Pediatric Medical Center is open by appointment M–F 9-5:15 and Sat from 8:30am. Closed Sundays. 562-426-5551. View map.

The Informed Parent

Underachievement: A Frequently Ignored Problem Of Childhood

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jan. 01, 1997

The following is an excerpt from the book "Underachievement: Reversing the Process" by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S. and John H. Samson, M.D.

The Underachieving Child

All of us want our children to succeed in life. Most of us believe that a good education provides greater opportunity for success. Whether we use the public school system or send our youngsters to a private school, we know that our children must be active participants in the educational process, or learning will not take place. Active participation depends on a child's ability to concentrate, to effectively process written and spoken language, to stay on task, and on his motivation to achieve.

Most of us expect that our children will succeed as students just as we expect to succeed as parents. When they do not, we are confused, disappointed, angry, and afraid. Whether the lack of success is in academic skills, social behavior, or both, the recognition that our youngster is not doing well causes pain. We hurt for him and for ourselves.

We often express this hurt by blaming the child, the school, or our own choices of action or inaction. We nag our son or daughter about homework and tests. We say things like, "If you'd just try harder, you'd do better." We remember all the things we have not liked about the school system and all the teachers who, we felt, did not do their best job. "This is the third year in a row he's had a bad teacher," we complain. We berate ourselves by recalling events from pregnancy, birth, and early childhood that we fear contributed to the problem. "I knew I shouldn't have played tennis throughout my pregnancy. Probably all the jostling around did something to his brain," we lament.

Blame, fear, and regret do not help the child. They create stress within the family and keep parents immobilized. If our child is not doing well in school, we must put our hurt and disappointment aside and do what must be done to help our youngster back onto the track of success.

What Is Underachievement?

The first step in handling a problem is to carefully define it. Clarity about what we are facing often points the way to an effective solution. The problem of underachievement is not easily defined because it has different meanings to professionals in different occupations. This is one of the reasons many underachievers do not receive the help they need. Vague definitions of problems lead to vague, ineffective solutions.

Underachievement is commonly used as an umbrella term to describe anyone who is not performing in a particular activity as well as someone who knows that activity well thinks he should. Usually the term refers to lack of academic success; however, adults who choose jobs that do not reflect the degrees they hold or athletes who fail to perform to their potential could also be referred to as underachievers.

Academic underachievement is what is likely to send you running to the pediatrician, mental health worker, or learning specialist for help. In the past, there has been little consistency in the selection and labeling of academic underachievers. Some experts have used the label only for intellectually superior students whose academic performance is dramatically below that level. Others have used the term for students functioning a year and a half or more below grade level. Teachers have used the word to describe students who are not keeping up in class. Parents have said their child is underachieving if he is not making the grades they want him to make or that a sibling has attained.

Since we know the first step in seeking a solution to a problem is creating a clear definition, academic underachievement must be defined by you and all professionals working with you and your youngster in the same way. The definition of academic underachievement we use is short and concise. It is comprehensive and can be applied to any student regardless of his age or intellectual ability. It is measurable. Students, parents, and professionals can objectively see change and steps toward success.

Academic underachievement means that your child's performance in academic subjects is below an expected level as indicated by his measured abilities on intelligence and aptitude tests. Although we call the child an underachiever, remember, underachievement is not a diagnosis. It is not the primary problem. It is a symptom or sign that there is a problem which results in underachievement. It is an indication that some underlying cause is preventing the child from expressing all that he knows. There is something happening in his body, his thought processes, or his emotional life which interferes with his success as a student. 

Any student, whether male or female, gifted or slow learner, can be an underachiever. Underachievement cannot be guessed at, however. Individually administered intelligence and achievement tests must be used to determine whether a child is working within his range of capacity. If he is not, it is only through correctly diagnosing the underlying cause that appropriate intervention can be employed and success attained.

Recognizing Signs Of Underachievement

The first step in determining whether your child is an underachiever is recognizing the early signs of underachievement. This task is not always easy. The younger your child, the more difficult it is to determine whether his behavior is a sign of underachievement or simply a matter of immaturity. 

Often you, the parent, are the first person to suspect a problem in your child. You see him at play, during daily routines, at work, and in sleep. No one else has this opportunity. Because you see him in all aspects of his life, you know him better than anyone else. There is no teacher, pediatrician, or mental health worker who knows more about your child than you do. You can provide professionals with an enormous amount of valuable information. The more clearly you present this information to the professional working with your son or daughter, the better that person will understand your concerns. Use the check lists provided at the end of each chapter, and keep a notebook of behaviors which bother you, noting when and where they occur. Children do not act the same in all situations. Clarifying where, when, and how your youngster behaves in ways that concern you increases the probability of an accurate diagnosis. You save time and money when you accurately and definitely describe the problem that you see.

Sometimes we parents are concerned about behaviors which may, in fact, be normal aspects of a child's development. When we take accurate information to the pediatrician, teacher, or mental health worker, they can assure us that the behavior is transitional, alert us to potential problems and how to alleviate them, or provide intervention so that the problem is handled as early and efficiently as possible.

Young children are filled with energy and enthusiasm. They run, climb, jump, and tumble. Preschoolers are curious. They watch carefully what is happening around them, and they ask questions. They are learning how their world and those in it operate. They are interested in coloring, cutting, sorting, putting together puzzles, building blocks, and stringing beads. Many like playing with tiny objects. If your young child lacks enthusiasm and motivation, is inattentive, seems clumsy in large-muscle activities like running and climbing, or lacks fine motor coordination in activities like coloring or cutting, he may be at risk for a learning problem which could result in underachievement.

