Underachievement in Gifted and Talented Students with Special Needs

Sally M. Reis, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Psychology

D. Betsy McCoach
Researcher, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented
Department of Educational Psychology

Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development
Unit 3007, Storrs CT 06269-3007
University of Connecticut
(ph) 860.486.0618
(fax) 860.486.2900


Talented students underachieve for many reasons and in many different circumstances and there is no panacea for how to reverse underachievement in students whose talents may manifest themselves in diverse ways. High potential students with special needs are likely to experience underachievement as efforts to address these needs may focus more on remediation of difficulties and less on development of areas of strength and talent. It is crucial for educators to differentiate between issues related to academic motivation and special needs related to students’ disabilities that may be unrecognized by many classroom teachers. In this article, research about twice exceptional talented students who underachieve is summarized and suggestions about interventions are made.


Why do so many talented students fail to realize their potential? For years, the underachievement of gifted and talented students has troubled both parents and educators. Too often, students who show great academic potential fail to perform at a level commensurate with their abilities. Some underachieving students may lack self-efficacy, goal-directedness, or self-regulation skills (Siegle & McCoach, 2001); other low achievers may suffer from either obvious or hidden disabilities. Still others may underachieve in response to inappropriate educational conditions or environments.

Characteristics of Diverse Gifted Students
Attempting to define any overarching psychological constructs that describe high potential underachieving students is virtually impossible, as they constitute a very diverse population. Instead of summarizing the negative characteristics commonly ascribed to underachievers, we shift the focus to the positive attributes of students with talents. In their research about gifted students from diverse backgrounds, Frasier and Passow (1994) refer to “general/common attributes of giftedness”-traits, aptitudes, and behaviors consistently identified by researchers as common to all gifted students. They note that these basic elements of giftedness are similar across cultures and exceptionalities (though each is not displayed by every student). A listing of these attributes may be found in Table 1.

Table 1
Common Attributes of Giftedness

• motivation
• advanced interests
• communication skills
• problem-solving ability
• well-developed memory
• inquiry
• insight
• reasoning
• imagination/creativity
• sense of humor
• advanced ability to deal with symbol systems

(Frasier & Passow, 1994)

Each of these common characteristics may be manifested in different ways in different students, and educators should be especially careful in attempting to identify these characteristics in students with special needs or exceptionalities or from diverse backgrounds (i.e., disadvantaged, different ethnic or racial backgrounds, etc.) as specific behavioral manifestations of the characteristics may vary with context (Frasier & Passow, 1994).

Defining Gifted Underachievement
Defining gifted underachievement should be a fairly straightforward task. Unfortunately, just as there is no universally agreed upon definition of gifted and talented learners, no universal definition of gifted underachievement currently exists. Students identified as gifted and talented learners are not a homogeneous group. Several researchers who have studied gifted and talented learners agree that “…there is no one portrait of a gifted student. Talents and strengths among the gifted vary as widely as they do with any sample of students drawn from a so-called average population” (Schmitz & Galbraith, 1985, p. 13). The most common component of the various definitions of gifted underachievement involves identifying a discrepancy between ability and achievement (Baum, Renzulli, & Hébert, 1995; Butler-Por, 1987; Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982; Emerick, 1992; Redding, 1990; Rimm, 1997; Supplee, 1990; Whitmore, 1980; Wolfle, 1991). For a thorough review of issues surrounding the definition and identification of underachievement in gifted students, see Reis and McCoach (2000).

Causes of Underachievement in Gifted Students
Determining why some high ability students demonstrate low levels of achievement is difficult because underachievement occurs for many different reasons. However, practitioners must explore the causes of students’ underachievement if they wish to help these children. We believe that in the vast majority of cases, the underachievement of bright students occurs for one of three basic reasons.

  1. An apparent underachievement problem masks more serious physical, cognitive, or emotional issues.
  2. The underachievement is symptomatic of a mismatch between the student and his or her school environment (Siegle &amp McCoach, 2001).
  3. Underachievement results from a personal characteristic such as low self-motivation, low self-regulation, or low self-efficacy (McCoach & Siegle, in press; Reis & McCoach, 2000; ).

