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June 23, 2024

Where Every Family Matters

Your Underachiever CAN Turn it Around

Help her focus on effort — not ability, and not intelligence — a local expert says.

BOOM! You get an e-mail from the fourth-grade teacher about your underachiever.  

    “I’m seeing a lack of effort from James,” she writes. “Can you give me some insight? He seems to be uninterested, and he’s a distraction to others when I teach. I actually had to send him out of class …"     Yikes.     But look, a kid’s work load often intensifies around the fourth or fifth grade, so it's normal to become an underachiever if the going gets too hard. You do, however, need to find out what’s going on.

    “At some point in a student’s life, he is going to underachieve,” says Donna Y. Ford, Ph.D., a professor of education and human development at Vanderbilt University. “It can be the result of what goes on in the home, but we cannot ignore how our teachers play a role as well,” Ford adds.


During early childhood, parents play the first all-important role in a child’s perception of himself. A feeling of inadequacy can develop when young children don’t receive the encouragement and individual recognition they need. When they do get what’s needed, they grow in confidence.  

    “First of all,” Ford says, “You must know your child; know each of your children as individuals. When you have more than one child, it’s important to recognize that each has his own personal strengths and weaknesses. And it’s very important that you don’t make comparisons between your children or they can start having a sense of inadequacy,” Ford says.     How do parents unwittingly compare their kids?

    “Saying things like, ‘If Bobby can do well in school, you can too,’ or ‘If Bobby likes reading, you should like reading,’ and so on,” says Ford.

    Set the stage for early successful academic achievement at home, says Maribeth Gambill, LCSW of Nashville Counseling Associates.     

    “When a young child babbles, gestures or cries and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words or a hug, the connections in the brain are built and strengthened,” Gambill says. “This ‘serve and return’ interaction is essential throughout children’s lives as a way of building trust,” she adds.

    It is also important to find authentic ways to praise your child at home, and especially once formal education begins. Authentically praising a child lifts him up, but Ford cautions against praising your child for praise's sake.     “One of the worst things you can do is to praise your child for effort he doesn’t show,” Ford says.


When a child is underachieving, start by reaching out to his teacher. Your child's teacher can provide you a wealth of information.

    “Work with her; ask her to be mindful of your child and to observe him so you can share information,” Ford says. "Also, try to pick up on what’s going on by asking your child … although you may not get much information. Children never want to disappoint their parents. You need to sleuth out what's happening in the event that your child is unhappy socially — is there bullying? Or a friendship problem that he can't overcome?

It's also true that a teacher may not be a good fit, certainly if a teacher is unresponsive you need to go higher up. Or, it could be what it so often is: the work has gotten harder and your child has given up. A domino effect is taking place and your child is seeking any kind of attention at all.

    “Sometimes when children aren't recognized for positive achievements they can begin acting out to get attention,” Gambill says. “If work is too difficult, it can be easier to get into trouble and be sent out of class as a way of creating distraction and avoiding a difficult task,” she adds.

Unfortunately, when this happens, your child can fall further and further behind. Without realizing it, your child can feel — and literally be — “tagged” by teachers and students as a "problem." If that happens, learning failure requires intervention.


How can a parent help turn an underachiever around?

    “The number one way that you can get your child to do well in school is to focus on effort; not ability and not intelligence,” says Ford. “You can’t expect perfectionism or even consistency, but you can always support your child and stay optimistic,” she adds. Gambill agrees that parents should get down in the trenches with their child with empathy and optimism.     “Always show unconditional positive regard and love,” she says. “No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. Instead of being critical and harsh about your child’s struggle, help him to understand that we all learn from our mistakes. That’s how we as parents are teachers at home,” she adds. Ford says incentives can work wonders in helping your child kickstart achievement. Incentives work best when you find out what your child wants, Ford says. Maybe it’s something like a brand new pair of soccer cleats; it should be personal for him. Tell him if he is able to successfully put more effort into raising up his grades, those cleats can become a reality.

    “Tie the rewards to what your children value, and then let that be the carrot that makes the task appealing,” Ford says. “They will usually live up to it.”


So you have your child back on the right track. Now what?

Monitor, monitor, monitor. Follow along with your child’s daily successes and notice his good efforts to keep the forward motion going. Try not to forget what you said (regarding incentives) or being so busy that days go by with no recognition. Remember to lift up your child.

    “Encourage progress, even if it isn’t necessarily in grades,” Gambill says. “We all achieve and learn in different ways. Intelligence is not fixed, it can grow, even if it isn’t in the traditional sense of the word,” she adds.      “Don’t expect perfection or consistency, but always support your child and stay optimistic,” Ford says. “He WILL turn it around.”

About the Author

Susan Swindell Day, Editor

Susan Swindell Day is the editor in chief of Nashville Parent and the mom of four amazing kids.