By Judy Shepps Battle
"She is really quite bright, so I don't understand why there are so many C's and D's on her report card."
"I know your son can do better work in my class, but he just doesn't seem to care anymore."
Are these words familiar to you? Then you may be the parent of an underachiever.
If so, you are likely to have devoted significant time, energy, and money to tutor and improve your child's study skills. Perhaps you have even offered external motivation of $20 for each new "A" or threatened loss of social privileges for each "D" or "F" received.
For many students, such remedial and motivational efforts are successful.
Bright But Underachieving
For a small group of bright but underachieving kids such efforts fail to produce positive behavioral results. Not only do grades continue to decline but everyone in the family may begin to dread school, tests, parent-teacher conferences, report cards and even interacting with each other.
The fact is that most bright underachievers do not usually know why they are doing poorly in school or how to achieve better grades. And most parents have done nothing intentional to cause this decline nor can they "cure" their underachiever.
What a parent can do is to rule out any physical or neurological causes for underachievement with a full medical examination including both eye and ear tests. If no physical problems are found, it is then helpful to look for emotional, environmental, and/or family dynamics that may be causing or supporting underachievement.
Depression Makes it Hard to Learn
Undiagnosed depression is the leading emotional illness of childhood.
Depression in a youngster produces the same slowing of mental and physical abilities as it does in an adult. Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness may generate intense fatigue. Sleeping becomes more important than interacting with peers or adults.
Under these circumstances it is understandable why the level of concentration necessary for learning or test-taking cannot be attained and how school failure can increase feelings of inadequacy.
"I can't remember ever not having awful feelings of dread and self-hate," said Jenny, an honor roll student in elementary school but who quit high school in her junior year. "But that last year I felt too tired to even tell anyone. Besides, everyone would have said it was probably mono or because Rick and I broke up."
After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Jenny has gotten much needed help and hopes to get a G.E.D. diploma and enter junior college in the fall.
The good news is that once diagnosed there are effective chemical and talk therapies available to address this illness. The key is to have your child evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist if symptoms of lethargy, sadness, hopelessness, or a sudden lack of caring about self or others begin to emerge.
Distraction Can Cause Underachievement
In order to achieve scholastic success, a student must be able to pay full attention in class. Many bright underachievers come to school with "one eye" available for book learning and the other focused on family dynamics such as divorce, death, or issues of mental and physical health in the family.
"I think I knew before my parents did that they were going to get a divorce," said Harry, once an "A" student who now struggles to pass his courses. "I think about it all the time and wonder whether my dad can handle it all alone and away from us and if my mom will ever stop crying."
Even though a parent may tell a child that the divorce was not about them and that their life will not change, most kids do not take it so lightly.
Death of a loved one also creates great distraction from school achievement. It does not matter if the loss involves a close family member, relative, friend or pet, there will be a process of necessary mourning. Active grieving does not leave much room for homework, class participation, and studying for exams.
Finally, the ongoing mental, emotional, or physical illness of a family member may claim a significant portion of the attention needed by a student to achieve academic success.
Permission to be Successful
While most families verbally encourage their child to achieve academically, there are often unconscious dynamics that withhold permission to be successful.
"I did not realize until I started therapy that I wanted my son Larry to stay in the family business rather than go to college," says Larry Sr. "I now remember how angry my father got when I told him I wanted to be a teacher instead of selling cars. I did what he wanted and have had a good life but twenty-five years later I am still thinking "what if" I had followed my dream."
Larry Jr. had been a "C-" student throughout his school years. After working on this issue with his father in therapy, he is now enrolled in a Masters of Education program while teaching 6th graders in a suburban middle school.
Changing the Label
Finally, underachieving kids may simply have talents and abilities in areas outside traditional academics. Often they excel as artists, sail boat builders, hair stylists, or ace mechanics.
The greatest gift we can give these "different learners" is permission to be themselves and encouragement to follow their passions. It is important to replace the label of "underachiever" and with "differently achieving" for this group.
Remember that Albert Einstein was labeled as an "underachiever" as a youth. His alternative vision of the world is one that has earned him an indelible place in history. Shall we have any less faith in our own kids?
Copyright 2002 Judy Shepps Battle