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The Informed Parent

Preparing the Underachieving Child for School

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Sep. 06, 2004

“I can’t wait for school to start,” exclaims Mary. “I get to be in Ms. Jones’ class. I already know her. She’s really nice.” Mary’s eagerness, enthusiasm, readiness to learn, and dependability bring joy to her parents as they watch the preparations for the school year. They do not worry about her success as a student.

James’ parents do not feel as positive. The week before school begins, he wakes up with stomachaches. He is cranky. “I hate school,” he complains. “That stupid Ms. Jones doesn’t like me. I just know I’ll have to sit in the front row again.” James’ summer enthusiasm and playfulness is gone. His parents dread the coming academic year.

Susie pesters her mom with over-optimism. “School will be great. I just know it. I’m different now. I know I can get all A’s if I just try. And I will. I promise.” Her mother braces herself for Susie’s disappointment.

Children who do not perform well in school exhibit two patterns. Some show signs of distress before school begins. Others start the year with unrealistic expectations. Neither trait bodes well for success.

The article entitled “Underachievement”, found in THE INFORMED PARENT archives, discusses the disorder. It suggests steps to lead these children to success. Taking time to appropriately prepare underachieving or resistant learners prior to the beginning of school lays the groundwork for a more successful learning experience.


All children need structure to achieve. For underachieving children it is mandatory. Without it they cannot succeed. They must have an environment where they know what to expect and what is expected of them.

A week before school begins, institute the school-year bed and morning wake up times. Expect resistance. Children will complain that it is still summer and they should not have to begin going to bed and getting up earlier. The body clock needs time to readjust. Providing for the adjustment assures a greater likelihood of waking up without fatigue during the first few days of school.

If quiet time is not part of your family structure, establish it now. Late afternoon or early evening is best. Tell the children that this interval will be used for reading, using activity books, or reviewing math. Quiet time begins to prepare children for the structured homework time necessary during the school year.

Start the school year chore schedule. While shared tasks often remain the same year around, many families are more relaxed during the summer. Each person has fewer household responsibilities. Initiating the fall schedule before school begins established the pattern and children are not adjusting to many changes at once.


Kids who have difficulty in school usually have poor organization skills. They need instruction and practice to keep their lives in order. Practicing these tasks before school starts makes for an easier transition into the year.

A week or two before school begins, purchase the needed supplies. Make this an activity that you and the children do together. Choose a time when you do not need to hurry. Children take the task of choosing what to buy seriously. If they feel hurried they become frustrated.

Some schools send out a supply list. Others expect parents will know what to buy and what is provided. A backpack, pencil box, eraser, and extra pencils are necessary. Binders, notebooks, and pens are usually only required for middle and high school students.

When shopping, keep decision-making to a minimum. Too many choices lead to frustration. Choosing between two different backpacks or pencil boxes works better than several choices. Before leaving on the shopping trip discuss color or theme. You might say, “Would you rather have a plain backpack or one with pictures?” Make some initial decisions before entering the store.

After returning home take time to pack the backpack with the new supplies. Place it by the door the night before school begins so that it can easily be picked up on the way out to the car or bus. Make this a pattern.

School mornings work more smoothly when children choose their outfits the night before. Children who practice these choices have less stress than if the process begins the night before school starts. Suggest that children lay out their next-day play clothes before going to bed. If they resist, make it a game. Say, “Let’s do something silly. I want to guess what you are going to wear tomorrow. You lay it out and I’ll guess.” Children as old as eight or nine enjoy this kind of play.

The end of summer is a good time to sort through toys and clothes. Take time to go through closets and toy shelves. Dispose of outgrown clothes and no-longer-used toys. Make a trip to the thrift shop together to deliver the items.


Underachievers and resistant students experience anxiety as the beginning of school approaches. Listen to their fears. Respond with understanding without trying to convince them that all will be well. When challenged learners know that they will be held accountable for their academic progress, they remember the failures of the past. They may try to manipulate you into supporting their fears or convincing them that the coming year will be different. What they really want is to feel heard. When they come to you with complaints and concerns, acknowledge their feelings. Say something like, “I know that you are scared about the beginning of school. I want you to know that I’m here to help you in starting the year successfully.”

While teaching and preaching turns children off, letting them know how you can work together to make school feel easier can relieve them. Find a quiet time where you can sit together. Talk about organization skills. Discuss homework time. Talk about the necessity of a structured after school and evening time. Some children respond positively to such a conversation. Others reply by saying, “That won’t help. It has never helped before.” Again, respond by recognizing the feeling. Say, “I can hear how discouraged you are.” Then indicate something realistic but positive. “You’re right. It may not work. But if we do this together there’s a good chance that things will feel easier.”

Parenting children who have difficulty in school is challenging. Read THE INFORMED PARENT and recommended parenting guides. Talk to school personnel. Take the steps to discover what is behind the underachievement. When parents follow-through with finding the underlying cause and use effective structure, organization, and communication, underachieving learners have the greatest opportunity for success.

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