Child Behavior: Is your child an underachiever?

A new school year unfolds and with it new academic challenges. Our children’s efforts to meet or exceed expectations are recognized with good grades, but how do we, as parents, help our children to reach their full potential? And what happens when we face the possibility of underachievement?

3 types of underachievers

Most underachievers have a low capacity to function under pressure and are easily frustrated. They lack the ability to persist when they are presented with a challenging task.

The most common styles of underachievement are: withdrawn underachievers, aggressive underachievers, or underachievers possessing a self-perception of a helpless orientation.

The withdrawn underachievers are children who appear bored and disinterested and do not try in school. They follow school rules but are usually a non-participating member of a classroom.

Find more of Paul Schwartz's Child Behavior columns

Aggressive underachievers may be described as disruptive, talkative, rebellious and even potentially hostile in a classroom.

Those children who have poor self-esteem, an extremely limited view of themselves or see themselves in terms of failure possess the helpless orientation. They often place self-imposed limits on what they believe they can accomplish. They may adopt a “what’s the use” attitude towards any challenge because they “know” they will fail.

Parental influence

An external factor to consider is the relationship that we have with our children and our influence as parents. We need to be cognizant of our behaviors and their influence on our children’s achievement outcomes.

Be aware of the following:

Expectations too high: When parents expect too much, children often develop a fear of failure and a lack of motivation due to high parental pressure to achieve — especially when parents are rigid, authoritarian and overly controlling. When parents expect perfection, frequently children “give up.” Since they cannot consistently be good enough to please their parents or live up to their expectations, they stop trying.

Expectations too low: Parents can also seriously underestimate their child’s ability and communicate very low aspirations. Children literally learn that very little is expected of them and respond accordingly.

Disinterested: Some parents are so enmeshed in their own challenges and accomplishments that, although they are pleased with achievement if it occurs, they spend little or no time involved in or expressing interest with their child’s schoolwork.

Overprotective or rescuing: Overprotected children tend not to learn to be self-motivated or to set goals for tasks, nor how to work under any level of stress. They often remain unmotivated and immature in school. Parents who continually rescue their children from all frustrating experiences are not allowing their child the opportunity to learn emotionally coping strategies and problem-solving skills.

How parents can help

Self-esteem and achievement are intimately connected, with the research clearly stating that children who feel badly about themselves perform poorly at school and look at themselves as less adequate than their peers.

Don’t make the mistake of linking self-worth with achievement. Achievement should certainly be encouraged, but tolerance for frustration comes with still feeling good about yourself even when you don’t succeed. We all have limitations!

Provide an early and stimulating educational environment for your youngster. Bright children are bored by mundane tasks — putting your child in a challenging environment may help her to develop an early love of learning and not feel school is a drudgery. It is important to challenge bright children early — children develop self-confidence and motivation through struggle.

Give clear, consistent, and positive parental messages about school expectations.

Do not overact to a child’s “failure” or less-than-perfect performance. This might create excessive pressure to succeed and excessive anxiety about “failure.”

Underachievement can be prevented or reversed if we are careful to value children for who they are — not just for the high grades they bring home.

Paul Schwartz, PhD., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.

Other articles by Paul Schwartz

  • Be curious. Have grit. Read more.

    Dr. Paul Schwartz gives parents the recipe to help kids live up to their potential

    Do you want a successful child? Paul Schwartz gives parents the recipe for success. read more »
  • Talking the talk

    Communicating with your adolescent

    If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, as the author John Gray would have us believe, then adolescents must be from another galaxy altogether – or so it often seems to parents who live with them. Click here to learn how to talk to your teen. read more »
  • Kid's these days

    Why today’s adolescent journey is different from yours

    Dr. Paul Schwartz shares his insights on why parents of adolescents often find themselves asking, “What happened to that little person I knew and understood so well?” read more »
  • Dr. Paul Schwartz's Child Behavior columns:

    Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. He has been writing columns about child behavior for Hudson Valley Parent for more than a decade. You can find them all right here. read more »
  • Child Behavior: Peer rejection, and how you can help your child

    Addressing social crisis through the lens of peer rejection

    Dr. Paul Schwartz on the importance of peers and what parents can do if they fear their child is being rejected. read more »
  • Child Behavior: Adolescents: Legends in their own minds

    Why do adolescents act the way they do?

    How often do we say, “I don’t know how a smart kid like you can do something like that”? Two professionals examine why adolescents act the way they do. read more »
  • Parenthood: Only the strong survive

    How parenting advice has evolved over the decades

    Child behavior expert Paul Schwartz provides a historic backdrop as to how parenting advice has changed over the years. read more »
  • Child Behavior: Are we overscheduling our children?

    Many professionals believe we are doing too much for our children

    Dr. Paul Schwartz examines whether today's parents are structuring a barrage of activities for their children with independent play being sacrificed, or doing things for their children that their children should be doing for themselves. read more »
  • Child Behavior: The importance of friendship

    The benefits of bonding at every age

    Dr. Paul D. Schwartz examines the benefits of friendships at every age. read more »
  • Are emotional children smarter?

    Dr. Paul Schwartz examines emotions and intelligence

    In his monthly column, Child Behavior, Dr. Paul Schwartz examines the limitations of the traditional IQ test and the subsequent rise in popularity of tests for emotional intelligence to predict a child's competence and potential for success. read more »