Monday, June 4, 2012

Understanding Underachievers

As a parent, a teacher, and a school psychologist, I know first-hand how frustrating underachievement is.  In this post, I discuss possible sources of underachievement and provide potential interventions.

Undiscovered weaknesses or uneven learning skills
Most of us are strong is some areas and weak in others. Often these weaknesses go undiscovered and the child appears to be an underachiever.  Here are some often overlooked areas of weakness:
  • Weak visual learners. Some students are excellent verbal learners but cannot process information presented visually in graphs, charts, or process details in illustrations or visual clips.  If undiscovered, "talented" students appear to perform "below their expected performance level".   Possible paths of action:
    • "read" pictures together - comics and graphic novels are GREAT materials for this.  Talk about how the information is relayed using letter fonts and sizes, different colors, facial expressions and visual icons. Here are some links with suggested kids' graphic novels and another that discusses visual literacy;
    • have students practice visual learning at home (outside of school so there is no embarrassment) encourage students to practice reading graphs and charts at home. Here, for example, is a link for mapping skills which will help kids learn to relay information with target words and visual organizers;
    • here's a link on reading graphic images - discuss how concepts and objects can be labeled with words or with icons - take out your phone or computer and play with the icons, when walking or driving, talk about the visual signs and billboards and the messages the pictures relay;
    • discuss this with your child's teacher.  Ask for a 'heads-up' before an up-coming unit, exam or even a lesson with a lot of visual icons, graphs, charts, etc. where you (or some other responsible adult) can preview the unit with your child BEFORE the class or exam - to boost and bolster their skills and confidence.  If your child walks in cold, he or she can easily just 'shut down' and you want to try to avoid this pattern of behavior.
  • Weak verbal learners cannot process lectures, or dense dry passages (having receptive language weaknesses) and/or they cannot efficiently express - in writing or in speech what it is they want to say (expressive language weaknesses).  Here too, if undiscovered, "talented" students appear to perform "below their expected performance level".  Possible paths of action:
    • have your child practice expression at home with an adult (outside of school so there is no embarrassment).  You can leave notes for each other on pillows, refrigerators, in lunch/snack bags;
    • talk and play with words - have fun with them - look at nonsense words and play with them or make up your own;
    • check this link to play with different means of verbal and visual expression;
    • argue /debate here's a fun link to check out: "The Power of Argument";
    • check out this link for reluctant readers.
  • Graphomotor weaknesses can hinder test performance and students 'underachieve' because they cannot efficiently relay the information they know and have learned. It may take your child too long to write what he or she needs to write; OR your child may be so daunted with having to write an essay, he or she may just relay 'the basics' and chose not to write in detail because it is too difficult to physically write, or they may not be enough room on the page or in the allotted space for his/her large, uneven handwriting; OR in math the 4's become 9's, the 3's become 8's. the 7's become 1's. In such cases, they may have accurately solved the problem while the answer itself is wrong because somewhere along the way they inadvertently changed the digits in the problem. Possible paths of action:
    • check this link that discusses what graphomotor weaknesses look like and how to help boost them;
    • here's another link on handwriting and dysgraphia;
    • practice penmanship AT HOME (outside of school so there is no embarrassment);
    • have your child write out all math problems with large spaced graph paper, where they put each digit in one of the 'boxes';
    • for tests, talk to your child's teacher and ask him or her to make sure there is enough space right under the question for your child to respond.  In math, for example, if students have to turn the page over to write their answer, I guarantee they will miss-copy the question.
ATTENTION weaknesses can be another contributor to underachievement. One word may trigger associations and these kids are off on fascinating "mind trips" or tangents, often missing  important details (see youtube clip below). OR, students may fail to see the 'relevancy' of the lesson and simple turn off because it 'is boring'. Bart Simpson and Billy Madison are two such characters who have 'tuned out' because they saw no relevancy to their school lessons. Possible paths of action:
    • help students find relevancy to what they're learning. Talk about what they learned at home (dinner, maybe) or when driving to after-school activities.  You may want to relate what they are learning about to current events or to books you've recently read, or movies you've recently seen;
    • make sure the lessons move at a comfortable pace - provide additional resources for the weak and (different more challenging ones ) for the advanced learners to keep their attention;
    • regardless of what the lesson is, make sure the kids understand 'what's in it for them';
    • here is a link on attention you may want to check out;
    • as a parent, if you think your child is bored in a class, find ways of enriching what he/she is learning in class - go to the library and find related books, go online and search for related links to help make the material more challenging and more meaningful.
SOCIAL FACTORS often come into play with underachievers. For some, 'smart' is not cool so they dumb-down to fit in with the group of friends and avoid bullying. Possible paths of action:
    • here is a link on nerds and bullying which play into these social factors;
    • here is link on reading faces and developing effective social skill;
    • there may be other social and emotional factors that feed into underachieving which are beyond the scope of this post. TALK with your child and know that while they'll often  say 'the homework is stupid' or 'the class is boring' there is always more to it.  Ask about their friends, ask what your child does at recess and who he/she plays with, talk to the teacher and try to get additional insights into social aspects that impinge on school performance.
Regardless of the possible sources of underachieving there are a few generic interventions you can take:
  • reinforce good work and good grades;
  • set up structured goals and celebrate their achievement;
  • help your child organize his/her schedule and required assignments;
  • make your child accountable for homework assignments and projects;
  • help make homework more relevant;
  • ADD STRUCTURE  to your child's homework routine
In closing here is a video clip of an unlikely pair of underachievers -where one word links associations taking them on mind trips, missing material and resulting in ...well enjoy!
 I hope you found this discussion relevant and helpful.  Please share your experiences, suggestions, and opinions in the comments.  Have a great week and thank you for your visit!


