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Empowering Underachievers

Dugan Van Kleef hit the elementary school ground running. The academic year got off to a good start. His early education had emphasized socialization, rather than serious skills, and with parents and teachers still reading to him, he seemed to be getting along just fine. His single dad, Tom, raised Dugan and his older sister for years, and, after Dugan’s kindergarten year, Tom remarried. Although the change seemed positive at home, at school, Dugan began to slip behind his classmates academically.

“When it came to him working with the alphabet, he really just didn’t have any interest in it,” says Van Kleef. In fact, the process of learning to read didn’t seem important to Dugan at all, and throughout the first few weeks of school, new concepts weren’t clicking either. It became clear early on that he was capable of learning and tackling the curriculum, but he wasn’t retaining information and was falling further and further behind his classmates.

The Van Kleefs met with Dugan’s teacher four weeks into the school year. “He’s a lovely child,” she explained, “but he’s starting to have some problems with focus.” She, too, was concerned about his retention of information.

And, if school performance wasn’t troubling enough, Dugan’s self-esteem began to plummet, and the family’s collective frustrations started to escalate. Just a few short years into his educational career, Dugan had already established for himself a pattern of underachieving.

As the teacher’s lessons began to build on prior knowledge (knowledge Dugan had not retained), he tuned out in aggravation until something more fun came along. Couple his insecurity with the academic accomplishments of his older sister, Elizabeth, and it’s not surprising he became more and more withdrawn.

Van Kleef admits there were points when he got to his wits’ end, as his son seemed immune to motivation. “There were times I would put him to bed, and I would sit down outside, look up at the stars and say, ‘Dear God, what do I do now?’” But even though his son lacked focus, the former fighter-pilot father never did. “You’ve just got to remember that as frustrated as you are, the kids are even more frustrated.”

Dugan belongs to a subset of students that is at once difficult to diagnose and exasperating to get through to. Underachieving is an age-old problem, but it’s receiving new attention as kids become more plugged into technology and the distractions of growing up—and less connected to traditional classroom education.

There are two sides to the coin of underachieving kids: indifferent and discouraged, like Dugan and those who are more oppositional in their behavior. For them, it’s more than a case of bad grades; it’s also a bad attitude.

So, in this era of No Child Left Behind, what’s a parent to do? As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” The same holds true for underachievers. You can provide them with the tools to succeed, but making a change is ultimately up to them. Experts vary slightly in their working definitions of the term, but essentially, underachievers are known as bright kids who do not achieve to their full potential. So parents are left scratching their heads, wondering just what does it take to cut through the malaise and motivate?

What’s going wrong?
Underachievers can be tough nuts to crack. It’s challenging to get through to a child who seems to lack motivation and even tougher if the child has an attitude problem, as well. If parents can get to the heart of the child’s problem early, they may be able to identify what’s causing the disconnect between the child’s potential and his productivity (or lack thereof).
There are a handful of reasons for underachievement to crop up, but the most surprising one might just be a sign of the times. It’s no secret kids have greater access to technology, more sophisticated toys and more pervasive media than kids growing up even as late as the 80s. Dr. David Falkstein, a psychologist and specialist in school psychology in Allen, says society and families have become more complex than ever before, and as a result, there may be a 21st-century onslaught of new-age underachievers.

Growing up in this complex society means many kids are overscheduled. With involvement in sports and activities starting earlier and time commitments rivaling part-time jobs, it’s not surprising that this sensory overload can wear kids out on life and learning.

Another contributing cultural factor is attitudinal, and something even adults have come to expect: instant gratification. Dr. Jay Ruebel, a North Texas child psychologist, contends that kids are growing up with the sense that everything can be accomplished instantly, from driving through Starbucks to checking movie times on Mom’s Blackberry, and they learn to expect instant results to feel satisfied.

Unfortunately, as anyone who’s ever struggled through an algebra class knows, there’s very little about school that provides instant gratification. “That doesn’t happen in school, so you can see how they [children] get frustrated and give up,” says Ruebel. “It’s important for parents to teach children that taking the time to work toward things is still very important.”
Such cultural factors may be difficult to avoid, but there are other, more intrinsic causes of underachieving, too. Traumatic events often send kids into despair and cause them to give up on school. A death in the family, a divorce or even a move to a new city and school can derail a child’s learning.

