Underachievement: School Problem No. 1RAY GUARENDI
Dear Dr. Ray: My son is ten years old. His teacher says he is quite capable of doing his schoolwork, but his grades are very poor. He seems to lack initiative. Is this a common problem? And what can I do to motivate him? - Tired of pushing
by far the most frequent school-related question I receive from parents. In sheer
numbers, underachievement — a child's not working up to potential —
dwarfs the incidence of other, more highly publicized school problems such as
school phobia and hyperactivity.
we try to motivate the under motivated, one caution is needed. Some children who
look like underachievers really aren't. Intellectual or learning problems underlie
their school struggles. Likewise, life troubles can temporarily cause a child
to push schoolwork into the background. These factors need to be ruled out through
consultation with teachers and/or psychologists before concluding that a youngster
is truly capable of more than s/he is showing.
in the great majority of cases, kids who perform poorly in school are not hindered
by learning or other problems. They are quite able to do their work, often at
an above-average level. These are the youngsters whom we will talk about in this
column. Typically, the underachievement pattern has been forming for at least
several months, if not several years. Resistance to schoolwork began back in the
early grades and motivation has continued to wax and wane ever since.
regularly are not finished during class time. Homework routinely stays at school
or is lost, left in the bushes, "forgotten," eaten by the dog or lied about. "Honest,
mom, this is the third teacher I've had since second grade who doesn't believe
in homework or tests!" The underachieving youngster seems to spend most of his
scholastic energy finding ways to skirt schoolwork. Every so often an internal
fire flares — usually during the early stages of some new system we're trying
— but exasperatingly the fire is short lived. The underachieving child completely
frustrates parents and teachers. He resists encouragement, rewards and punishment.
Standard discipline is usually ineffective because little is powerful enough to
consistently overcome the child's distaste for schoolwork. In short, the underachiever
is the one to whom many parents refer when lamenting, "We've tried everything;
drives certain kids to be so un-driven? Some downright dislike schoolwork. To
them, it is boring, frustrating or meaningless. They see little purpose in it
and would much prefer occupying their school day with more immediately enjoyable
pursuits, such as counting cars passing on the road outside, reassembling their
pen each minute, or watching their favorite daydreams playing on the ceiling.
have subtle delays in such areas as maturity or concentration. Nothing is severe
enough to warrant special services; overall, these kids are still able to do the
work. They just have to concentrate harder or spend a little more time at it.
Consequently, some of them take the initially easier route and gradually quit
trying. The good news is that there is an approach that can greatly reduce your
frustration while increasing your son's academic output.
far we have defined underachievement as not working up to potential because of
poor motivation and not because of underlying learning or life problems. In fact,
the underachieving youngster is quite able to do his schoolwork, often at an above
average level. He just doesn't exert himself, much to his parents' and teachers'
frustration and much to his own long-term worst interests.
seemingly stubborn a problem as underachievement is, it responds rather well to
one particular approach. It's an approach that is elegantly simple, and perhaps
more importantly, unbeatable. Even little Newton, as creative as he is, won't
be able to find loopholes in it. Let's call it the note home procedure.
Here's what to do.
Step 1: OBTAIN A SMALL SPIRAL
PAD. This pad will be your youngster's
constant school companion. Require him to carry it to and from school every day.
Actually, any kind of record sheet will do. The advantage to a pad is that it's
small and holds a lot of pages, thus allowing you to more easily look back, to
measure progress or see patterns.
Step 2: KEEP
A DAILY RECORD. At the end of each school day, or each period if need
be, Oxford is to list in his pad all homework assignments, incomplete classwork,
failed tests, and anything else you would like included. If he is too young to
keep his own record, in my experience, most elementary teachers are quite willing
to note everything that needs completed or redone.
3: INSURE ACCURACY. Obviously, a teacher completed pad must be assumed
accurate. If Webster fills out his own pad, he has the added responsibility of
asking his teacher to initial it each day. The teacher gives initials if, and
only if, everything is listed correctly. If not, s/he offers neither corrections
nor initials. On any day that Webster has finished all work at school, he writes,
"all work is done" and seeks the confirming initials.
