accommodations are needed for gifted learners.

In spite of the overwhelming amount of definitive professional and educational research studies and statistics which have proven, over and over, that gifted students have unique learning needs that must be met utilizing specific educational accommodations, we have seen the widespread decline of gifted programs.  This leaves our gifted children trying to learn in regular classrooms while becoming more and more frustrated and disillusioned with education.  Thus, not meeting the educational needs of our gifted children has resulted in many of our gifted students continually disengaging from school for the past decade or so.  They are like fish out of water.

Although I am generalizing the decline in gifted programs and gifted educational accommodations across the board, some countries, states and school systems do provide widely-varying degrees of enrichment, gifted programs, and educational accommodations taught by trained and knowledgeable gifted specialists.  I’ve lived in different states that vary greatly in what they offer; our previous school district had a 2-hour-a-week gifted pull-out in grades 3rd through 5th ONLY.  We now live in a school district where gifted identification and programs begin in Kindergarten and are provided through 12th grade.

Some gifted students can and will adapt to a less-than-optimal learning environment although it does not meet their needs or provide enough opportunities to be successful in school.  Many can’t and won’t adapt to an inappropriate learning environment, and their lack of school achievement is a direct reflection of their inability to learn in a regular classroom setting without the needed accommodations.  Their grades suffer which then pushes them further away from fulfilling their potential.  Poor grades and scores also have an added negative effect on gifted students’ acceptance into gifted programs, gifted summer enrichment programs, and acceptance into colleges and universities of their choice.

The main reason we have so many gifted students not excelling in school can be directly related to the degree to which a particular school district commits to providing the needed and appropriate education gifted children require.  The true belief in and commitment to the real, unique learning needs of gifted children within a school system is reflected in the achievement of its gifted students.

Without a universal commitment to educate our gifted children as they need to be, our gifted children will not always excel in school.  Worse yet, we all lose out on their potential contributions to better our world.

gifteddon't excel 2


The Miseducation of our Gifted Children

America Hates its Gifted Kids

Public Schools are Failing the Most Gifted

Gifted Students Have ‘Special Needs’, Too 

34 Comments on “#1 Gifted Students Do Not Always Excel in School

  1. Love this! I have 2 sons that tested as highly gifted. However the school district (one of the largest in Texas) only has a one day a week pull out program. Their solution for my math whiz is to give him extra worksheets. I have seen my 9yr old start to do poorly in school because when he’s done, he is told to put his head down. Seriously? We as a society can do better than this.

    • Put his head down? Oh gee, that just makes me sad. Completing his schoolwork as expected is being “rewarded” with what would seem a punishment. And extra worksheets aren’t much better than having to put your head down! Gifted students are getting left behind! We all need to speak up and advocate more!

      • What I found was that when I did speak up for my son, things ended up worse instead of better for him. Our school system was a joke for truly gifted students. They didn’t care …

        • Lisa,

          Yes, that does happen and it happens way too often. I’ve been there, too. Sometimes, just sometimes, continuing to advocate for your son will “wear down” the naysayers and they will eventually take a real look at your child’s needs. But yeah, I’ve seen educators give little to no regard for a parent’s concerns.

          We have a long road to plow, don’t we?

          Take care, Lisa, and thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Pingback: Gifted Children—About THAT Stereotype | Crushing Tall Poppies

  3. Spot on! My 8 yr old was classified as gifted however he wasn’t “gifted enough” to get placed in our gifted school next year bc there were 120-130 students and only 50 slots! So now he will go to his current school and be pulled out for 45! Minutes once a week…yep 45! Minutes only once a week for gifted studies! I will be showing this to our principal and fight to get him more of what he needs! Thank you!

    • When I hear that gifted programs don’t have enough slots for all identified gifted kids, I often wonder how society would react if we used this same restrictive method for buying groceries or receiving medical care, yet we do it with our children’s education. “Nope, you won’t get that surgery this year because we have already met our quota for that surgery this year” is not so unlike, “nope, your child won’t be receiving the education he needs because we don’t have room or funds to educate him properly.”

      Thank you for sharing your experience!

