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Helping Your "Underachieving" Student Achieve Again

boy in class

You know your child can do the work. In the good old days, parent-teacher conferences were pleasant. No one called you from school requesting your presence at a special meeting because your child was failing a class or disrupting the school day. Report cards were not something to be feared. "Down slips" never appeared in your mailbox.

What has happened to your bright, school-oriented child?

It really is not uncommon for teenagers to suddenly find school boring or overwhelming, and to  start displaying inappropriate behaviors as a way to get attention from their peers.

Before you can take action, you first have to identify what may be causing this change in attitude and behavior. (Make sure you can rule out bigger issues like drug or alcohol use, or involvement with gangs; if necessary, seek professional help to address these issues.)

Here are some reasons kids have given school counselors about why they give up on schoolwork:

  • "My parents expect too much." Kids sometimes think, rightly or wrongly, that their parents expect more of them than they can deliver. Children might feel they are being compared to a brother or sister, or even to a parent's own school performance from long past.
  • "I can't do it." The class work has become overwhelming. Often, this begins with one tough class or assignment and then builds to impossible proportions. You may find your former straight "A" student is being challenged for the first time and doesn't know how or where to start.
  • "I won't try." This follows on the heels of "I can't." A student might reason that "if I don't try, I can't or won't fail." No one ever lost a race they never ran. Sometimes, children turn to this strategy because they are afraid of losing a parent's admiration or respect if they fail.
  • "I don't need to learn this." Some children may think they're striking a blow for independence. They have always been studious and obedient, and are now ready to be defiant.

Knowing and understanding these reasons for underachieving is the first step toward solving the problem. Here are some parenting tips for following up once a reason has been identified:

1. Talk to your child. Be caring and supportive. The problem is your child's to solve, so don't be drawn into "rescuing" him or her. But let your child know you understand it is difficult and that you are willing and able to help. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Do you think you can do the work?
  • Are you trying as hard as you can?
  • Have you asked your teacher for help?

Always remind your child that you love him or her, regardless of school performance.

2. Schedule a conference with teachers, counselors or administrators, and, if necessary, include your child.

  • Go to the meeting with a positive, cooperative attitude.
  • Define the problem - homework, tests, behavior, attendance - together, and let school staff members know that improving the situation is important to you.
  • Develop a plan that requires your child to agree to work on changing his or her problem behaviors and to work up to his or her potential. Include consequences if your child does or does not meet the expectations spelled out in the plan.
  • Put the plan in writing and have your child sign it.
  • Once the plan is in place, keep the responsibility for resolving the problem with your child. Do not nag or constantly remind him or her about what needs to be done; the consequences set out in the plan should be sufficient motivation. If they are not, revise the plan.

3. Set goals with your child, based on what was discussed at the meeting.

  • Be patient. Expect some resistance and limit-testing.
  • If you see no progress within about a month, visit with school staff again.
  • If your child is making progress, even if it is slower than you would like, let the situation take care of itself.

4. Help your child get organized.

  • Encourage him or her to keep an assignment notebook and to write down all assignments and classroom expectations.
  • Set a homework time and decide on a consistent, quiet place where your child can study.

5. Help your child build self-confidence.

  • Don't give empty praise, but do reinforce real progress, no matter how small it may seem.
  • Follow through on the terms of the agreement.
  • Be a positive, supportive bystander.

Remind yourself as often as necessary that your child is becoming more independent, and that having you "come to the rescue" whenever there are difficulties is not going to help him or her in the long run.