What to do if your child is an 'underachiever'
Not every child is academic, but for those who consistently underperform at school, the late Dr David Carey looked into the psychology of 'Underachievers' in his book 'Learning To Trust Your Parenting Instincts: The Good Enough Parent'
What are the factors that cause bright, intelligent children to consistently perform poorly in school?
For most parents the child who underachieves is a puzzle and a disappointment at the same time. There are many pathways to underachievement.
Sometimes the child is depressed or highly anxious. Sometimes family difficulties interfere with learning. Sometimes something bad is happening in school such as bullying. Sometimes underachievement arises out of the psychological make-up of the child.
When children struggle to cope with the demands of school, they are often also struggling to cope with the demands of home and the interpersonal world, and they are also struggling to cope with their own developmental demands.
Faced with the concerns of frustrated teachers and seeing a series of poor test results, parents can become increasingly frustrated with the underachieving child. Family rows can develop, the blame game gets played, tensions in the home increase and what was once a harmonious family becomes a battleground with the child at the centre.
Children reared in autocratic families where harsh punishment is a regular occurrence and who have been told they are stupid, no good or not good enough often grow up to be underachievers because they have come to believe that they are not good enough to meet the demands of life.
There is also nothing more persistently damaging to a child than spending a year in a classroom where the atmosphere is tense, punitive and filled with complaints from a teacher about the children. When there is a working model that is negative, you can hear your child articulate it in a sort of coded language. They say things like: ‘I’m stupid’; ‘I’m no good at maths’; ‘I’ll never learn this’; ‘I’m just not clever’. They are giving voice to the working model laid down by the teacher. If a child is badly underperforming and saying these things, they are asking for help.
Children who are chronic underachievers are prone to creating catastrophes where none exist. They anticipate failure with exquisite success. They can’t make the link between preparation and success and therefore believe that nothing matters at all, that everything will lead to failure no matter what they do.
This string of failure experiences has a disastrous impact on their self-esteem and self-confidence. They begin to feel hopeless about themselves. They are trapped in a cycle of anxiety, failure, depression, damaged self-esteem, low self-confidence, more anxiety and more failure.
They perceive assistance as a sort of ‘trick’ used by adults. Because they do not believe in themselves, they therefore have limited capacity to believe in the adults around them.
As a result, they tend to believe that if they accept an offer of help and fail again, the adult will just lose faith in them and they will be abandoned and left to their own devices.
If they don’t get help, what happens to these children in later years? Some of them will leave school early. Some, unfortunately, will be encouraged to leave school early by a system that rejects them. Others will be put out of school because their working models are so damaged they become provocative and challenging.
Becoming an underachieving child takes time to happen so change will be slow, involving a lot of hard work and a good bit of backsliding now and then, but progress can be made. The goal is to bring about a positive, long-lasting modification of maladaptive behaviour and belief patterns. How long does it take? Who can say? It tends to vary from child to child. What is certain, however, is that it requires a lot of patience on the part of the adults in the child’s life.
You will notice that your child is becoming more accepting of adult feedback, support and supervision and is more willing to communicate with you.
Some backsliding is inevitable, but no matter how discouraged you become, you must never withdraw support and assistance.
To do so is a terminal mistake as it proves to the child what he or she believed all along: adults just won’t be there for you for long. Remember, no matter how much initial success underachieving children may seem to have, they will still believe they are failures. We are looking for improvement over time, not instant results.
The way out can only be found with the assistance of parents and teachers who refuse to label children as ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’ ‘disrespectful’ or ‘malingerers’.
via Sunday World