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Book Review: Children Who Fail at School But Succeed at Life

Imagine being a child in elementary school who is not only overly active and engaging with adults, but also gets bored very easily, which results in poor grades and inattention. How would you feel if your school (or teacher) wanted to “hold you back” because somehow you were not catching the rhythm of elementary school and struggled at times with what appeared to be easy schoolwork? Would you feel bad about yourself? Would you begin to think that perhaps other kids are smarter than you? Absolutely.

Sadly, I can relate. As a licensed child and adolescent therapist, this book, Children Who Fail at School But Succeed at Life: Lessons from Lives Well-Lived, brought back a host of emotions and thoughts.

If it weren’t for the undying support of my mother, who decided to home-school her gifted child, I would have sunk beneath a veil of failure. Not only did my teachers not understand my overly active mind, but they also failed to help my mother explore possibilities for why I was “detached” from the material that I was to learn. Thank God for adults like Mark Katz who takes time to research and understand children who are exceptional in more ways than the school system can see.

Katz begins his book by introducing and then debunking the erroneous beliefs of adults who spend the majority of their time supporting and being proud of the kids who succeed within the public school system. The adult who frequently looks for quantifiable proof (i.e., grades, reports from the teacher, IQ tests, etc.) that a child is succeeding in school tends to miss the gifted and emotionally intelligent children, who slip through the cracks of a limited public education system. He reports that “many will come to realize that people can be smart in many different ways that cannot be measured by how we did in school, a realization based on their ability to see intelligence in context.” He further states that “children who fail at school but succeed at life provide us new remedies, ones that can potentially prevent serious learning, behavioral, emotional, and later life medical problems; reduce juvenile crime, and in life; and improve our closest and most important personal and professional relationships.”

Katz is right. It wasn’t until I began working with teenagers adjudicated juvenile delinquents that this very statement became my reality. Many of the kids adjudicated delinquent had intelligence far beyond what would be expected. Their behavioral problems, emotionally labile mood(s), and criminal offenses cloaked their intelligence. Many of my clients among this population of kids were emotionally and intellectually intelligent. Sadly, many teachers, law enforcement, and even family members undermined my clients’ abilities as a result of the trouble in which they found themselves. This prompted me to do my own research and educate myself about gifted and emotionally intelligent kids who have what it takes to succeed, despite multiple challenges within the public school system.

Katz makes it clear that one of the biggest barriers to understanding intelligence in context is the erroneous assumption of what intelligence truly is. He explains that one erroneous view is that “contextual influences… count for very little in understanding how we successfully rise above or endure in the face of adversity.” Mental health professionals who work with teens adjudicated delinquent would most likely agree with me on the fact that many of these kids are exceptionally resilient and have adopted survival skills that many people do not have.

Why? Because if we look at intelligence in context, we can begin to see that the definition of intelligence is often defined by culture and what the majority of that culture believes is needed to survive in life. Youngsters who are raised in a working middle-class family are encouraged to succeed academically in order to be able to maintain that middle-class categorization.

For kids who are of a lower-socioeconomic status (SES), their ultimate goal is to survive using “street-smarts” or emotional intelligence. For other kids, despite SES, their artistic abilities, their reasoning abilities, their business skills, their creativity, and their people skills can overshadow the student who makes straight A’s. College students who struggle with test taking but excel in music, in creating presentations, or writing papers is just as powerful as those students who excel on tests. The most important thing to keep in mind when examining intelligence is context.

Katz explains in Part 1 what he means by “failure” and “success.” He explains the importance of being aware of the success that is available to youngsters who struggle in school. A bad grade isn’t the end of everything. In fact, it could be the beginning of a new-found understanding of intelligence. Katz and the neuroscientists who study the neurological functions of intelligence make it very clear that we are context-sensitive humans. You can find the student  who is very anxious and insecure within a classroom setting become very confident and competent within another setting. For instance, learning energizes me and I love to learn new things, but put me in a competitive environment of thinkers who idolize what they know and you will likely observe me becoming introverted, thoughtful, and quiet. The context has changed and so will I. Context matters. Our capabilities can change according to the setting we are in.

Finally, Katz does a great job of exploring ideas and ways that we, as adults within society, can strive to positively influence the learning experiences and learning needs of our youths. He explores what needs to change in order to support youngsters who are intelligent but greatly misunderstood. Katz not only captured my own personal and professional experience, but also reminded me of the importance of examining multiple possibilities for why some kids struggle in school. Struggling youngsters are not always the difficult children who refuse to apply what they knows. This means we must understand how mental illness, a behavioral problem, poor emotion regulation, environmental stressors within the home or community, etc. can influence learning. This is one of the most important realities to keep in mind and thankfully there is a good book to help us stay focused.

Children Who Fail at School But Succeed at Life: Lessons from Lives Well-Lived

W. Norton & Company, April 2016

Hardcover, 304 pages


Book Review: Children Who Fail at School But Succeed at Life

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Tamara Hill, MS, LPC

Támara Hill, MS, LPC is a licensed therapist and certified trauma professional who specializes in working with children and adolescents who suffer from mood disorders, trauma, and disruptive behavioral disorders. Hill strives to help clients to realize and actualize their strengths in their home environments and in their relationships within the community. She credits her career passion to a “divine calling” and is internationally recognized for corresponding literary works as well as appearances on radio and other media platforms. She is an author, family consultant, and founder of Anchored-In-Knowledge. Visit her on Twitter.

APA Reference
Hill, T. (2016). Book Review: Children Who Fail at School But Succeed at Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 2 Aug 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 2 Aug 2016
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