Overcoming Underachieving

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Few things are as gut-wrenching for parents as watching their capable children fail to achieve their potential.

Academic underachievement – performance significantly below what intelligence and achievement measures indicate a child is capable of – afflicts millions of American children.

Lawrence J. Greene, author of Kids Who Underachieve, estimates that as many as 50 percent of all school-age children are underachievers. Tragically, says Greene, those with subtle learning deficits who are functioning near grade level “can easily slip through the cracks in most school diagnostic screening procedures.” They end up muddling through school and “the habit of not trying or giving up becomes an entrenched component of personality.” Often labeled as “lazy” by frustrated adults, the costs to the child in terms of self-esteem and future educational and career opportunities are staggering. What can parents do to help?

Identifying Factors

It’s essential for parents to first identify the source of the problem. A pattern of chronic underachievement may indicate attention deficits, neurological impairments and/or problematic family role models and dynamics. Parents who spend most of their spare time watching TV and/or complaining about their jobs are modeling negative attitudes about achievement and effort.

The Indulgence Trap

The indulgence trap is when well-meaning parents give and do too much for their children, including “protecting” and rescuing them from failure and struggle. Overly solicitous parents inadvertently rob their children of initiative and the confidence-building experience of surviving failures and persevering to achieve goals. Likewise, when parents are unwilling to set consistent limits and their children are unaccustomed to conforming to rules and routines, they have difficulty adapting to the academic setting.

The Pressure Cooker Approach

This is when highly critical, demanding and controlling parents spark their children’s passive resistance and rebellion. A high achieving older sibling sometimes exacerbates the pressure. Convinced they’ll never measure up and that parents are uninterested in their feelings and interests as individuals, children may shut down as a subtle form of revenge and assertion of individuality.

The Transitory Underachiever

When an underachievement problem is situational or transitory, rather than chronic, it may also stem from numerous causes. A dramatic change in school performance may indicate depression and/or the onset of a substance abuse problem. A child may be distressed over a family move, parent’s illness or parents’ divorce. A particular school or classroom may be a poor fit for a child’s learning style or strengths. Sometimes the child is bored and loses motivation because the work is too easy or too difficult.

A factor during the middle and high school years is also significant anxiety about “fitting in.” Pam Raque of Sylvan Learning Center says, “At this age, the most important thing is looking good in the eyes of peers. Sometimes it’s not cool to be smart.” But, she adds, “Kids also worry about looking stupid. If they don’t understand something, they may not ask questions because the worst thing in the world would be looking dumb in front of their peers.”

Subtle learning difficulties may become much more apparent during the middle and high school years. The child who has difficulty with study habits, organizational skills, time management and critical thinking is going to have problems. In addition, if a child has short term memory deficits, difficulties with reading comprehension, speed or problems with organizing thoughts on paper, he’s likely to struggle as he advances in school.

Understanding the Causes

The place to start is talking with your child and her teachers, listening carefully to the perspectives and feelings about the issues. Working together to create a strategy to improve things gives all the key players a stake in the solution. Writing down any contractual agreements and setting up regular progress reports and meetings builds accountability and insures regular communication and follow-up.

Sometimes a problem must be attacked on many fronts. Parents can help locate area resources. Tutoring in weak skill areas and courses in study skills and time management may be needed. At home, instituting a structured homework and study routine is helpful. Family counseling and parent support groups are often beneficial. The issue of whether the student is in the proper setting may need to be addressed. As Raque explains, “The one-size-fits-all model is no longer part of education today. You need to see what kind of learner you have and help her find the school that would be most appropriate.”

If the problem resists resolution, Raque recommends seeking a comprehensive assessment which not only looks at intellectual and achievement factors, but at emotional and behavioral components.


Parents increase the likelihood of their child successfully implementing a plan when they make a concerted effort to do the following:

Accentuate the Positive

Especially if the pattern has been chronic, the underachieving student has probably been on the receiving end of numerous expressions of disapproval, if not anger and disgust, from distressed parents and teachers. At a developmental point where they’re apt to be particularly vulnerable to harsh criticism, personal attacks elicit only increased defensiveness and resistance to change.

It’s crucial for parents to interrupt this cycle by looking for the good things about their child and focusing on them. As psychologist David L. Winsch, Ph.D., explains, “Children need to know we see the good in them and value them even when they’re having problems.”

Demonstrate Enthusiasm and Support for Learning
According to Winsch, being enthusiastic and supportive about what children are learning in school and about learning new things as a family is vital. Teaching children that learning is a lifelong pleasurable activity that takes place in a variety of situations encourages positive attitudes toward achievement.

Communicate Positive, Realistic and Individualized Expectations
Children differ significantly in their temperaments, interests and strengths. It is far better to communicate an expectation of pursuing personal excellence than to burden a child with inappropriate grade pressures. As Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., author of Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades, explains, “If you place emphasis on effort, completing all work on time and spending a reasonable amount of time studying for tests, students won’t feel pressured and grades will automatically improve.”

Encourage Independence

Underachieving students typically lack self-confidence and a sense of their own competence and ability to problem solve. Encourage your child’s independence by actively soliciting their opinions and providing increased opportunities for decision-making and assuming responsibility. Give them opportunities to manage money, pick out their own clothes, decorate their own rooms and within agreed upon limits, choose their own activities.

Ask them to think about what they want, and how they think they can achieve it. Goal setting and understanding the connection between effort and outcome is a vital component of the ability to achieve. Avoid doing anything for them they can do for themselves.

Encourage Healthy Attitudes and Failure

Achievers wade through setbacks and disappointments because they view them as temporary problems to be solved. In contrast, underachievers are typically reluctant to fail, which they interpret as a sure sign of their worthlessness. Parents can help by sending the clear message that everyone fails at times and by sharing personal experiences. Also, avoid overreacting to failures and disappointments.

Look for Positive Role Models

Underachieving children benefit enormously from positive role models. In the preteen and early teenage years, significant adults who are not Mom and Dad, as well as positive peers, can make a tremendous difference. Parents can help their children hook up with role models by locating opportunities for them to work intensively in special interest areas.

Whether it’s involvement in sports, arts or community volunteer projects, the experience of being surrounded by other motivated young people and dedicated, inspiring adults can be pivotal in encouraging an underachieving child to make positive changes.

Lynn Slaughter is a mother, teacher and freelance writer.

Parents Make the Difference

Parents’ influence on their children’s school achievement is more profound than you might think. Recent research has demonstrated that children who doubt their abilities do not persevere in difficult tasks.

High-achieving children who nevertheless underestimated their academic abilities (had low confidence) were also viewed by their mothers as less competent. High-achieving kids who felt confident of their abilities had mothers who shared that view. In other words, what parents think of their children, the children will think of themselves.

Source: How to Say It to Your Kids by Paul Coleman (Prentice Hall Press, $14).

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