Each of these causes for underachievement may require a different intervention. Therefore, educators should attempt to isolate the reason for students behaviors before attempting to reverse the underachievement. The ramifications of mismatching the causes and treatments of underachievement can be quite serious, as we illustrate in this article.

Case Studies of Underachievement in Students with Gifts and Talents

Sara is a fifth grade student who has recently experienced learning problems in school for the first time. Her teacher and the reading specialist referred her for assessment because of an obvious discrepancy between her verbal skills and her reading and writing skills. A battery of tests indicated an IQ score of 129; however, large discrepancy existed between verbal and performance areas. Sara has poor decoding skills, below the second grade level, but manages to read at or slightly below grade level. As her textbooks have become more challenging, her reading has become more labored. Her parents are surprised at her sudden decline in school. She always seemed so smart, and they never noticed a discrepancy between her verbal skills and her reading and writing skills until this year. They indicate that Sara was born prematurely by seven weeks. Further assessment indicates that she is a very bright student who has significant learning disabilities in reading, information processing, and auditory processing areas. Without this information, Sara’s grades most likely would have continued to slip and her reading, failed to progress. If she had not been identified as learning disabled, she may have been labeled as an underachiever. Perhaps her teachers would have said that she was “bright but unmotivated.”

Sean is a third grader who seems bored and disinterested in all academics most of the time in school. He fidgets constantly, is in trouble often for being “off-task” and has been referred for assessment as having attention deficit/hyperactivity order (ADHD) for the last three years. His teacher reports that he rarely finishes his seatwork, daydreams often, and is in danger of not learning basic information required by the district and state curriculum standards. Sean’s mother, a pediatrician, does not believe that he has ADHD, but rather, that he is not challenged and is not provided enough opportunities for movement in his traditional school environment. Sean and his father, who also has an extremely high energy level, frequently build intricate rockets together. Sean can sit quietly for hours when he is engaged in challenging work of his own selection. Sean tested at the 99th percentile in general aptitude but his work in school is often below average. Is Sean failing school, or is the school failing Sean?

Underachievers with Special Needs or Exceptionalities

Recent research indicates that many “twice exceptional” students underachieve in elementary and secondary school settings (Reis, Neu, & McGuire, 1996). Unfortunately, “the current conceptualization and the literature on the underachieving gifted and on special populations (such as gifted/LD, gifted/ADD or ADHD, gifted students with physical disabilities or behavioral or emotional problems) appear to treat the two groupings as separate and unrelated” (Lupart & Pyryt, 1996, pp. 39-40). A study of high ability students with learning disabilities who were successful in higher education found that many experienced periods of underachievement in elementary and high school (Reis et al., 1996). Some high ability students have learning or emotional problems that affect underachievement. In this article, we review various disabilities and disorders that may cause gifted children to underachieve in school. In other articles in this journal, some of these areas of exceptionality are covered in greater detail. Interventions that do not address the special needs of these students could do more harm than good. Therefore, practitioners must consider these possible areas of exceptionality when trying to reverse students’ underachievement behaviors.

Gifted Students With hearing Disabilities
Children with hearing impairments were judged by teachers to exhibit similar characteristics of giftedness to hearing peers, except for academic achievement, which may be delayed for four or five years. Yewchuk and Bibby (1989) concluded that “giftedness in both hearing and hearing impaired populations is manifested in similar ways” (p. 48), i.e., in eagerness to learn, visual skills, superior recall, quick understanding, superior reasoning ability, or expressive language. Little research has addressed this area.

High Potential Students With Cerebral Palsy
Willard-Holt (1994) explored the experiences of two talented students with cerebral palsy who were not able to communicate with speech. Using qualitative cross-case methodology, she found that these students demonstrated the following characteristics of giftedness: advanced academic abilities (especially math and verbal skills), broad knowledge base, quickness of learning and recall, sense of humor, curiosity, insight, desire for independence, use of intellectual skills to cope with disability, and maturity (shown in high motivation, goal orientation, determination, patience, and recognition of their own limitations). Several educational factors contributed to the development of these characteristics in these students such as willingness of the teachers to accommodate for the disabilities, mainstreaming with non-disabled students, individualization and opportunities for student choice, and hands-on experiences. Generally, when faced with an extreme disability such as cerebral palsy, educators are much more likely to focus on the students’ areas of weakness rather than their areas of strength. It is important that we enable seriously disabled students to have the opportunity to show us their strengths and intellectual abilities.