Emotional underdevelopment is at the heart of many underachievers’ struggles, according to Dr. Peter Spevak, director and founder of the Center for Applied Motivation outside Washington D.C. and author of Empowering Underachievers. His research has shown that while most people grow into emotional maturity through a series of decisions, consequences, challenges and learning experiences, underachievers lack the values necessary to use these life experiences as opportunities for growth.

For example, most achievers understand that productivity is desirable and results in feelings of accomplishment. When you don’t get positive results (from homework or sports, let’s say), it’s a cue to work a little harder, or change your approach.

The underachievers, on the other hand, lack the values that contribute to emotional maturity and achievement, and they harbor feelings of vulnerability and insecurity that hold them back emotionally. The results? Kids who stop trying to achieve, and kids who are unhappy. Parents play a dominant role in passing along values to their kids, so why is there such a disparity between values and achievement in some kids? Spevak explains that young people are freer from responsibilities than they were in previous generations.

“Parents are, in some ways, more preoccupied with other things; the culture is a little looser, so kids react differently to a demand,” he says. If parents model that work is a negative thing, he warns, their children are not learning how to be fulfilled.

If you suspect an emotional problem, Falkstein recommends seeing a child psychologist. A psychologist, he explains, is trained to do a thorough evaluation, something a counselor cannot offer.

Motivating and keeping the peace
Parenting an underachiever is challenging, but it can be more so when the child has been identified as gifted. Gifted underachievers are likely to be manipulative and express boredom, which can make motivation and discipline doubly difficult. As a parent’s concern shifts from “what’s wrong” to “how do we make it right,” new questions arise: namely how to instill motivation and discipline appropriately while maintaining your sanity and compassion.
To help motivate, Falkstein urges parents to emphasize the positive things children are doing. If all a child hears is how bad his math grade is or how stubborn he’s being, it’s easy for him to translate those criticisms into other areas of his life. “I’m bad at math and constantly being punished, so I must be bad all around,” is the child’s feeling, and a self-fulfilling prophecy is born.

Teachers can help too.

Dr. Kim Ruebel, program director for middle level certification at the University of Texas at Arlington, veteran middle school teacher and wife of Jay Ruebel, says teachers need to focus on narrative assessments, even though they might take more time to grade. Telling a child, “I really like the way you solved this problem” is more effective than a simple “nice job” or a letter grade.

Dallas psychologist Janell Myers agrees. “Set the child up for small successes,” she says. You can do this simply by identifying areas of talent. Maybe he didn’t do well in math last year, but he finished 10 books this summer—definitely cause for a small celebration.
Kids still have to be held to high standards, though. “They have to have expectations that learning is important,” says Falkstein. This means resigning yourself to the fact that your daughter “doesn’t test well” is not an option, but more a cop-out.

So how do you impart those values that lead to emotional maturity and reverse the downward spiral of underachieving? One way, says Spevak, is for parents to model these values explicitly for their kids, so they see a clear connection between work and fulfillment. When parents blow off steam about their jobs around the dinner table, their kids can misinterpret the message and may never make the critical correlation between productivity and accomplishment, challenges and successes.

It’s also critical to have discussions with underachievers that make them consider their situation as a choice. Posing open-ended questions like “What could you have done differently?” or “I wonder why this happened?” is more likely to spark a child to think about his actions than enduring yet another lecture, according to Spevak.

For many kids, simply having greater choice in their learning experience provides motivation. “You don’t have a choice about the content you’re learning, but it’s how you go about doing it,” says Kim Ruebel. It’s really the “illusion of choice,” as she puts it. Teachers can set up their classrooms with stations catering to different learning styles (visual, tactile, etc.) and have the kids see where they fit best. Another option? “If you give them five [pre-approved] books to read, you chose them, but you’re still allowing them a choice,” she explains, adding that these strategies can make even the most obstinate underachiever feel empowered.
Personal choice plays into empowering underachievers, also. At Prince of Peace Christian School in Carrollton, high school principal Craig Swanson instituted a success center, where he issues students a personal plan book. In it, they are charged with devising a roadmap, of sorts, to plan their own success, from homework assignments to six-week grades, and they are held accountable by having the book checked and signed several times a day by teachers, mentors and parents.

Discipline by design
But how do you discipline when things seem hopeless? Experts agree punishing irregularly or irrationally does little to change behavior and will only add fuel to the fire.

