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Carolyn's Blog

Vol. 1, No. 3

Underachievement: What Is It?  What Causes It?

What is underachievement?

Underachievement is one of those popular "catch-all" terms that means something different to nearly everyone who hears it.  In one sense, we are all underachievers.  Studies have been done which show that all humans use only a small percentage of their total brain capacity.  Additionally, most of us could pinpoint projects or activities, tests or papers where we could have put forth more effort than we actually did.  Almost everyone can recall something in which they could have done a better job. 

However, the underachieving students we are considering in this e-zine article are more than this. These students have a significant gap between their ability and what they actually produce and achieve in school.  This type of underachievement is usually degenerative.  Signs begin in the early grades and the effects are cumulative as the child grows older.  While the signs of underachievement may begin in the early years, middle school, intermediate school or junior high usually marks the highest point of consistent underachievement.

Underachievers are students who, in a significant way, are not working up to their potential.  These students often see "YOU CAN DO BETTER" written boldly in red on homework, classwork and test papers, and receive this message in many other ways, both verbally and non-verbally.  However, for a variety of reasons they continue to do much less than they are capable of doing.

Underachievement can be considered an "umbrella" term.  I am often asked about the relationship between underachievement and various learning difficulties such as learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, ADD and ADHD.  These are types of underachievement.  However, underachievement does not only indicate specific disorders.  Instead, it is a generic term and encompasses much more than that. 


What types of kids are underachievers?  How do they differ from achieving students both in and out of school?  

The vast majority of underachieving elementary or primary school students are boys.  This is due, in part, to the traditional structure of the school itself with its emphasis on straight rows of desks, quiet learning, and compliant behavior.  Such a school setting is usually more suitable for girls than boys. 

Less noticed, perhaps, are the underachieving girls of intermediate, middle and high school age.  When adolescence comes, some girls who have done well in elementary school suddenly develop an interest in boys and decide it isn't "cool" to be so smart.  Many prefer not to demonstrate their intelligence, feeling that if they do, the boys will not like them as much.

In studies comparing underachievers and high achievers, a significant difference in self-concept, school attitudes, and out-of-school pursuits is shown between the two groups.  Underachievers usually have low self-esteem and a fear of failure.  Behaviorally, they are often described as "immature" or "behavior problems".  Most lack motivation for schoolwork and say that they are bored with school.

Ironically, many underachieving students do not need to study in the primary grades and as a result they may lack basic study, time management and organizational skills by the time they reach the middle or intermediate level.  Gifted and talented students may become underachievers if they have not been challenged in school and therefore have never discovered how to learn something that is difficult.


How do schools contribute to underachievement?

Reasons for underachievement may come from the school.  Some teachers have impossible standards while others may have low expectations of their students. Either way, underachievement can result.  Other teachers are too strict or repressive and lack patience with students who ask difficult questions, do not conform, are divergent rather than convergent thinkers, etc.  This type of classroom climate eventually turns students off to school.

Many times, the make-up of the school system itself contributes to underachievement.  The conforming nature of the school setting, inappropriate or dull curricula, days and weeks spent on drill and practice activities for standardized tests, and inflexibility in scheduling, types of activities, or curricular content can lead to underachievement in many students.

Gifted students may become underachievers when the grade level curriculum does not challenge them and meet their needs.  If a gifted student is only presented with work and concepts he already knows and there is no attempt to differentiate the curriculum, he or she will soon decide school is "boring" and really is not the place to learn anything new.  This attitude often leads to underachievement.


Do parents and the child's home life affect underachievement?  

Underachievers often come from homes where there is considerable instability within the family unit.  Since many families are in turmoil, under stress or overcommitted, it is easy to see why underachievement is on the rise.  When families have other worries to deal with, such as marital discord, job pressures, financial concerns, a lack of emotional support, no leisure or family time, and isolation from extended family, supporting day-to-day educational tasks becomes less of a priority.  Often, what is happening at school just gets lost in the shuffle.

In some families, just surviving from day to day is the focus of life.  In others, the complexity of modern life with all its busyness has taken its toll.   In both situations, a child's achievement in school does not really seem important.  Still other parents demand high grades for their children without any concern as to whether they are actually learning anything.  To these parents, the report card is the important concern, instead of the learning that has or has not taken place!

Well meaning parents who place a high priority on educational achievement sometimes put too much pressure on their children to achieve in school.  "Counteridentification" may result, where a parent overly identifies with the successes and failures of a child.  In this situation, the parent may almost be living his or her life through the child, and the child may feel he or she could never live up to parental expectations.  Many times, one child in such a family will become a high achiever while the other will rebel against the pressure to succeed and will be an underachiever.

Many children, especially children who have demonstrated a high potential for learning, are involved in too many extra-curricular activities.  There are some children who spend every afternoon and evening in one activity or another and then attempt to do their homework late at night.  Not only are such children stressed out by having too much of a good thing, many also become underachievers because they cannot keep up such a frantic pace. 

For parents, being an encourager of educational achievement without exerting undo pressure requires striking a delicate balance.  There is no magic "balancing formula", thus each parent has to decide where that point of balance needs to be with each child. 

Coil, C. (2007). Underachievement: What Is It?  What Causes It? E-Zine, Vol. 1, 3. www.carolyncoil.com.