Of course, all children go through a learning period with new activities, and some awkwardness is to be expected. Likewise, children are not always enthusiastic nor do they always pay attention to what is happening in their environment. The at-risk child is the one who exhibits these symptoms regularly.

If your toddler or preschooler does not seem to be developing as you think he should, gather accurate information and seek advice. You will end up feeling reassured there is not a problem or reassured that you caught a potential problem early. Either way, you and your young child end up winners.

If you have a school-age child, there are more obvious clues that indicate he is having, or is at risk for, lack of academic success. The first is the report card. Although not always a reliable indicator of a child's ability, a drop in grades is a sign that something is amiss. If you find yourself constantly nagging your youngster to do his homework, perhaps motivation is an issue. "Joe never does his homework without us telling him he has to," complained Mrs. Adams. "He just fiddles around. We almost always end up yelling and screaming at each other." Children are frequently less interested in doing their homework than parents are in having them do it. The successful student knows homework is part of his life. He may procrastinate and complain about it but usually ends up getting it done. The underachiever is rarely self-motivated when it comes to homework.

When night after night your youngster tells you he does not have homework, you need to be alerted to a possible problem. Even primary grade students have homework several days a week. After third grade, homework is a daily reality. The child who never has homework is either not listening in class to know his assignments or is purposely avoiding his responsibility. Either of these situations is a clue for you.

When your seven-year-old cries before leaving for school each day, when your teenager regularly misses the bus, or when your youngster often "doesn't feel good" on week days, he is giving you a clue that something about school is not working for him. Even children who are not enthusiastic 

about getting up and out to school each morning know it's an unavoidable part of life. They muster the energy to make it without too much grumbling. The child and adolescent who create roadblocks to getting there are the ones to be concerned about.

Since you are probably not only a parent but also hold a job outside the home, you do not always know whether your offspring is doing what he says he is. When you ask, "Did you finish your homework?" more than likely you get a "Yup," or an "I didn't have any." When inquiring about his day or interesting activities in school, a response of, "It was okay" or "Just the regular" may be all you get. Quite possibly, you first become aware your child is not doing well in school when the teacher sends you a note, calls to tell you she is concerned, or tells you at a parent conference. 

Teachers do not always know why a student is not successful. They just know he isn't. Even if the teacher has a good idea why your son or daughter is not succeeding in school, she will probably not give a diagnosis but will talk about the problem in general terms. She will make statements like, "Jason seems immature," or "I'm sure Sonia could do better if she put her mind to her work." Other phrases used to describe children with achievement problems are "not working up to potential," "underachieving," and "not doing as well as could be expected." What each of these messages means is that the teacher has some reason to believe that your son or daughter could do better in school.

The information you receive from the teacher can be confusing. It probably creates more questions than it answers. Will he outgrow his immaturity? Why can't she concentrate? How do I know he's not working up to potential? The teacher often has these same question.

The remainder of this book will answer these questions for you. Chapters 3 and 4 lead you, step by stem, through the diagnostic process necessary in determining why your child is underachieving. This information is important for any parent. Regardless of why your child is not succeeding, the process of diagnosing the problem is essentially the same for all cases. Correct diagnosis is the key to correct remediation. Know how to get that for your child. Chapters 6 through 10 discuss in detail each of the underlying causes of underachievement and what can be done about them. Chapter 11 reviews the steps necessary in getting help for your underachiever.

Check List for Underachievement

Rate your child on the following traits. Remember that all children show these characteristics occasionally. This check list is to help you determine patterns you see in your child regularly. Most items on the list do not apply to preschoolers. In evaluating your very young child, refer to the section "Recognizing Signs of Underachievement" in this chapter.








1. My child appears to like school. 

2. My child attends school regularly. 

3. My child brings home his homework. 

4. My child does his homework without parental nagging. 

5. My child is able to complete his homework with minimal parental help. 

6. My child talks to me about school. 

7. Teachers, including preschool and kindergarten, have indicated concern about my child's abilities, work habits, or social skills. 




8. My child receives Ds and Fs on his report card. 

9. My child is unduly stubborn. 

10. My child daydreams and dawdles. 

11. My child procrastinates. 

12. My child does not follow through on class assignments or chores at home. 

13. My child has difficulty understanding directions. 

14. My child does not plan ahead. 

15. My child is highly critical of others. 


16. My child blames others for his problems. 


17. My child has excuses for whatever does not work in his life. 


18. My child's friends are not successful academically or socially. 

19. My child is hostile. 

20. My child does not trust others. 

21. My child is selfish at the expense of others. 

22. My child does not accept affection. 

If most of the checks are in the Usually column on numbers 1-6 and in the Rarely column on numbers 7-22, your child is not an underachiever.

If most of the checks are in the Sometimes column on the entire list, your child is at risk and should be monitored closely. Use the check list on a regular basis, follow his school progress, and alert the pediatrician about any concerns as they arise.

If most of the checks are in the Rarely column on numbers 1-6 and in the Usually column on numbers 7-22, your child is showing signs of underachievement and should be evaluated both medically and educationally-psychologically. Make appointments with the pediatrician and school counselor to discuss your concerns. Read chapters 3 and 4 before the appointments. Write down the points you want to cover in each conference. Have a list of specific questions you want answered.


© 1997–2017 Intermag Productions. All rights reserved.
THE INFORMED PARENT is published by Intermag Productions, 1454 Andalusian Drive, Norco, California 92860. All columns are stories by the writer for the entertainment of the reader and neither reflect the position of THE INFORMED PARENT nor have they been checked for accuracy. WARNING: THE INFORMED PARENT or its writers assume no liability for information or advice contained in advertisements, articles, departments, lists, stories, e-mail question/answers, etc. within any issue, e-mail transmissions, comment or other transmission.
Website by Copy & Design