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Ask Mr. Dad: Help for underachievers
Ask Mr. Dad

Ask Mr. Dad: Help for underachievers

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QUESTION: My fourth-grader is really, really smart, but he’s something of an underachiever. We’re trying to be understanding of how COVID has complicated school, but his grades just aren’t what they should be. What can we do to help him achieve what he’s capable of?

ANSWER: Before we get to how to help you help your child with his underachievement problem, let’s take a minute to seriously consider whether there’s a problem at all. In many cases, what parents see as a child’s underachievement is really an issue of the parents’ expectations being too high.

Maybe instead of being “really, really smart,” your son is average. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but if you’re expecting — and putting pressure on — him to get straight As, you’re going to be disappointed. Worse, he’s likely very aware of how you feel and may be so afraid of disappointing you even more that he’s simply given up.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that your child really is working below his potential and try to figure out why. With regard to school, your child may be underachieving if:

  • There’s not enough of a challenge.
  • There’s too much or too little competition.
  • He’s having conflict with one or more of his teachers.
  • He has an unidentified/undiagnosed learning disability.
  • There’s a mismatch between his preferred learning style and what’s possible given the limits of online education in the COVID-19 era.
  • He’s feeling pressure from peers.
  • He doesn’t have enough opportunities to be creative.
  • There’s too much — or too little — structure in the classroom.

Underachievement may also be caused by factors within the home, such as:

  • Conflict between parents.
  • High levels of stress at home (which are almost guaranteed these days).
  • Overtly protective parents.
  • Parents’ unrealistically high expectations or demand for perfection.
  • Low expectations from the parents (this is clearly not the case for you, but in families where the parents don’t care, the children have no motivation to work hard and achieve).
  • Health problems.
  • Sibling rivalry.

So, what can you do about your child’s underachievement? As with most things, it’s easier to find a solution if you’ve identified the problem early, which you’ve done. Here are ideas:

  • Communicate regularly with your child’s teacher about the problem.
  • Communicate regularly with your child. In a nonjudgmental way, ask your child how things are going and whether he thinks he’s doing his best work. If he agrees that he isn’t, ask what he thinks he’d need to improve his grades.
  • Listen carefully. If your child needs a little help with organization, help. If he needs more (or fewer) reminders about homework and projects, adjust accordingly. If he needs a tutor, get one. If he needs incentives and rewards, think of options (but stay away from bribery).
  • Join a parent support group for gifted children and encourage your child to participate in activities that involve other gifted children.
  • Arrange for an evaluation by a school-based or private psychologist who specializes in helping underachieving children.
  • Continue to encourage your child’s interests, regardless of the level of school success.
  • Adjust your expectations if necessary. Even gifted children have limits.
  • Never, ever give up on your child.

Armin Brott is a syndicated columnist and author of eight books on fatherhood. Visit his website,, or follow him on Twitter @mrdad.

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