Each school year, many parents are faced with trying to figure out what to do about a child not working up to their potential. This can be one of the most frustrating academic ordeals for parents. Knowing why some kids work below their potential and the best way to handle the situation may help you make it a smoother semester.

What is Underachievement?

“Underachievement is a very complex phenomenon and may be due to a number of factors,” says Colleen Harsin, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of services at the Davidson Institute for Talent Development in Reno, NV. “Researchers have yet to agree on a definition of underachievement, although the term generally refers to a student not performing in a way that is consistent with his or her potential, as determined by past performance and/or test reports.”

Underachievement is a behavior and usually a problem of attitude toward the tasks at hand. Making it even harder to define, it’s in the eye of the beholder. While one person may find a grade of a B unacceptable, another person may think a C and above is great. Trying to determine if your child is an underachiever can be difficult. Some children may not work to their potential in one subject and still be doing great in other subjects. Those believed to be underachievers are diverse. Some of these students are even believed to be gifted.

When it comes to which gender is more often thought to be underachievers, there is a lot of misconception. According to the International Journal of Inclusive Education, the media, research and classrooms have primarily focused only on boys. The Journal reports that this is so common that “the identity and needs of the underachieving girl have been rendered indivisible.” It also states that underachievement has become so much believed to be an issue with just boys, that the idea of girls being underachievers has become virtually inconceivable. This information brings to light the fact that the focus should be on addressing underachievement as being a complex situation, and avoid it being about the underachievement of boys.

The journal Theory Into Practice recently reported that “On a daily basis, teachers, school counselors and administrators are troubled by the unfortunate reality that a significant number of students of color (e.g., African American, Hispanic American and Native American), including those identified as gifted, are not reaching their academic potential in school settings.” Until social and psychological barriers are addressed for this group of students, there will likely continue to be an achievement issue.

Common Reasons

There isn’t just one reason why students don’t reach their potential. It would be great if that were the case; fixing the problem would be simple. But complex issues call for more varied solutions. In the following list of common reasons that students don’t do well academically, try to see if one or more fits your child. If you can identify the reason, you will have an easier time finding a solution.

Time management.

Many students are not good with managing their time in order to complete their work or to study. They keep putting off their work, and then at the last minute, if they remember at all, have to scramble to get work done. This leads to decreased effort and usually shows in the grade they receive. Lacking time management skills leads to missing due dates, deadlines, turning work in late and being unprepared.

Not participating.

Some students become a little more concerned with what’s going on around them, than what the lesson of the day may be. If this is your child, you may have seen them transition from being a great participator in school, to being a social butterfly that puts chatting before school work.

Lacking challenge.

“Often, gifted students develop a pattern of underachievement when they have not been appropriately challenged in school,” says Harsin. She explains that taking an assessment of students’ interests, abilities and skills is essential. That needs to be followed by implementing appropriate learning opportunities in order to reverse underachievement in these students.

Not relating.

Some students do poorly in specific classes because they can’t relate to the teacher. Their teacher may use a teaching method that is not sparking their interest. They may just not mesh with the personality of a particular teacher. Another reality for some students is that they may need help or explanations on particular topics and for various reasons they refrain from speaking up.


If you have a child that isn’t working to his potential, it’s important not to label him. If he hears it enough, he will see himself as an underachiever and the behavior will continue. Using positive reinforcement will always have superior outcomes over making someone feel bad about what they could do better. Getting students to reach their academic potential involves team effort. The students, parents, teachers and society need to work together to teach the next generation how to soar.

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