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Your Child and Underachievement

Aug 17, 2007
According to standardized intelligence tests, children are getting smarter and smarter. Most children recognize school success as a highly valued achievement in today's world. Our culture celebrates high achievers, and we are one of the most productive nations in history. Yet many educators agree that underachievement is among the most serious problems facing our schools today, affecting nearly one out of four children.

As early as the second or third grade, your child may show signs of not performing up to his or her potential. There is no clear personality profile or temperament that we can associate with this problem. Family conflicts and emotional problems might contribute to underachievement, but even here there are no definitive patterns.

Underachievement can take several different forms. Some children do poorly in all subject areas-a problem known as pervasive underachievement. They may have specific learning disabilities or emotional problems that interfere with their learning, or they may just dislike school. Some children simply see school as a low priority in their lives and are there only because they have no choice.

Another form of underachievement can occur when a child has difficulty with one specific subject area. This type of child essentially succumbs to his frustrations in math, or language, or science, and does not feel the need to work harder in these areas. Educators refer to this as "topical underachievement."

Unfortunately, because underachievement can come in many shapes and sizes, the early signs of school difficulty may be overlooked or mislabeled. The child is thought to be bored instead of unmotivated, or perhaps a learning disability is diagnosed where none exists. Some educational researchers believe that so many children are uninterested in school because of what they term "insufficient rewards." This theory explains that human behavior is motivated by the desire for certain rewards, particularly social rewards like praise or recognition.

High-achieving students are constantly rewarded for their efforts by teachers, parents, and peers, but moderate- or low-achieving students do not have these same reinforcements. If these students get social rewards from being the best video-game player, or having the largest baseball-card collection, then it is no wonder that they are unmotivated to do schoolwork.

There are many other theories about why so many children don't perform up to their potential; in fact, there are probably as many theories as there are children who underachieve. On the other hand, there is much more agreement on how to prevent or reverse underachievement, and as we shall see, this can be done at any stage of a child's development.


Socioeconomic Level

It's hard to argue that the most common and serious risk factor for underachievement has to do with the socioeconomic level of the family. Children who are born into poverty (22 percent of American children live at or below the poverty line, according to 1997 statistics) will likely be deprived of the best nutrition, high-quality health care, educational toys and books, and parents who have the time to spend on early stimulation.

Research strongly suggests that a deprived early environment will impede both the emotional and cognitive development of children, but even with appropriate early stimulation, children who are born into families with low incomes will likely suffer from fewer parental expectations, lower-quality schools, and a greater exposure to family and community risk factors. Many child advocates are particularly concerned that these children will fall even further behind in the upcoming decade, since they won't have the same access to computers and the Internet as will children from higherincome families.

Although most schools and libraries have computer centers with a collection of software programs and Internet access, it's not the same as having immediate access to a computer in the home.

A Disruptive Family Event

A specific disruptive event in a child's life-such as a move to a new school, a divorce, or a serious illness in the family-can trigger an episode of underachievement. Children who are categorized as "situational underachievers" previously performed well in school and enjoyed learning, and their sudden poor grades and lack of interest in work are out of character. Situational underachievement occurs as a symptom of an underlying problem, and when that problem is addressed through some form of intervention, the child will typically bounce back, after a period of three to six months.

When the underlying problem is not addressed, however, these students may not easily find renewed success in school. In extreme cases the underlying causes can lead to a form of learned helplessness, in which children feel that they have no control over their lives and that it is not in their power to master the tasks before them. Underachievement then becomes a chronic problem.

Overindulgence and Permissive Parenting

In earlier times, before television and video games and the dozens of household appliances we take for granted, children were expected to work hard around the house and contribute to the well-being of the family. Today most children are required to do only perfunctory chores, and even these are met with complaints. Parenting articles on getting children to do chores advise us to "make chores fun." But that does not teach today's children what their grandparents knew when they were little: sometimes it is necessary to do difficult work without any short-term rewards.

