How to Motivate a Gifted Teen

According to a 1995 study titled “The Prism Metaphor: A New Paradigm for Reversing Underachievement” on the University of Connecticut website, gifted education experts defined gifted underachievers as students who score highly on an intelligence test but fail to perform at the same level in a classroom setting. Researcher Anna Caveney suggests in a report titled “Motivational Paralysis” at that gifted kids often become stuck in an anti-motivational loop. The key to motivating gifted teens is to help them break free of the loop.

Have your teen checked for hidden disabilities. An increasing body of research shows that giftedness often goes with other diagnoses. According to Colorado Department of Education’s report, "Twice Exceptional Students: Gifted Students With Disabilities," common secondary diagnoses include attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome. These disabilities are often overlooked, as their symptoms are passed over as quirks of giftedness.

Take some of the pressure off your child by focusing on learning for its own sake rather than simply for grades and tests and homework assignments. Encourage your child to identify and pursue his passions outside of school. Reassure your child that feelings of sadness and anxiety are OK, but that worry and avoidance are habits that he can learn to break. “The Prism Metaphor” found that some teens, especially girls, underachieve in order to fit in. In addition, gifted kids possess extraordinary emotional sensitivity. They are keenly aware of the expectations placed upon them by parents, teachers and society.

Help your child develop planning and organizational skills by focusing on goals rather than deadlines. Encourage her to keep plugging away at an outside project that she genuinely enjoys, even if her progress is slow. Help her break down tasks into manageable chunks and follow through on completing one chunk at a time. According to “Motivational Paralysis,” gifted students may suffer from low mental muscle tone and deficits in planning and organizational skills because school typically comes easily for them and they aren't used to being challenged.

Avoid the tendency to nag, bribe or yell. Understandably, many parents are concerned about their children’s grades and future. Behavioral rewards and consequences are sometimes appropriate in the short run, but over time, they take away your child’s sense of internal motivation. Instead, talk through tasks with your child. Help her find the value that each task has for her, from increasing the likelihood of getting into her preferred college to building the foundation for a particular research interest she has.

Implement what “The Prism Metaphor” researchers call Type III enrichment 1. Taken from the “Enrichment Triad Model,” by Joseph S. Renzulli of the University of Connecticut, Type III enrichment involves gifted students in research projects within their own areas of interest that have real-world implications. Rather than simply learning and regurgitating facts, students in Type III enrichment programs perform original research and bring their results to a larger audience. The study found that Type III enrichment reversed motivational problems and underachievement in virtually all participants, regardless of the underlying cause.


No two gifted teens are exactly alike. Some parents find that a combination of strategies works best for an individual child. Look for factors that motivate the child, which might be different than the ones that motivate you.


Do not define your child by his giftedness or by any concurrent diagnoses. Stress his value as a human being separate and distinct from his gifts and challenges.