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The most common styles of underachievement are: withdrawn underachievers, aggressive underachievers, or underachievers possessing a self-perception of a helpless orientation.

The withdrawn underachievers are children who appear bored and disinterested and do not try in school.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.

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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.



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