Gifted and Talented Students With Learning Disabilities
During the last two decades, increasing attention has been given to the perplexing problem of high ability/talented students who also have learning disabilities. The specific research concerning high ability students with learning disabilities began following the passage of PL 94-142, when the expanded emphasis on the education of students with disabilities created an interest in students who were both gifted and also demonstrated learning disabilities. Although the fields of gifted education and special education have collaborated to address the needs of students with gifts and learning disabilities, problems still exist regarding the identification and provision of support services and programs for this population. Research on high ability students with learning disabilities continues to be difficult because of problems in defining each population, but one thing is certain: high ability students who experience specific learning difficulties often underachieve.

Baum and Owen (1988), conducted a study of 112 high ability, average ability, and high ability/LD students in grades four through six. Using discriminant function analysis, they found that the major characteristic distinguishing high ability/LD students from both LD/average and high ability (non-LD) groups was a heightened sense of inefficacy in school. The high ability/LD students in their study displayed high levels of creative potential, along with a tendency to behave disruptively and to achieve low levels of academic success, resulting in underachievement. Also, 36% of the students in their study who had been identified as having a learning disability simultaneously demonstrated behaviors associated with giftedness. Baum (1990) later identified four recommendations for gifted students with learning disabilities: (1) encourage compensation strategies, (2) promote awareness of strengths and weaknesses, (3) focus on developing the child’s gift, and (4) provide an environment that values individual differences.

After a thorough review of the literature on gifted/LD students and the completion of a study of university students with both high abilities and learning disabilities, Reis, Neu, and McGuire (1995) compiled positive and negative characteristics of gifted/LD students in Table 2. The negative characteristics, which are often the result of the interaction of the student’s high abilities and his or her learning disabilities, may hamper students’ identification as gifted.

Some high ability students with reading disabilities may display characteristics such as high verbal and/or visual-motor aptitude, creativity, boredom with grade level or below grade level reading, variable scores on achievement tests in reading sections, improved performance with compensation strategies (heard information, word processor, spell-checkers, additional time for assignments), low tolerance for frustration with rote/drill reading tasks, possible inattention, and unrealistically high or low self-concept (Hishinuma & Tadaki, 1996). High ability students with math disabilities may display characteristics such as high verbal aptitude, creativity, boredom with grade level or below grade level math, variable scores on achievement tests in math sections, improved performance with compensation (emphasis on word problems, calculator use, additional time for assignments), low tolerance for frustration with rote/drill math tasks, possible inattention, and unrealistically high or low self-concept (Hishinuma & Tadaki, 1996).

Students who exhibit characteristics of both gifted and learning disabled populations pose quandaries for educators. The misconceptions, definitions, and expected outcomes for these types of students further complicate the issues facing appropriate programming for this population (Baum, Owen, & Dixon, 1991; Olenchak & Renzulli, 1989; Whitmore, 1986). Both teachers of the gifted and teachers of students with learning disabilities are more aware of these students’ special needs, yet most school districts have no provision for intervention programs for this group (Boodoo, Bradley, Frontera, Pitts, & Wright, 1989). Because gifted and talented students who are underachieving may suffer from undiagnosed learning disabilities (Baum et al., 1991), it is important to consider the possibility that a specific learning disability may be responsible for a student’s underachievement.

Table 2
Characteristics of Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities

Characteristics Which Hamper Identification as Gifted

  • Frustration with inability to master certain academic skill
  • Learned helplessness
  • General lack of motivation
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Perfectionism
  • Supersensitivity
  • Failure to complete assignments
  • Lack of organizational skills
  • Demonstration of poor listening and concentration skills
  • Deficiency in tasks emphasizing memory and perceptual abilities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Unrealistic self-expectations
  • Absence of social skills with some peers

Characteristic Strengths

  • Advanced vocabulary use
  • Exceptional analytic abilities
  • High levels of creativity
  • Advanced problem solving skills
  • Ability to think of divergent ideas and solutions
  • Specific aptitude (artistic, musical, or mechanical)
  • Wide variety of interests
  • Good memory
  • Task commitment
  • Spatial abilities

(adapted from Reis, Neu, & McGuire, 1995)

Gifted Children and ADHD
Children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and gifted children may exhibit similar behaviors (e.g., inattention, high energy level, impulsivity). Mounting evidence seems to suggest that many children identified as having ADHD are also very bright, creative children (Cramond, 1995; Webb & Latimer, 1993) and that many gifted children exhibit symptoms similar to those seen in ADHD children when they are bored or unchallenged. Talented students may experience inattention when they are not appropriately challenged, but they may demonstrate a high energy level in areas of intense interest.