      • As a mother of two boys 14 and 11 who has struggled with this exact issue/concern for years now, this article really resonated with me. Our district (in California) has basically decimated any form of GATE education or funding. I’m so frustrated with seeing both of my sons, in different ways, struggle and underperform and consequently feel a lack of confidence and initiative to want to engage or be involved. Both test high and well, but somehow are completely disengaged and disenfranchised. Our solution has been to select a small charter school for middle school for the younger and private school for the older one, where my hope is they can build confidence and tap into their interests. Sad and tough to accept given what we pay in property taxes and the fact that both my husband and I went through public education all the way.

        • I understand completely. I’ve been through the same which is why I do what I do.

          Somehow, this all needs to change. Public education is not really free for any of us, yet our gifted children are not getting the education they need and as parents of gifted children, we are forced to seek alternatives like charter schools, private schools and homeschooling. To me, this is tragic. It is educational neglect.

          I do hope your sons’ new schools will be what the need. Please keep us posted!

  4. Let me try and break it down for the people who are not gifted.

    This is an example of situations that would happen to me in school. My 3 teacher would give the class a picture of a flower with grass, trees beautiful sunset and she asked us to write a paragraph on the picture. My description would be “This is a beautiful picture of the sunset”. that’s it. My teacher pulled me aside and said Franca is that all you see because i need more of a description. my grade 3 teacher then started probing for more descriptive words like i.e.: the clear blue sky, the beautiful red flower, the bright green grass & the pink sunset are absolutely beautiful. As a gifted student I thought it was obvious & logical that the picture was beautiful but I didn’t find it necessary and a waste of time to actually write it down. I actually thought it was something you would ask a 2 year old child not a grade 3 student. My point is that I could absolutely expand on topics that I felt needed an explation but in this particular situation I felt the question was kinda stupid it was obvious & logical that the picture was beautiful.

    Hope this example helps the “normal thinkers”

    • Franca,

      Thank you so much for posting this. It really does give a great example of how many gifted children feel in school when asked to complete assignments that are not appropriate for them. I’m sorry this happened to you, but it does show the thinking process of a gifted child who is not performing to expectations.

      Thanks, Franca! This helps all of us!

  5. My daughter is 18 now, but was recognized in our local school system as gifted in the first grade. Thankfully, she had a wonderful teacher who cared. But her struggles come from not achieving as high as she would like.
    Boredom comes very often and being in college opens a lot of doors that as a gifted adult, leads her wanting to branch out in many areas due to her boredom. There is a huge misconception that gifted students should excel in all areas, especially academically. Not true. She scored in her cognitive areas on the genius level. Gifted students function and deal with every area of their life in a completely different way. She still makes great grades, but not at perfection like many think a gifted student should.
    It’s also hard and as a parent to see her struggle, wanting to find answers and trying to make permanent decisions.

    • Shelley,

      I understand, and many parents of gifted children and teens also understand. Personally, two of my three gifted sons didn’t exactly excel in school. It’s an uncomfortable irony, and as you said, many think gifted means excelling in school.

      Parents of gifted children do struggle to help their gifted child no matter their age. It is a difficult world for them to navigate–a world which does not understand them.

      Be strong, Shelley, and know you are not alone. It may take time, but most of our gifted kids come out doing well–maybe not so well for us, the parents though 😉

      Thanks for leaving your thoughts and sharing a little bit of your story, Shelley!

  6. My son’s year one teacher is skeptical about his ability. I know he is able to do maths sums in his head (multiplication, division, addition, subtraction), but the teacher sees no evidence of that, because he is just “average” when it comes to the basic concepts of maths that they are currently teaching. Yet, they don’t even start to introduce multiplication until year 3 or 4. It seems to me that he made deductive leaps, skipped the “fundamental” steps and just went straight to doing the sums mentally. He started uttering words at 5 months, was also a self-taught early reader since age 2. Although his reading level is beyond his years, the teacher again says that he is not meeting the “fundamental” steps to reading that they are currently covering. So, the impression I got was that he is just an average Year 1 student. On top of the that, the teacher suspects he may have an attention disorder, i.e. ADD.

    • Hai,

      Gifted children do not always excel in every subject, but for many schools, giftedness means high achievement in school–a pretty narrow and often erroneous view of what giftedness really is. Not excelling in school can be a sign of boredom and frustration that he is not learning anything new or challenging. And ADD is often diagnosed because the child is not paying attention to material he already knows. It would be nice if schools would reflect on delivering education to meet a child’s needs and not determine that it is the child’s fault in some way (i.e. ADD, misbehavior, lazy, etc.)

      Thanks for your comment, Hai!

