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Coaching Your Child        < Previous        Next >


Helping the Underachiever


Q. Our relatives are going through a very tough time in their marriage, and I think their teenager is self-destructing. She just barely got "D's" in two courses and appears to be doing the absolute minimum to pass. It isn't likely that she will get into a four-year college like everyone else in her family has. She doesn't have a career direction, or any kind of a plan for after high school. And she's missing curfews, having fights with her parents, hanging out with some questionable friends who are basically "slackers," possibly drinking . . . what should the caring adults in her life be doing to help her get on track?


You're describing the classic underachiever: declining grades, poor time management, conflicts with parents, high-risk antisocial behavior, and an overall lack of motivation that's very perplexing, since these students are often very smart.


Usually, an underachieving student will be disorganized, disinterested in school, irresponsible, lazy, have poor study skills, blame everyone else for their problems, and either be constantly socializing when he or she should be studying, or appear to be socially isolated when other young people are out having appropriate fun.


A heavy influence is the culture: someone of your child's race or gender isn't "expected" to do well in school, for example, or the peer group might threaten social isolation if the student is a high-achiever.


Some underachievers "escape" to their own choices for learning, becoming immersed in a hobby, spending an inordinate amount of time reading, or wasting countless hours on video games. They have plenty of energy for those nondevelopmental activities, but refuse to do their homework or even show up, physically or mentally, for school.


Consider underachievement a problem if the work is well below grade level, has lasted more than a year, or is causing the student distress with visible symptoms of anxiety and depression. If there's a big gap between high standardized test scores in the past and low grades today, that's a clue. So are predictions of academic success by teachers in grade school vs. poor grades by the high school years. Sometimes, the youth is just trying to avoid the "real-world" consequences of responsibility and maturity, and stubbornly making the parents miserable because they can't "make" them be responsible, either. Sometimes, a student won't try because of a fear of failure; these students would rather abstain from academic effort than try and risk failure.


Sometimes, the problem is at school, not home: boring assignments, negative peer pressure, teacher conflicts, a move to a more or less challenging school, or just a feeling that nobody at school cares, so why try?


But more often, the cause of underachievement is in the home:


   Conflict between parents, including divorce and separation.

   Overprotectiveness by over-competitive parents who "live" through their child.

   Overempowerment of children, denying them the security of rules and authority.

   Over-emphasis by performance-based, workaholic parents on the importance of doing well in school, to the detriment of the balance of the rest of the child's life and relationships.

   Neglect because of a significant parental health or work problem, or problem with a sibling or other relative.

   Physical or emotional health problems and poor nutrition.

   Sibling rivalry and a feeling that it's futile to try to "compete" with a "star."

   Frustration, depression and futility caused by a lack of skill by the parents in helping the child navigate through school, making smart course selections, getting extra help from teachers when needed, making career plans and so forth.


All too often, when a child underachieves, parents let their concerns get out of control. They turn up the "heat." They set more and more rigid house rules that ignite still more conflicts and rebellion by the student. Or they try to use bribes, rewards and threats, when what the student really needs is self-motivation, not pressure imposed from the outside.


What parents can do:


   Quit nagging. Underachievers usually have low self-esteem. Harping makes it worse!

   Help your child set do-able, small goals that aren't so overwhelming. Remember the adage: "One day at a time!"

   Give honest praise, and give it often, as much for effort as for achievement.

   Never compare one child's academic achievements to another's, and certainly don't compare your child's performance to your own.

   Clean up your own act so that you'll have authority when you talk to your child about personal responsibility, neatness, maintaining a daily schedule, sitting still long enough to read and concentrate, getting along with authority figures, remaining free of chemical dependency, trying to be the best person you can be, etc.

   If your child is already the worried, over-anxious, perfectionistic type, and there are major stresses introduced in your child's life (a divorce, a business failure, parental unemployment, etc.), that you predict may lead to academic distress because of your child's personality, seek counseling to discover ways to help your child feel supported and secure, and less self-critical.

   If your child is by nature challenging, negative, angry and rebellious, stay warm and calm yourself, but gently point out how self-defeating the underachievement is, hurting no one other than the child.

   Could your child have an undiagnosed learning disability? It's not uncommon to have a mental "difference" covered up in K-12 schooling. The child might be leaning on friends for homework and perhaps copying answers on tests, but once the child gets to college, the true disability could surface without that ready-made support network to prevent a "crash." Seek help from educators on whether a reading or vision problem might be a problem.

   Could it be that your child is not capable of making better grades? If you think your child really is trying, then have him or her evaluated by a learning specialist. Maybe you're the one with the unrealistic expectations.

   Check with your child's doctor. You may need to adjust your child's nutrition, exercise and sleep patterns. Few children and teenagers today are getting A's in those three important "subjects."

   Talk regularly with your child's teachers and follow their advice. Use their experience to your benefit!

   If educators suggest it, obtain a mentor or tutor for your child, but never complain about the cost to your child.

   Join a parent support group and exchange ideas and experiences.

   If you suspect underlying emotional problems, arrange for an evaluation by a school or private psychologist if educators deem it necessary.

   Read books like Up From Underachievement and Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It.

   Gently show your child how poor time management, procrastination, manipulation and blame-shifting all are self-defeating behaviors. Show how self-control, better organization and more positive attitudes will reward the child with better grades and a happier outlook.

   Continue to encourage your child's interests, regardless of the level of school success.

   Hug that child often, always tell your child how much you love him or her, and never give up on that child!

Homework: See the website



By Susan Darst Williams Coaching Your Child 25 2008


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