Although similarities exist between the behaviors of gifted students and ADHD students, some of the defining features of ADHD are not usually associated with giftedness. ADHD children usually show variability in the quality of their performance on specific tasks, whereas gifted students are more consistent with their level of effort and performance especially when they are interested and challenged. For example, a defining feature of ADHD is that a child has difficulty sustaining attention in most effortful tasks, and they struggle to persist in tasks to completion (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). In contrast, gifted students may tire easily of boring, repetitive, unchallenging activities; however, they can usually sustain focused attention when they are working on challenging tasks of their own choosing. Continuously reinforcing and automatic activities such as video games or television do not differentiate children who are ADHD from their non-ADHD peers (Kaufman, Kalbfleisch, & Castellanos, 2000). In addition, to be diagnosed as ADHD, the impulsive, hyperactive, or inattentive behaviors must occur in at least two or more settings (such as home and school) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Usually, parents of gifted students without ADHD report that their children can concentrate, sustain attention, and behave appropriately for long periods of time at home or during extracurricular activities. To distinguish whether a gifted student may also have ADHD, the school and home situation and settings must be closely monitored because gifted children typically will not display similar behaviors in all settings (i.e., home, school, music lessons, etc.), whereas ADHD children will exhibit disordered behavior in most or all environments. Giftedness and ADHD may co-occur in the same child. >A careful professional evaluation is needed to make this diagnosis, followed by appropriate medical, psychological, and curricular and instructional modifications (Webb & Latimer, 1993). Of course, the doctor should consider the behavioral characteristics associated with giftedness when determining whether behavior patterns stem from ADHD.

Gifted Students With Behavioral Problems

Gifted students with emotional and behavior problems are not often referred for gifted programs, or they are terminated from gifted programs because of their behavior (Reid & McGuire, 1995). These children often experience periods of underachievement (Reid & McGuire, 1995). Neu (1993) conducted a study of talented students with these types of problems and found a variety of issues that characterize their experiences. Most of the participants in Neu’s studies of talented students with social and emotional problems were underchallenged in school, thus escalating their emotional and behavioral problems. Many of these students had the most difficulty during classroom “dead time,” when these talented students waited for instruction that would challenge them while their chronological peers finished their work. In a review of the sparse research on this population, Reid and McGuire (1995) found that many talented students with behavioral problems drop out of high school, and are not recommended for gifted programs. As a result of their emotional and behavioral disorders, “students often unpredictably engage and disengage in learning opportunities, resulting in inconsistencies in academic skills and knowledge foundations” (Reid & McGuire, 1995). More research is needed on this population.

Gifted Students With Psychological Issues
Contary to myth and popular opinion, the prevalence of psychological disorders is similar within gifted and non-gifted populations (Niehart, 1999; Neihart, Reis, Robinson, & Moon, 2001). Students who are experiencing acute psychological distress may experience sudden, severe underachievement. Students who have a psychological condition may become chronic underachievers. Many serious psychological illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have their onset in early to late adolescence (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). In one such case, a highly gifted girl who was chronic underachiever received help to try to improve her scholastic success for three years. It was not until the girl attempted to commit suicide in the middle of ninth grade that anyone considered taking her to a psychologist or a psychiatrist. A psychological assessment revealed that she suffered from bipolar disorder, and as her treatment progressed, her academic performance improved (McCoach, in preparation). It is important for educators to be aware of signs of psychological distress, and to refer students who may be experiencing psychological problems to the school counselor or the school psychologist.