Through his extensive research with underachievers, Spevak has found that getting children to see their behavior and performance as a choice is critical in changing conduct and getting results.

He suggests parents try to lessen the intensity when tensions are at their highest. For example, when a child brings home a bad report card, say “That’s an interesting choice; I wonder why you got those grades.” If you then walk away, he says, it forces the child to consider what went wrong. “It makes them turn to themselves to wonder why they created that circumstance,” and ends a cycle of blaming parents, teachers and themselves, Spevak says.

Spevak also advocates a tactic he calls “The Withhold” when children are oppositional and seem lazy in the home environment. In this scenario, when a child neglects or refuses a chore, for example, the parent either reminds him to do it immediately or makes him aware that they’re doing it for him. Then, rather than hand down a punishment, state clearly that you’ll get back to the child on this issue.

Inevitably, the child will ask for something in a few days or a week. At that point, the parent says no, citing the chore issue that occurred earlier. Withholding also causes children to think about their contribution to their circumstances. Spevak says this method of discipline may take a while to catch on, but the persistence will pay off as the child moves toward more appropriate behavior.

Parents can inadvertently hinder their kids’ progress, too. Allyson Gardner, director of a local Huntington Learning Center, has seen a range of intervention and motivational techniques that well-intentioned parents try. Saying, “I know you can do better” to a struggling student is inappropriate, she explains. It causes a child to believe even more strongly that he’s inadequate because he’s not meeting what the parent believes he’s capable of. Saying, “You’ll do better next time” doesn’t address the problem, either.

Gardner also cautions against parents attempting to diagnose the problem to the child. Telling a child he got a poor grade because he didn’t study enough or because he wasn’t paying attention in class isn’t effective because the parent may not know the true cause of the problem.

Nagging, repetition and threats are certainly disciplinary actions to avoid, according to Jay Ruebel. Kids easily become immune and may shut down (or act out) more when they feel threatened. And, Spevak doesn’t see any sense in taking a logic approach with underachievers. While getting good grades to get into a good college and land a nice job makes perfect sense to you, reminding an underachiever of this will not make a difference. They will negate your logic every time (e.g., “I don’t need math; I have a calculator!”).

Change for the better
Knowing when and how to seek help for an underachiever is critical. As with other issues, communication is key—first with the child and then with the teacher. The better you know your child’s teacher, the greater the chance you’ll have open, honest and effective communication later on. Kim Ruebel believes kids need to be a part of the solution, as well. Starting at about age 8, children should be in the conference with parents and teacher to talk about what is happening.

But when the frustration sets in, and the patterns aren’t changing, other support mechanisms should come into play. Jay Ruebel suggests parents first educate themselves. Then, beyond the literature and conversations with the teacher, you can always approach a school counselor, outside psychologist or diagnostician, and the child’s pediatrician. “There is no harm in going to see somebody,” he says.

The Van Kleefs know this well.

After they heard Dugan’s teacher’s concern about his lack of focus and retention, they asked if she thought there was a learning disability. They had a district diagnostician evaluate Dugan. And they requested his pediatrician check for “mechanical problems” like speech, hearing and vision issues. With a clean bill of health, the Van Kleefs were satisfied that they had utilized all available options. But there was still work to be done. The next step was to seek outside help from a local tutoring center.

With Dugan, the challenge was getting him to want to do his best—Tom Van Kleef knew his son had a choice in the matter, but Dugan didn’t. The family recognized that reading didn’t interest Dugan, but professional analysis revealed why: He was missing the skills necessary to recognize and sound out letters and words. He would read a word once without retaining it.
No amount of workbooks or flashcard drilling could endow Dugan with the emotional maturity he needed to get back on track, but once his tutors and parents were able to make the connection between learning something once and using it later, Dugan eventually developed the confidence to go back to class and perform to his potential.

“So much of life is being able to persist,” says Spevak. Dugan learned this early on. When his report card revealed straight As after about six months of tutoring, he experienced his first genuine sense of accomplishment from within.

To start the year right, Ruebel insists parents sit down with the child before they step into the hallowed halls. “You don’t want to convey too much anger or disappointment,” he cautions, but you do want to bring up the challenges of the previous year, and express your love and concern that you don’t want the child to suffer the same scenario this year.