A permissive parenting style is characterized by having low expectations and bestowing an excess of material possessions. When children have difficulty in a particular subject, permissive parents find many reasons that the problem is not their child's fault. They may reason that the textbook is too hard. They may blame the teacher for being overly critical. They may think that the child has an inherited problem with this particular subject.

One unfortunate trend in some school districts has been to overdiagnose learning disabilities or other handicapping conditions, giving children who are topical underachievers an excuse for their problems in some subjects, rather than just demanding more from them.

A child whose parents only look to find blame for poor performance will never learn to look to her own actions to find answers. The message is that her problems are beyond her control.


An impulsive temperament is a significant risk factor for many children. Some of these children are labeled as having behavioral problems and others are diagnosed as ADHD, but nearly all impulsive children tend to be delayed in their language development as well as in their problem-solving skills. Because of their slower development, they often start school below their real potential and, all things being equal, continue to perform that way throughout their school career.

Children with an impulsive temperament have trouble thinking before they act. On the other hand, children who are born with a reflective temperament typically have a variety of coping strategies to resist temptation, including the ability to persist with a task, literally talk themselves through the necessary steps, foresee the future consequences of their actions, and comprehend that there are multiple solutions to a given problem. As we shall see, although some children do not seem to innately possess these cognitive skills, they can be taught to control their impulsivity so that the path to learning is easier.


A child's gender must also be considered a risk factor for certain kinds of underachievement. Boys are more at risk for problems in early reading, and girls are more likely to have problems in math, especially when they enter middle school. According to psychologist Sylvia Rimm in her study of a thousand successful women, as reported in her book "See Jane Win", many of the most motivated and ambitious women that she interviewed were turned off to math in their middle-school years.

She advises parents, "Whether you liked or feared math, encourage your daughters to enjoy the subject. Your daughters will have more choices if they conquer math.... If you have a choice, find a school that encourages girls to take math and science."

Sibling Dynamics

Some experts believe that certain sibling combinations may also be a risk factor for underachievement. Children who are fewer than two years apart may be very competitive with each other, particularly if they are the same gender. If one sibling has more natural aptitude than another, the second sibling may feel that it is useless to try to compete. He may use his seeming indifference to school to get attention from his parents. The so-called class clown is often the younger sibling of such a family constellation, getting attention by testing authority rather than risking failure in the eyes of his parents and the world.

Siblings of gifted children can also be at risk for underachievement. Their needs may be overlooked in the adulation of the more talented child. Some parents recognize this problem and mistakenly overcompensate for it-the less gifted child may find himself the recipient of false compliments, leaving him to believe neither in himself nor in his parents. The siblings of gifted children often harbor great strengths of their own, but fail to find them or trust in them, given the excitement generated by the gifted child.

Children with a sibling who has a handicap :nay also be at risk for low achievement. Sometimes these children use poor school performance as a means to compete with the sibling for their parents' attention, and in some cases there is a guilt factor, with the nonhandicapped sibling feeling somehow responsible for her sibling's problems. The guilt this child might feel both for her potential success at school and for being the one who is not handicapped can lead to various emotional problems, with underachievement a common symptom.

In most of these cases the underachieving students will usually respond to increased, straightforward encouragement and acknowledgment by their parents of the special situation they are in.

A Sense of Entitlement in Gifted Children

Finally there is the paradox of the gifted child, who is born with innate intelligence or special talents but who all too frequently does not fulfill his or her potential. A considerable amount of the psychological research on underachievement has focused on these children. Many psychologists have concluded that underachievement in gifted children frequently stems from too much attention paid by one or both parents, leading to a sense of entitlement.

When these children inevitably encounter teachers or instructors who do not give them the same level of attention or the special considerations they feel they deserve, they may become uninterested in school as an act of defiance.

Virtually all of the problems -divorce, trauma, behavioral problems, and shyness-can be a factor in underachievement. However, preventive measures can be taken at every age to keep underachievement from being an additional obstacle to a child's healthy development.
About the Author
Angela Abbette is an enthusiastic writer an avid user of the Parenting information found at uPublish.info Articles
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