Dear Your Teen:
Our 8th grade son seems to have given up on doing any of his school assignments and studying for tests. His grades are suffering immensely. He believes school is ridiculous and he doesn’t need to learn the information. We have explained at great length that what he is learning and the skills he’s developing now build on the next quarter/semester/grade lessons.
It breaks our hearts to hear him say he is not smart enough, so there’s a lack of self esteem too. He’s a wonderful kid…smart, trustworthy, funny, and kind are just a handful of ways to describe him. We have been having this struggle since beginning middle school (3 years) but this year has been worse. We have been to parent-teacher conferences where his teachers seem frustrated too. We no longer know where to turn for help motivating our son and getting him to believe in himself. Thank you in advance for any advice you’re able to give for how parents can help underachieving students.
Ideas to Help Underachieving Students
It sounds like your son has adopted a fixed mindset and is unable to view himself from a growth mindset perspective (e.g., “I can’t” vs. “I can’t, yet”; “I always make mistakes” vs. “Mistakes help me improve”). This concept comes from the work of psychologist Carol Dweck and her groundbreaking book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Here’s a quick overview: A student with a fixed mindset believes his abilities are set and cannot be changed (“I am not smart”). When that student encounters material he does not readily comprehend, it reinforces (for that student) the idea that he is not smart and he simply gives up. This can lead to underachievement at school.
By comparison, a student with a growth mindset believes that by making an effort, he can learn the material. There are steps parents can take to help cultivate a growth mindset in their teenaegrs. In addition to Dweck’s book, two others that can help are The Grit Guide for Teens: A Workbook to Help You Build Perseverance, Self-Control, and a Growth Mindset by Caren Baruch-Feldman PhD and Mindsets for Parents: Strategies to Encourage Growth Mindsets in Kids by Margaret Lee & Mary Cay Ricci
Oftentimes, children and adolescents who have experienced multiple setbacks in their academics can find it hard to stay motivated and believe in their possible successes—sometimes referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a great place to start with your son in order to challenge his negative thoughts about himself and learn to create new patterns of thinking and doing. Research your local outpatient therapy partners to find a therapist who is well versed in CBT counseling.
Overall, the use of an individual therapist is recommended to help underachieving teenagers like your son identify distortions in their thinking and adopt healthier cognitive patterns to make changes in their approach to learning. Reach out to your son’s school counselor to see what he/she has to offer in regards to emotional support in the school setting and reaching his academic goals.
Lastly, sometimes underachieving students can have undiagnosed learning issues. In order to rule out any learning differences, reach out to your son’s school or local partners who can provide a comprehensive learning evaluation. They can also assess for other neurological factors that may be contributing to his challenges with academics (e.g., ADHD).
Katie M. DiNardo, MA, LPC, NCC, is a pediatric behavioral health counselor at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health.