Step 4: SCHOOLWORK IS COMPLETED IMMEDIATELY AFTER SCHOOL. Set up
a quiet, isolated spot where all schoolwork can be finished. Only when schoolwork
is completed-correctly-can privileges and activities begin. Not until then. Schoolwork
is the evening's first order of business. Shouldn't Holmes be given a 'break"
after school to unwind before beginning to work? I don't think so. He had his
break at school. He didn't do much for six hours.
5: THE PAD IS THE TICKET TO PRIVILEGES. Without the assignment pad,
Holmes does not earn evening privileges. The pad is the ticket to television,
stereo, phone, games, outdoors-in short, everything but breathing, eating, bathroom,
and of course, reading. What if the pad comes home without all necessary books?
This is where the procedure most often unravels, and kids know it. They are incredibly
resourceful at conjuring up explanations for a missing or incomplete pad. "We
had a substitute today, and he said he doesn't sign anything without his lawyer
reading it first; That big bully, Butkus, made me eat the paper because he knew
I'd get in trouble."
No matter what the reason, even if possibly
legitimate, that pad must come home, signed and with books. It is unquestionably
your youngster's full responsibility. Try to validate every excuse you hear, and
you're forcing yourself into a guessing game where facts are few.
you don't want to curtail all evening's privileges, you have another option, in
some respects a better one. Beg, borrow, or buy a copy of all your son's books
to keep at home. If you can't get them, get something similar on his grade level
from a local bookstore. Then, if any subjects are in question, you give assignments
from your books, and make sure your assignments are longer than anything he would
ever have gotten at school. Your goal is to show him it is definitely in his best
interests to bring home all books and work.
6: PERSEVERE. The note home procedure most likely won't work quickly.
It may take weeks, months, or even all year. For the first 22 days, Patience might
play with her pencil and study the ceiling until 7:00 p.m. Persist. A habit as
long standing as underachievement doesn't pass quickly, no matter how consistent
To add effectiveness to the note home procedure, keep several
points in mind.
approach is meant to be clear cut and no nonsense. Your stance is nonnegotiable.
Where your youngster's academic skills are concerned, you cannot afford to be
irresolute. School is the work of children. It is their future. In effect, you
are making a statement: At age eight, you do not have free choice to do or not
do your schoolwork.
The note home will not immediately put schoolwork on Stanford's list of favorite
things. It does not internally motivate him. It is pure external motivation. With
time Stanford will develop personal motivation, because he'll see success, and
that will change his self-image as an underachiever. Until then, you will be making
him keep abreast of his work and learn the skills he'll need when he finally does
decide to push himself.
not hover over, prod, threaten, debate, or nag Stanford to complete his work.
The problem is not yours. You have no reason to feel guilty. Help when you feel
necessary, but otherwise let the approach do your talking. Stanford is fully aware
what the ground rules are. If he makes his life less pleasurable for a while,
that is his choice. He is not foolish. He will motivate himself when he tires
of his chosen lifestyle.
positive goals. For example, if Watson completes all classwork at school for three
days in a row, he can earn a bedtime extension. Gradually lengthen the requirements.
The note home procedure is virtually foolproof if you stay with it. Once
your youngster is convinced it's part of your house routine, he will work to make
it unnecessary. In so doing, he will no longer underachieve.
Ray Guarendi "Underachievement: School Problem No. 1." kidbrat.com.
Reprinted with permission of Ray Guarendi.
Raymond N. Guarendi, aka Dr. Ray, is a practicing clinical psychologist and authority on parenting and behavioral issues active in the Catholic niche media. Guarendi is an advocate of common sense approaches to child rearing and discipline issues. Guarendi received his B.A. and M.A. at Case Western Reserve University in 1974, and his Ph.D. at Kent State University in 1978. He is the author of You're a better parent than you think!: a guide to common-sense parenting, Good Discipline, Great Teens, Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It; Straight Answers to Hearfelt Questions, Discipline that lasts a lifetime: the best gift you can give your kids, and Back to the Family.
© 2001 Ray Guarendi