  7. Hi there,
    My school had no way of testing for giftedness, so I was extremely bored in elementary and middle school. I learned logic games through observation at 3 and taught myself how to read at 4, so I spent most of my early years learning Mandarin and biology and other random indulgences. My third grade teacher yelled at me for reading books in class after I had finished the work, fourth grade enrichment consisted of an hour/week pull-out math class, and I was finally accelerated 1 grade level for math in high school. In a way, being neglected in school, although it created incredible resentment, was a blessing because it taught me to fend for myself intellectually. I can’t rely on others to address my needs, and I nowadays assume a system in question won’t address them unless I make some noise and find alternative ways to have them addressed.

    • I should add that I succeeded externally in high school: 8th-ish in my class out of 300 for GPA, a total of 7 AP classes over 4 years, a regional poetry award. AP classes cover more difficult content and have higher concentrations of smart kids in them than Honors classes do. Yet the AP classes didn’t satisfy my need for real learning–they are too broad and leave no time for discussion the way Honors classes do–and the reason I took them was to get into the colleges I really wanted to go to where I could learn at my own pace and explore and talk to teachers. I didn’t get into any of those colleges (eastern MA is pretty fierce regional competition already), so I’ll be going to a larger college praying I can get some real stimulation there. Throughout all of this, of course, my emotional needs were unaddressed save for a few high school teachers who understand my intensities and encourage my class discussion. So even if gifted kids do succeed in school, it doesn’t mean they’re truly satisfied and successful. I’m a senior, and I’ll leave the school system resentful, unfulfilled, and desperate for something to make me feel that succeeding in high school was worth it.

      • Archana,

        I sincerely hope and pray that college will finally quench your thirst for stimulating knowledge, an engaging education and future success! You’ve done all the difficult work being very successful in a much-less-than-optimal educational environment–something tells me you will be enormously successful in college, too! And keep in mind, in college, you may have greater opportunities to demand that your education engage and stimulate you! Use your well-honed self-reliance and challenge your professors 😉

        Thanks, Archana!

    • Archana,

      Thank you for sharing your story and letting us in on a few insights into how it felt as a gifted child in school when boredom and neglect were a part of your daily education. It took a lot of resilience on your part for boredom and neglect to make you more self-reliant! Way to go!

      Yet, many, many gifted children, especially 2E gifted children, when neglected and experience extreme boredom while their educational needs are not met, end up hating school, failing in school and often dropping out. That is why I am trying to make some noise here!

      Sharing your story of success over the boredom and neglect in school is encouraging for any parent of a gifted child who is bored and neglected in school right now, so thank you so much for sharing your story with us!

  8. An example of gifted thinking from my sometimes underachieving gifted kid: In first grade the teacher was doing a math lesson using a number line. My kid asked what was on the other side of 0. This was a fantastic teacher, so she explained to him there were negative numbers. He came home, mind blown, “Did you know there are numbers on the other side of 0?!” We spent weeks explaining how to add and subtract negative numbers. This was the same kid who lost his paper between his desk and the teacher’s desk if he saw it as busy work. He’s in high school now, and is EXACTLY the same. He loves music and robotics, does terribly in online classes (he cannot bring himself to just check off the boxes, he needs interaction with an adult and a purpose for learning) and his grades can be all over the place.

    Bright kids who are not gifted do not think about the other side of 0. Or become obsessed with Cuba for months on end (that was also 1st grade and we never did figure out why.) He doesn’t learn just how to do math, he questions its purpose, and can we do it this way, and what about that? That doesn’t make bright kids bad, it means my kid needs a teacher willing to let his mind go wild, who nurtures that creativity, and at least tries to answer his millions of questions.

    • Jenny,

      I have a child exactly like yours! And I love this quote: “Bright kids who are not gifted do not think about the other side of 0.” That should be written on a poster or a t-shirt! Yes, most often it is only a 6 year old who is gifted who will wonder “about the other side of 0” and then be consumed with all the ramifications.

      Thank you, Jenny, for sharing your experience, and telling us about the other side of 0!

