Underachievement: School Problem No. 1


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

Yours is 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.

Before 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.

Still, 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.

Assignments 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; nothing works."

What 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.

Other children 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.

So 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.

As 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.

Step 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.

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.

Step 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.

If 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.

Step 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 your methods.

To add effectiveness to the note home procedure, keep several points in mind.

  1. This 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Do 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.

  4. Set 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.

Copyright © 2001 Ray Guarendi

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