For the love of children…
THE UNDERACHIEVING CHILD
By Lawrence B. Lennon, Ph. D.
It usually begins early—first, second, or even third grade. Underachievement starts to show itself around the fourth and fifth grade when homework is assigned. It typically gets worse in middle school. In high school the problem often becomes a disaster. A bright child who should be getting all A’s and B’s brings home a report card with C’s and D’s and sometimes even F’s.
Teachers provide parents with the same message: “We know he is capable of doing so much better, but he doesn’t seem to care. If only he would pay attention in class, hand in his homework…” Parents listen silently, often frustrated and angry. They don’t understand. Their other children have done exceptionally well and now they are being told they have a child who is failing. Their strategies of pleading logic (“It’s important to hand in your homework, get good grades and to go to college.”) and authoritarian power (“You’re grounded, no TV and no phone privileges!”) have failed. They are ready to give up.
About this time parents often turn to so-called “experts” and sometimes receive terrible advice. “He is just going through a stage; ignore it and he’ll eventually outgrow it.” or “Let him fail and eventually he’ll pick himself up.”
Underachievement is a national problem with far-reaching consequences. It jeopardizes children’s futures and deprives them of deep inner satisfaction of feeling competent. Underachievers usually suffer from low self-image and lack of confidence, and they emotionally drop out of school. I have never seen a child who is doing poorly in school who feels good about himself.
The causes of underachievement are as varied as children are varied. The problem may be simply due to poor study habits, poor organization or a lack of internal discipline. It could be symptomatic of more serious problems such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse or marital discord between the parents. Perhaps it is the result of learning disabilities, impaired vision or hearing or a neurological handicap. Sometimes underachievement is the result of interplay of several physical and psychological factors. More often than not, underachievement is the result of an acquired attitude of helplessness (“I can’t do it.”) or defiance (“I won’t do it.”).
Regardless of its origins, the results of underachievement are almost always the same: a bright child’s talents are wasted and emotional consequences occur.
To address this problem of underachievement, let me begin by suggesting two operation premises:
- Every child needs and wants to feel competent by succeeding in school; and
- Educating children is the primary responsibility of the parents—not the teachers.
Most parents readily accept the first premise but balk at the notion that they are responsible for education their children. But it is true. Parents delegate much of their responsibility for education their children to the teachers, but the parents are ultimately responsible for seeing to it that their children are well educated. Parents should support the teachers and follow through at home with what they have been taught in the classroom. For the sake of the children, parents and teachers should be united to expecting, within reasonable boundaries, children to meet the following six criteria:
- Attend all classes and be on time;
- Pay attention to what is being taught;
- Read the assigned material;
- Hand in completed and accurate homework;
- Do well on quizzes and examinations;
- Behave properly.
When a child begins to do poorly in school, academically, socially or behaviorally, parents’ inner alarms should go off. Underachievers typically do not recognize that they have a problem; or if they do, they will not admit it. A poor report card is a clear message to parents that they must do something to help their child.
The first step in helping an underachieving child is to recognize that there is a problem. The second step is for parents to realize that they have the responsibility to constructively intervene.