    • Funny, my 5 years old made the same question the other day, about the other side of the “0” , it is fascinating how they push you to learn more, and the sometimes difficult questions they ask. Thanks God we have Google, but the questions about the after life and God are becoming too difficult to answer.
      Mine did great on the Grade Level exam, he is in K grade but scored like 2nd grade level for math and reading and 1% superior on national testing, but the teacher’s report shows everything “Progressing”, even in math, numbers, reading, things that I know he excels.
      The teacher knows he is gifted and they do differentiation in the classroom, and she says that he is doing just “average” like his peers. This is a Public school.
      He is not that good at handwriting and terrible at drawing.
      I don’t know if I should ask for more complex work for him or just let it go, as he is just in Kinder. I would like him in the future to get good marks and become Honors for a scholarship to College as he is very smart, but he doesn’t get the good marks.

  9. I understand what your point is here but I have a question. If you say that “gifted” children could excel in one subject over the other or could have other different types other underlining disabilities, emotionally and socially, why do they continue to call these children Gifted. Why not come up with another name for it, like high functioning socially disabled. Or how about high tested emotionally disabled, or just different or anything labeled like that? When you call it a gift, it sounds so much better than ED (emotionally disabled) or some other label that all the other children are given. I think that’s where some people are having a hard time with. All children are gifted because they have a purpose. It may not be in an educational setting but should we really have degrading labels for some and not for others? Should all labels be positive? Thoughts?

    • The term gifted is a medical, psychological and educational determination that has been used for decades among psychological, education and medical professionals.

      A gifted child is one who has a higher IQ than 99% of the population. It is brain wiring. Although the exact threshold of who is identified as having advanced intelligence according to IQ tests and other criteria, an IQ above 130 is considered gifted. The gifted label should not be determined by a child’s performance in school.

      Children who have been tested and determined that their IQ is in the 99th percentile are like any human and can develop differently and at different rates. Many times, gifted children’s intelligence develops at a rate quicker and more advanced than their emotional, social or physical development, and more advanced than their same-age peers.

      I’m not sure what labels you consider degrading. But, I use the term gifted because that is the term that is used. If it were to be changed, and you are not the first one to suggest it because of its confusion with the word gift, every teacher education textbook, every psychological research study on giftedness published in professional journals, every organization which supports gifted children would need to change the word. I can imagine how difficult it would be if the medical, psychological and educational communities decided the word autism needed to be changed–it would be a monumental endeavor.

      But I use the word gifted because that is the one and only term used.

  10. I know this is a bit late, but I really understand where this article is coming from. I learnt to read at age 3, started speaking well before my first birthday and was classified as gifted in Primary School. I went to a pull-out program for gifted children for an hour a week, but things really changed when I got to high school. I’d always jumped ahead in primary, and outside of school I spent most of time reading and learning things I found interesting but weren’t taught in school (I adored meteorology and human anatomy/physiology). In high school, they basically took the kids with the highest grades and grouped them as gifted. Suddenly, I was being told I wasn’t smart enough to take gifted classes. I felt angry, upset and didn’t know why I wasn’t in these classes. I came to end up hating school: I was endlessly bored when we were taught things I already knew, just from my own personal reading and learning, and when people forced things upon me that I had no interest in. As a result, I ended up not doing as well as I hoped throughout school. I just can’t help but feel that many of the ‘gifted’ kids aren’t actually gifted: I already feel segregated from my peers, as I tend to think differently and look into things far more deeply than my friends. This article gave me some hope that maybe I will finally be able to express my desires to learn and create (and when I have children, if they present as gifted I will pursue their interests and desires too). I just hope that no other gifted children have to experience school like I did.

    • Louisa,

      I’m so sorry you had such a terrible experience in school, and sadly, many gifted children have had the same experience in school. Schools seem to rarely understand giftedness and can’t disassociate achievement with giftedness. I know this is no consolation for you, but do know you are not alone and schools fail gifted children way too often.

      Likely your children will identify as gifted because it is generally accepted that giftedness is inherited.

      Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us. It is important for as many of us as possible to speak out if we hope to one day make a positive change for gifted children.

      Take care, Louisa!

  11. I have a 13 year old son who has never done well in school. He is very smart. I am not saying this because I am biased, but because he literally teaches me something every day. He can learn from researching things that pertain to his interests and has a high knowledge of these things. However, when it comes to school, he can’t seem to get in the groove. He has always fallen behind because he seems to have zero interest. I am at a loss as to how to help him be successful with his education. His father and I fight over it all of the time. I have looked for help with him for years to find something that will grab his interest and help him through the remainder of his academic education. I am commenting hoping I can get some advice as to what I can do to help him out.

