Unlock My Child’s Potential


Each school year many parents are faced with trying to figure out what to do about a child not working up to his or her potential. This can be one of the most frustrating academic challenges they are faced with. Not only are parents tackling the issue, but schools are as well. Knowing why some kids work below their potential and the best way to handle the situation may help you make it a smoother semester.

What Is Underachievement
“Underachievement is a very complex phenomenon and may be due to a number of factors,” says Colleen Harsin, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of services at the Davidson Institute for Talent Development in Reno, Nev. “Researchers have yet to agree on a definition of underachievement,” explains Harsin, “although the term generally refers to a student not performing in a way that is consistent with his or her potential, as determined by past performance and/or test reports.”

Underachievement is a behavior and usually a problem of attitude toward the tasks at hand. Making it even harder to define, it’s in the eye of the beholder. While one person may find a grade of a B unacceptable, another person may think a C is great. Trying to determine if your child is an underachiever can be difficult. Some children might not work to their potential in one subject and still be doing great in other subjects. Those believed to be underachievers are diverse. Some of these students are even gifted.

There is a misconception when it comes to which gender is more often thought to be underachievers. According to the International Journal of Inclusive Education, the media, research and classrooms have primarily focused on boys. This is so common, they report, that “the identity and needs of the underachieving girl have been rendered invisible.” They say that the idea of girls being underachievers has become virtually inconceivable, since so many believe it is an issue confined to boys. The focus should be on addressing underachievement as a complex situation, and avoid it focusing strictly on the underachievement of boys.

As a society we need to examine what is happening when underachievement is so common among one group of people. The journal Theory Into Practice recently reported, “On a daily basis, teachers, schools, counselors and administrators are troubled by the unfortunate reality that a significant number of students of color (e.g., African American, Hispanic American and Native American), including those identified as gifted, are not reaching their academic potential in school settings.” Until social and psychological barriers are addressed for this group of students, there will likely continue to be an achievement issue.

Common Reasons for Underachievement
There isn’t just one reason why a student doesn’t reach his or her potential. It would be great if that were the case; fixing the problem would be simple. But complex issues call for more varied solutions. In the following list of common reasons that students don’t succeed academically, try to see if one or more fits your child. If you can identify the reason your child is underachieving, you might have an easier time finding a solution this fits his or her individual needs.

• Time management. Many students are not good with managing their time. They keep putting off their work and then at the last minute, if they remember at all, have to scramble to get work done. This leads to decreased effort and usually shows in the grade they receive. If your child lacks time-management skills, it might lead to turning work in late and being unprepared. Try helping your unorganized student develop time-management skills by enrolling him or her in a specialized course. There are several in the Charlotte area. In addition, CMS teaches time-management in their AVID and IB programs, as well as many high school freshman introductory classes.

• Lack of participation. Some students are more concerned with what’s going on around them than what the lesson of the day may be. If this is your child, you might have seen him transition from being a great participator in school to being a social butterfly who puts chatting before schoolwork. Offer your social butterfly a reward system that allows more time with friends or more text-message time when grades and homework assignments improve — instead of punishing him after the fact.

• Unchallenged. “Often, gifted students develop a pattern of underachievement when they have not been appropriately challenged in school,” says Harsin. She explains that taking an assessment of students’ interests, abilities and skills is essential. That needs to be followed by implementing appropriate learning opportunities in order to reverse their underachievement.

• Not relating. Some students do poorly in specific classes because they can’t relate to the teacher. Their teacher might use a teaching method that is not sparking their interest or that does not match the student’s learning style. In some cases, students might need help or explanations on particular topics and for various reasons they refrain from speaking up. Request a parent-teacher conference and come prepared with questions that might shed some light on the problem — be prepared to involve the principal if needed. A child’s success should be the goal of the parent, teacher and principal.

If you have a child who isn’t working to his potential, it’s important not to label him. If he hears that enough, he will see himself as an underachiever and the behavior will continue. Using positive reinforcement will produce better results than making a child feel bad about what he could do better.

Getting students to reach their academic potential is a team effort. Students, parents, teachers and society need to work together to teach the next generation how to soar.

Jacqueline Bodnar is a freelance writer who lives in Port Orange, Fla., with her husband and two children.