  1. Excellent post ~ would be great to have more parents/caregivers read this ~ am going to Google + you and hope that helps get the 'word' out there ~ thanks for stopping by ~ ^_^

  2. Hey there! Love your blog! I found you via the MMM blog hop and just added myself to your followers! Also I wanted to invite you to come enter a fabulous Steve Madden giveaway I'm having right now!!
    Hope to see you there! And thanks so much lady!

  3. Oh this is awesome information - I suspect that Little Dude (4) will turn out to be an underachiever - but considering his bio-mom is a drug addict, the cards are stacked against him. We're supposed to get him tested for ADD, ADHD, Autism or Aspergers for part of the adoption process (because of drug exposure in utero and behavioral issues), so that will be interesting to keep this info tucked away for future reference. ;) I'm just glad we'll be able to give him a fighting chance at a 'normal' life and maybe he'll kick the underachiever mode as he grows and develops. ;)

    Wino Fun – the Results Are In! And a Happy Dance: Talk To Us RTT Rebel

  4. Hi!

    I'm Shar, a new follower from The Things we Find Inside blog hop! Come over and visit me at:

    Your blog is VERY informational and helpful!!!

    xoxo -Shar

  5. Explain something to me - such as how to do something mechanical, can't do. Read the manual - can't do it, usually. SHOW me, and I can, usually.

    1. Thank you so much for your question (I love receiving questions).

      Doing something 'mechanical' can mean different things - from tying a shoe lace to building a desk to replacing a hose in your car. And, there are lots of reasons why this is easy for some of us (not me) and harder for others (me). One reason is that when simply 'told', there are so many 'steps' that have to be processed and then 'done' that it is hard to both translate/visualize/understand and then recall and translate into action. Hearing and seeing instructions (especially with diagrams) helps because you are activating various channels of processing, attention, and memory.

      On the other hand, have you ever had to assemble something from IKEA? They provide only a visual manual (no text) and you have to make damn sure you have selected the right screw from a choice of 6 in front of you, where they differ by the number on rungs on the shaft. Here you have to have very keen visual literacy and visual discrimination skills.

      We all differ in our processing skills, preferences and talents. These are just a few examples.

      Thanks for the question, Roger, I hope I was able to answer it!

  6. OMG, Meryl, I almost choked watching that video of Frasier and Niles! Typical high-school class! I'm going to print this post out so I can refer to it frequently and check out those links. I happen to have one student this year who seems so unmotivated, yet when we get going on a subject verbally, he totally understands it. Yet, try to get him to do his work on time or come up with the right way to formulate a thought, forget it! At first I thought it was "attitude," but now I'm going to look into these other reasons he may be an underachiever. I will have him as a student next year, too, so hopefully I can get through to him and for him!

  7. Your post is very useful. A pity we had to find out what to do with dyslectic pupils ourselves. We could have used your help. Generally we used tapes, all kind of games, jigsaw puzzles, videos. What Roger says is also true: Show technical procedures and some people wil understand that better than anything else. Some people learn best by reading, others by listening, and others by doing. Train all skills and a student finds out which method suits him or her best. That's how I tried to solve the problems, and I shall never say that I was always successful, but every now and then the student managed to improve his or her skills.

  8. Very informative and interesting post. You gave a lot of useful information. Carver, ABC-Wed. Team

  9. Great post! Thanks for sharing such helpful information!

    I would love it if you would share this post on the Back To School Monday Homeschooling Link-Up! I really think my readers will enjoy it!

    Susan Godfrey
    Finding Beauty -

  10. All of your informations is so helpful for parents who feel so bewildered by the learning problems with their children. My Daughter is a teacher and tries every possible situation to help her students parents with their childrens learning.

  11. Thank you for this very helpful tips for us parents.

    Up and Down

    Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

  12. I don't like to call them underachievers, because I think with the right help, they can do great things. Enjoyed it!

  13. Very useful information. I know a few parents who can benefit from it! Thank you for sharing!

  14. As one who teaches intellectually gifted kids, these are the students who make me the craziest! So much wasted potential.

    1. I think Joyce that the gifted underachievers are not "wasted" potential as much as they are "untapped" and "undisciplined" potential. As with most of us, we all have strengths and weaknesses. As a parent and a teacher of intellectually gifted kids, I have found three major sources of gifted underachievers.