    • Hi Tamara,

      This is a common problem with many highly intelligent children–the often mundane, repetitive nature of learning in a classroom goes against their grain. And there are no easy answers. I hope you get responses from others here, but I would first start with your child’s teacher and work with him or her to try to engage your son.

      Teachers have many, probably too many, expectations on them already so maybe offering to provide any extra materials she believes could help your son. I would start there, but keep in mind that not excelling in school is not always an indicator of intelligence–many, many gifted children underachieve and even fail in school because the format of the learning doesn’t work for them.

      Good luck and keep in touch and let us know how it all goes for your son!

  12. Thank you for this article and thank you for all the people that have responded. This is what is happening to my 6 year old daughter in first grade. She did well in preschool she did well in kindergarten but this year all kinds of behavioral issues. She does go to the gifted and talented program one day a week and in that setting no behavioral issues at all.

  13. Hi, I know I’m very late…
    Thank you. To me, being gifted intellectually is the same thing as being gifted in other areas of life. If someone has a very musical ear, you would not expect them to simply do well on their own in a general “musical class”. You teach them an instrument. You take them to concerts and teach them how to read and write music. You let them (or even make them) practise and watch the talent bloom. We should do that with all talents people have – and that includes a high IQ.
    What would be the equivalent to the example above? If you have an intellectually gifted child you would not expect them to simply do well on their own in school. You teach them a foreign language, about history, about other countries, art and science.. You take them to museums and teach them how to read and write. You let them (or even make them) exercise their abilities with apropriate materials (rube goldberg machines, anyone?) and watch the talent bloom.
    My daughter (8) is gifted. her older brother tests just below 130, but part of that is due to his difficulties in just one area, so I’m counting him as gifted, too. I ONLY had them tested after the teachers insisted basically that he was stupid and she was slow. I knew that they are very smart before the test and hearing a number didn’t really change anything for us. All three kids are bilingual and we provide tham with ample opportunities to learn new things. At home I try to nurture their talents, but they both don’t do well in school. I’m afraid that our relationship to the teacher is not good right now – she feels that we are demanding special treatment for our kids (they are in a multi grade class together) and we (DH and I) think that they aren’t helping our kids succeed and are more interested in showing us that we are wrong and the kids aren’t gifted after all.
    I feel like I have reached my breaking point. DS 10 will go to a different school this fall and he will have to show good grades to get into the one he wants (Gymnasium). His grades are good enough unless they grade him low on “nonmeasurables” like work ethic or working speed. So right now they get to decide about my kid’s future – but after this year we’ll have different teachers and another chance at a positive relationship.
    My daughter however is in second grade! She has to get along with the teachers for two more years! They will not let her excellerate at all. She was unbeleivably bored in first grade and I fear it has ruined her interest in school alltogether. (not her interest in learning. She rocks at googling things she’s interested in. Lives on Wikipedia.)

    Sorry for venting. I’ll put most of this in a blog post, too – and I know you won’t be able to help. But I know someone who understands is listening. Thank you!

    • Hi Veelana,

      Yes, there are many of us who understand, who are listening, and have traveled the same rocky road you are on now. If you feel you need more support from other parents, there are many wonderful Facebook groups for parents of gifted children. You can vent, ask for advice and share your experiences with other parents who are in the same boat as yourself. Here are two active gifted parenting Facebook groups: Raising Poppies and Parenting Gifted Children.

      No need to apologize for venting–we all need to do that with others who understand!

      Take care and thank you for sharing your about your gifted children!

  14. I’m 22 and in my final semester of college and I an just now starting to realize that this might be me. I always did poorly in school and I always thought it was because I was unintelligent. I almost never study for tests even though I want to but I always get sidetracked with something more interesting and something that I see more valuable. I still don’t know if I truly am “gifted” because I very rarely feel like I am. Even writing this makes me feel like I’m being “elitist” for even thinking I am.

    • Hi Taylor,

      Yes, I know what you mean about acknowledging that you are gifted seems elitist! I still choke on my words when I have to say my own three sons are gifted. But, it is important to know because there are traits associated with giftedness that often are pathologized unnecessarily. Also, if we could all get it out of our brains that giftedness equals academic success–it doesn’t.

      Read up on giftedness and the many aspects of it, apart from school achievement. Gifted Homeschoolers Forum and SENG are good places to start.

      Best of luck to you and thank you for leaving your thoughts!

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