The Overexcitability of Gifted Children
Some gifted students have been described as having emotional intensity and emotional sensitivity. Dabrowski (1938) suggested that gifted children release emotional tension through five overexcitabilities (intellectual, imaginational, emotional, psychomotor, and sensual). A recent qualitative case study by Tucker and Hafenstein (1997) with five young gifted children provided evidence of the existence of the five overexcitabilities in these children via manifestations of behaviors associated with the overexcitabilities. These young children displayed the behaviors listed in Table 3.

Table 3
Overexcitability Behaviors

  • Intellectual overexcitability behaviors-curiosity, asking probing questions, concentration, problem solving, theoretical thinking
  • Imaginational overexcitability behaviors-fantasy play, imaginative thinking, daydreaming, dramatic perception
  • Emotional overexcitability behaviors-concern for others, timidity and shyness, fear and anxiety, intensity of feeling
  • Psychomotor overexcitability behaviors-marked enthusiasm, rapid speech, impulsive actions
  • Sensual overexcitability behaviors-sensory pleasures, appreciation of sensory aspects of experiences

(From Tucker and Hafenstein, 1997)

These results support the work of Dabrowski (1938), and may serve as a guideline for possible behaviors of other gifted students with special needs. It seems possible that some underachievers may exhibit one or more of these overexcitabilities. Teachers who understand Dabrowski’s theory, and who construct a learning environment that is respectful of these overexcitabilities may be able to prevent the underachievement of at least some gifted and talented students.

Identifying and Serving Gifted Underachievers
Some professionals may try to gauge an age/performance discrepancy when identifying underachievers (Mandel & Marcus, 1995). In other words, they may not identify a student as an underachiever unless performance in at least one major content area is at least one year below grade level. Although this may be a suitable method for identifying underachievers from the general school population, such an age performance discrepancy will only identify the most severely underachieving gifted students. One would expect a gifted student’s performance to be above grade level in some subject areas, especially those areas in which he or she has been identified as gifted. When a gifted student is performing at grade level in those subject areas, there may be cause for concern.

The criteria for identifying students as learning disabled usually involves identifying a significant discrepancy between ability and individual standardized achievement test scores. In some states, the achievement test scores must be at least two years below grade level in at least one subject area in order to identify the student as learning disabled. The probability of identifying a young gifted student as learning disabled using such a method is minuscule. Using a similar identification method to identify gifted underachievers presents the similar problem of under-identification. For example, Sara, the young girl described in the earlier case study was identified as gifted in the primary grades because of verbal precocity, high IQ scores, and advanced performance in all content areas. She began to have difficulty in reading as she grew older, and reading became more challenging. In first grade, she had been reading at a third grade level and in third grade, she was still reading at a third grade level. Unfortunately, she was not identified as learning disabled, or even as an underachiever at that time. By fifth grade, she was slightly below grade level in reading and beginning to have difficulty in mathematics as well. She was later identified as having a learning disability despite working at or only slightly below grade level.


The causes and correlates of gifted underachievement have received considerable attention in recent research literature (Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982; Van Boxtel & Monks, 1992; Whitmore, 1986); however, research on effective intervention models for this population remains scarce. Although conducting case studies and qualitative research on underachieving gifted students has become quite popular, very few researchers have attempted to utilize true quasi-experimental designs to study the efficacy of various interventions. Most of the interventions reported in the literature (Supplee, 1991,Whitmore, 1980) were designed to effect immediate results with a group of acutely underachieving gifted students. Ethically, it may be difficult to have a true comparison group in such studies because the researcher must withhold treatment that he or she believes is valuable for underachieving gifted students.

The documented effectiveness of most interventions designed to reverse underachievement in gifted students has been inconsistent and inconclusive (Emerick, 1992). Furthermore, the majority of interventions have attained limited long-term success (Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982; Emerick, 1992). Interventions aimed at reversing gifted underachievement fall into two general categories: counseling and instructional interventions (Butler-Por, 1993; Dowdall & Colangelo, 1982).

Counseling interventions concentrate on changing the personal and/or family dynamics that contribute to a student’s underachievement. Counseling interventions may include individual, group, and / or family counseling (Jeon, 1990). In most counseling situations, the counselor’s goal is not to force the underachiever to become more successful student, but rather to help the student decid whether success is a desirable goal, and if so, to help reverse counterproductive habits and cognitions.