      One is that they often have weaknesses that are not always immediately found because the gifted can better mask and overcompensate. It is our job to find their achilles heels and help them reach their potentials.

      Another source of underachieving is ATTENTION. The materiel is often too slowly presented or the content too shallow and they go off on mind-trips to further stimulate their intellect.

      A third source is undisciplined work habits. So often content is too easy they never learn how to STUDY or PREPARE content because they have been able to 'wing' it. They have to be challenged and taught how to break work down and how to best prepare.

      I understand what you are saying, but I hate looking at it as 'wasted' potential as it has such a negative connotation - that connotes a final product. I prefer looking at this as a work in progress where our jobs as educators are to tweak those weaknesses and build stronger, more confident, more capable learners.

  15. Bullied for being smart? The world is so crazy sometimes. Or most of the time.

  16. Thanks for this informative post. I wish this had been available when I was a kid.

  17. agree kids who are smart get bullied!

  18. Useful post. You are a phenomenal resource♫♪

  19. Great post! Thank's for sharing. So helpful and very informative.

    Visiting for Wordless Wednesday- hope you can stop by:)

  20. My parents needed this post while raising us. LOL. Thanks for the information.

  21. Good stuff. Thanks for the tips. Happy to be your newest follower.

  22. This is a fantastic post and very informative. As a teacher I like reading about how environment and teaching techniques can aid to hamper a child's learning ability. This is something I would actually print and share with other teachers. Following you from the Wednesday Hop and I cannot wait to see what you post next. Please follow back at

  23. My son (7) has ADHD and hates to read. He is on an IEP as of earlier this school year. I would love to know how to get that kid to love to read....thanks for the tips here. We have tried a few of these.

  24. This is a great place to visit for information. My daughter has anxiety over so much and it is so stressful. We're now in the process of deciding how to best deal with this.

    Thanks for linking up for WW!

  25. Thanks for some excellent tips here, and for the laughs. The video clip was a classic. Sometimes, we (teachers and parents) have to try everything in our grab bag of tricks before we hit it right. The key is not to give up until we figure out the student's learning style.

  26. excellent article & suggestions. my oldest son had a different kind of problem, he could read & understand at a college level as early as 4 & 5th grades, but he could not write it down on paper. verbally he could communicate it at the same reading level. in elementary levels the teachers said they had no curriculum for his 'type' so they just had him answer just half the questions in homework & in tests, and grade it proportionately. but in high school not one teacher cared to help or take any special time with him & he struggled to get through. he is luckily doing fine as a working adult & family man. his younger brother hated reading & writing, I think he may of been the social type, but we made it a must that school work & grades be up there and he made the honor roll with ease, always finding extra time during school to do homework & still active in sports ect... he went on during Navy time to continue to work on his education & eventually got a degree and works for the government as part of the defense, along the lines he did in the Navy. I think his own personal competitive standards helped him to succeed. The teachers that try to help are earning not only the childs & parents respect but what I would call merit pay achievements. pay scale on that & not tenure that some are always shunned to get, will keep the good willing teachers where they belong with no squabbles from tax payers, ect. the ones that are just doing time may as well leave. that is not what real teaching is about. your writings prove that.

  27. What a wonderful resource for parents and teachers and all who walk this earth together. There is so much that affects any one person and their interaction with their surroundings and it would do us all a whole lot of good if we could appreciate even a fraction of the factors influencing a person at any given moment as we seek to set expectations.

    I am following ya via follow me wed. and am so glad to have, in this world of many marvelous voices, found yours in the crowd. If you would like, we're riding the wave of life at and I'd absolutely love it if you'd join us for the ride.


  28. Some of my underachievers are ESOL students, their language setback make it hard for them to catch up with main stream.

  29. came via Roger's blog re Unions. I am rejoicing. I was at a teachers' workshop when a teacher came in to tell the good news.

    Today, in New Zealand the union won, govt zero, they were going to cut teachers, cut technical classes, up class sizes, Union got all the teachers, and parents to protest. The minister withdrew. Ya!!!!

  30. We all learn at our own pace and in our own ways. Great post today to remind everyone about that.

  31. this is SO useful. i'm going into school counseling and really appreciate your insight. found you via the link up xo

  32. This is a fantastic, insightful piece! Certainly a good resource for parents of school age children! Thank you for sharing it. Stopping by from Hop Along Friday and glad to have found you!

  33. This post is very helpful. Thank you!

    Visiting for WW- hope you can stop by:)

  34. Great post! Thanks for joining Creative Bloggers' Party & Hop :)

  35. This post brings up so many important points about underachievers--I love the specific suggestions you include too! I've also seen cases where emotional stress led to children being less interested in performing at their normal level. Thanks so much for sharing this on Teach Me Tuesday!!

  36. Interesting. The image pretty much made me not want to know anything more about anything to do with the image... Guess I'm not great at visual literacy.

  37. I really enjoyed all of articles on this website, I hope you will continue to have similar posts to share with everyone.Women Coats Sale