Have you got a bright, but unmotivated child – a child with a high IQ who does well on standardized tests, but brings home a report card full of C’s, doesn’t do his homework and sometimes fails course exams?
Children who are underachievers usually have no identifiable physical or learning disabilities; their academic performance is just significantly lower than their intelligence level. Why do underachievers do poorly? Often, they just don’t try. A 1991 U.S. Department of Education study found that lack of student motivation is a primary cause of low academic achievement.
There is no typical profile of an underachiever. Some scrape by with passing marks. Others get an A on one exam and flunk another. Some are good students whose grades suddenly drop.
Child development experts say it’s a problem parents should address early on to avoid issues of self-esteem, a lack of effort and more. But understanding the underachiever is not an easy task. Experts advise parents to watch for patterns of behavior, such as:
• Fear of failing – Underachievers who fear failure may actually be perfectionists who equate their worth as a person with what they produce. Children who feel this way may have parents who focus too closely on grades.
• Sibling rivalry – Children who feel they should achieve at the same level as an older or younger sibling may react by underachieving.
• Power play – These children use passive-aggressive ways of getting back at parents whose expectations are too high.
• Late bloomers – These are children who simply take a long time to decide that doing well in school is something they really want.
Usually, children are underachievers for more than one reason. Other causes for a lack of motivation include a family crisis, such as death or divorce.
Communication and cooperation between parents and schools are essential to resolving motivational problems. Parents and the child’s teacher can meet regularly to discuss a child’s behavior in class and whether assignments are turned in. They can work together to create a behavior program focusing on one problem, such as making sure the student’s homework is turned in on time.
Sometimes children are unmotivated because they’re bored in school; they may need to do more hands-on work. Competition in the classroom may also be to blame, particularly if a child decides not to try rather than be repeatedly disappointed when other students fare better.
Some parents offer money or other incentives in an effort to motivate their children’s school performance. But experts are divided on whether this is a good idea.
Incentives of any kind, including good grades or punishment for poor performance, only work in the short run, argues Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, a book on motivation. He maintains that rewards can actually do lasting harm.
“You can make a child do something by bribes and threats, but you can’t create an interest in doing it by force,” he says. “If the student is doing the homework, passing the tests, pleasing the parent and jumping through the hoops – but all for the wrong reasons – then you have a problem.”
Some experts, including noted Harvard psychologist Bob Brooks, point to the importance of parents believing in their kids and their abilities. Children who realize it makes a difference if they try hard will become more motivated.
Brooks advises parents to:
Choose natural consequences when possible. If a child refuses to prepare for a test, stop nagging and allow him to face the consequences – even if it means a failing grade. By choosing a natural consequence, parents allow the child’s actions to cause a consequence. The only caution here is that you have to know that your children are capable of doing the tasks you’re allowing them to fail at. If your child has a learning disability, then pulling back academic support is not the best way to help.
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