The most well known educational interventions for gifted are either part-time or full-time special classrooms for gifted underachievers (e.g. Butler-Por, 1987; Supplee, 1990; Whitmore, 1980). In these classrooms, educators strive to create a favorable environment for student achievement by altering the traditional classroom organization. Usually, a smaller student/teacher ratio usually exists, teachers create less conventional types of teaching and learning activities, teachers give students some choice and freedom in exercising control over their atmosphere, and students are encouraged to utilize different learning strategies.

Whitmore (1980) designed and implemented a full-time elementary program for gifted underachievers. Supplee (1990) instituted a part-time program for gifted elementary underachievers. Both programs stressed the importance of addressing affective education as well as the necessity of creating student-centered classroom environments. However, neither study used a control or comparison group; therefore, the results of their studies may not be generalizable to the entire population of underachievers.

Emerick (1992) investigated the reasons that some students are able to reverse their academic underachievement without the assistance of formal interventions. Her qualitative research study examined the patterns of underachievement and subsequent achievement of 10 young adults. Several common factors appeared to play a part in the students’ reversal of underachievement. Participants in Emerick’s study perceived that out of school interests and activities, parents, development of goals associated with grades, teachers, and changes in “selves” had a positive impact on achievement.

Other research also suggests that students who are more involved in extracurricular activities (Colangelo, Kerr, Christensen, & Maxey, 1993, Reis, Hébert, Díaz, Maxfield, & Ratley, 1995) are less likely to be underachievers. All participants in Emerick’s study believed that a specific teacher had the greatest impact in reversing their underachievement behavior. In addition, participants were most likely to develop achievement-oriented behaviors when they were stimulated in class and given the opportunity to pursue topics of interest to them. These findings suggest that “reversing the underachievement pattern may mean taking a long, hard look at the underachiever’s curriculum and classroom situation. The responses and actions of the students in this study suggest that when appropriate educational opportunities are present, gifted underachievers can respond positively” (p. 145).

Emerick’s study indicates that one type of effective intervention may be based on students’ strengths and interests (Renzulli, 1977; Renzulli & Reis, 1985, 1997). In a recent study, researchers used self-selected Type III enrichment projects as a systematic intervention for underachieving gifted students. This approach (Renzulli, 1977) specifically targets student strengths and interests in order to help reverse academic underachievement (Baum et al., 1995). In a qualitative study of this intervention technique, five major features of the Type III enrichment process contributed to the success of the intervention. These factors were the relationship with the teacher, the use of self-regulation strategies, the opportunity to investigate topics related to their underachievement, the opportunity to work on an area of interest in a preferred learning style, and the time to interact with an appropriate peer group appeared to improve achievement. Almost all of the students who completed type III investigations showed some positive gains in either behavior or achievement during the course of the school year. Eleven of the 17 participants showed improved achievement, 13 of the 17 students appeared to exert more effort within their classes, and 4 of the 17 students showed marked improvement in their classroom behavior. The results of this research suggest that flexible student-centered enrichment approaches may help reverse underachievement in gifted students.

These interventions should be considered in view of the populations that were involved in the studies. None of these interventions, for example, focused solely on high potential students with other exceptionalities (such as learning disabilities or physical disabilities who were underachieving in schools. Interventions uniquely designed for students with dual exceptionalities might need to involve a wider variety of strategies such as teaching self-regulatory and/or compensatory skills and opportunities to develop a stronger sense of self as well as increasing self-concept.


We do not know how many students with special needs underachieve nor do we really know how many students with special needs have hidden talents and abilities. It is time for further research and inquiry in this area so that students with special needs who are underachieving in our nation receive more attention and programmatic interventions. Educators must explore the various reasons for high ability students’ underachievement if they hope to help combat underachievement. Practitioners should try to determine whether a student’s underachievement stems from (1) more serious physical, cognitive, or emotional issues, (2) a mismatch between the student and his or her school environment or (3) a personal characteristic such as low self-motivation, low self-regulation, or low self-efficacy. Then, educators should develop appropriate intervention strategies that address the specific area of need exhibited by the student in question. When we differentiate treatments to meet the needs of underachievers, we will more effectively combat the problem of underachievement within our schools.

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