Is Your Child Underachieving in School?

By Grant Martin
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Children labeled as "underachievers" are often more capable than people realize.

Children labeled as “underachievers” are often more capable than people realize. Many children who don’t succeed in school are successful in outside activities such as sports, social settings or after-school jobs. Even a child who does poorly in most school subjects often displays a talent or interest in at least one. Thus, labeling a child as an “underachiever” disregards any positive outcomes or behaviors the child displays. It’s better to label the behaviors rather than the child; for example, the child is “underachieving in math and language arts” rather than “an underachieving student.”

But even when applied to behavior, the concept of “underachieving” is subjective. Some students (and teachers and parents) view a passing grade as adequate. For others, a B+ could constitute underachievement if the student is fully capable of earning an A. Recognizing what constitutes success and failure for your child is the first step toward understanding underachieving behaviors.

Your expectations

If your child is not achieving, first look at your expectations. No student should be expected to produce at remarkable levels in all subjects and activities all the time. Below are five principles to keep in mind.

  1. Remember that the real basics go beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. They also include faith, life skills, social skills, and so on, which make a well-rounded child.
  2. Your child can be good at something he doesn’t enjoy doing. Just because you see his talent doesn’t mean he is motivated to pursue excellence in that area. He may want to succeed in an area where he is less gifted.
  3. Your child can be good at some things that are unpopular with his friends or overlooked by society. Don’t equate more value to “popular” skills or accomplishments. You can hinder his achievement when you devalue an area that is important to him and value an area that is not.
  4. Don’t allow your child to become preoccupied with performance, work or success, and don’t be afraid to let him try something in which he might not succeed. Your child will learn from his successes and failures. (To learn more about helping your child learn from failure, read “Raising Resilient Kids.”)
  5. Encourage your child to ask questions that should have answers but don’t, such as what is failure? This helps him think outside the box and ponder ideas that are learned through experience and not simply through words.

School achievement

When adults speak about achievement, they often relate it to a child’s ability to do well in school. If your child is not doing as well as he could, evaluate his classroom situation in view of your child’s learning style, strengths and weaknesses.

A young, curious student may easily become turned off if the educational environment is not stimulating or if class placement and teaching approaches are inappropriate to how he learns. Lack of motivation can also occur if assignments are consistently too difficult or too easy. As a parent, consider all aspects of how your child learns. After all, providing an early and appropriate educational environment that works can stimulate a love for learning.

Your child’s interests

Finally, look for ways to encourage and motivate your student. The key to unlocking your child’s potential is to cultivate a dormant seed of interest. Provide him with a wide variety of opportunities for success. As he tries new things, he will find an interest in some and attain a sense of accomplishment when he does well. Then, encourage your child to volunteer to help others as an avenue for developing tolerance, empathy, understanding and acceptance of his limitations.

Many capable children need strong encouragement, consistent and positive feedback, and help to accept limitations — their own, as well as those of others. They should be strongly encouraged to pursue their interests, particularly since those interests may lead to career decisions and lifelong passions. Providing real-world experiences in an area of potential career interest may also provide motivation toward achievement.

Adapted from Help! My Child Is Struggling in School by Dr. Grant L. Martin. Copyright © 2006 by Grant Martin. Used by permission.


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