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Motivating Underachievers: Focus On Effort, Not Results

Ginny has graduate degrees in both social work and education. So she assumed, naturally, that whatever problems her own two children encountered in the classroom—whether emotionally or academically—she’d be able to help them.

When her 14-year-old son, who continually measured in the highest echelons of IQ tests, first started getting Bs and Cs, she knew just what to do.

She helped him make test guides. And talked about the importance of establishing daily study habits. And gave examples of how important grades were to his future.

When Your Teen is Capable of So Much More

But to Ginny’s utter frustration, none of these things seemed to resonate with her underachieving teenager.

“He’s unmotivated by grades. He doesn’t feel an incentive to get the highest scores. He just doesn’t see the value in it,” she says.

It’s not that Ginny needed her son to get straight A’s. It was the fact that he didn’t seem to care about what results he got at all. He was underachieving, which is a very different phenomenon than a child simply not performing well at school.

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“Underachievement refers to young people who are performing more poorly in school than one would expect on the basis of their test scores or other indices of basic mental abilities,” explains Robert McCall, co-director of the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh. “Poor achievement is when a child performs modestly or poorly, but at a level one might expect of that child’s abilities and circumstances.”

Underachievement, on the other hand, “can be a child who gets C’s and B’s when he or she is capable of getting A’s, or gets C’s and D’s when capable of getting B’s.”

When it comes to underachievement, the disparity between capability and results can really get under the skin of a parent. If only Suzie would just apply herself, they think. Yet a lot of times when teenagers underperform, it has more to do with fear than with laziness, experts say.

4 Ways to Support an Underachiever:

1. Understand why they’re underachieving.

“They worry they won’t be smart enough—and so they start using words like ‘boring’ to describe their academic work,” says Dr. Sylvia Rimm, director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland and author of the book Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades. “But ‘boring’ doesn’t really mean boring at all. It means I’m scared to make an effort because maybe even if I make an effort I still might not do well.”

Many underperformers were, in fact, once over- or average achievers; they were likely accustomed to not having to work too hard to do well in school. But as the academics got harder in middle school (or high school), they never developed the tools to deal with it. “They define smart as easy, so if work is hard, they think they must be stupid,” Rimm says.

2. Praise and demand effort.

Checking out—or feigning indifference to schoolwork—gives the underachievers an easy out for not meeting their own or others’ expectations. As a parent, then, one of the best things you can do to help your underachieving teenager get over these fears is to spend more time complimenting him on his efforts rather than his results.

“Give your teenager the message that we expect you to be a hard worker and do your best. And if they do their best, you’ll be satisfied with the grades,” Rimm says.

3. Don’t make excuses.

It’s important also not to make excuses for your teen. When a child is more of an outside-the-box thinker, it can be easy to label him as a “creative type”—giving your teen tacit permission to bow out of work and assignments. And conversely, it also “gives your child the message that they always have to think and act differently or creatively—thus putting pressure on them not to conform even when it’s appropriate,” Rimm says.

4. Set realistic goals.

If you are concerned that changes in grades might be related to an underlying undiagnosed issue like ADHD, talk to your child’s doctor. But once you’ve ruled out any medical issues—and tried to get your child extra support—you might have to do the hardest thing of all: swallow your ego and accept that your teen just does not have the same goals as you. “Our rule now is that our son can’t get C’s for the grading period,” says Ginny, who admits to struggling daily with these revised expectations.

And at the same time, she admits that she can’t help but admire her son a bit for his attitude. “I think in some ways the attitude he has will serve him more on this planet than the monkey who just jumps through hoops,” she says. “My friends remind me that if I talked to any mom of a Silicon Valley executive about how their child was in school, I’d probably hear similar stories.”

Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio, and frequent contributor to Your Teen.

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