underachieving childThis is a very common refrain from parents and teachers alike. But what does it mean exactly, what are the causes, and what can be done about it?

We all want to believe the best for our children, academically and in every other sphere. It is natural for parents to assume that their children can do better, whatever their current level of functioning.

There are a number of conditions which might affect a child’s academic performance, including learning disorders, ADHD, childhood depression, anxiety disorders and various physical conditions, such as visual or hearing impairments. (Remenber that a learning disorder is a specific area of academic weakness out of keeping with the child’s overall IQ). If any of these are suspected, an appropriate professional should be consulted and treatment, pharmacological or other, initiated as deemed necessary. Sometimes a change of school may be required, as is often the case with a learning disorder.

But it may be that none of these clinical conditions are identified. Or possibly the ADHD has been treated and his marks haven’t improved. What then?

It is tempting to find fault with the school or the teacher in trying to make sense of a child’s difficulties, but usually the answer lies closer to home. Of course, there are instances where teachers and even school policies are to blame, and let’s not forget the impact of bullying on a child’s performance. But as parents we must make sure that our own house is in order, as it were.  In our desire to see our children succeed, important parenting principles are sometimes forgotten by the wayside. The ultimate outcome, ironically, is that the child’s results –  along with everything else –  fall short of expectations. Here are four important pitfalls to avoid in preparing your child for academic success.

1. Stress in the home

Some children, especially in poorer areas, have to negotiate very real practical obstacles to their learning, such as undelivered textbooks, inadequate lighting at home, insufficient desk space and the like. But the emotional milieu of the home can be just as important, if not more important than these outward factors. If there is overt or covert tension between parents, substance abuse, mental illness or domestic violence –  sadly only too common in our society –  it is unreasonable to expect a child to perform. To learn, a child needs to be relaxed, and in such an environment they cannot be, no matter how good the school you send them to.

2. Outsourcing our parenting to the school

It is laudable for parents to value their children’s education, and to make sacrifices to send them to the best possible schools. But if this happens at the expense of the emotional investment of youself in your child, you will be disappointed with the results. Especially in their early months and years, children require a close, nurturing relationship with their parents, and nothing can substitute for this requirement: it cannot be outsourced. There is good evidence that the quality of a child’s bonding with their parents (secure or insecure) in infancy has far-reaching implications for several domains of later development, including academic achievement. What is crucial here is that there seems to be a ‘programming effect’ in the infant’s brain, such that the sequelae of insecure attachment persist despite later interventions, and despite, dare I say it, the quality of the school you send him to.

3. Helicopter parenting

It is very important to allow your child, from as young an age as possible, to learn for themselves and to make their own mistakes. Too many parents, especially moms, are doing homework and assignments for their children because of their own anxiety about their child’s grades. This is profoundly disempowering for a child, as it sends the message that ‘my own efforts are not good enough.’ It erodes self-confidence and interferes with the development of his own study skills and work ethic. Rather allow him to achieve a lower mark, knowing it was his own effort, as this lays the foundation for his own work ethic and establishes a realistic baseline against which to measure his future efforts.

4. An unhealthy emphasis on results

I believe we need to revisit what we are trying to achieve in bringing up children. What are your goals as a parent? Every family should have these clearly articulated, otherwise we will get swept up by the tide of society’s misguided values and priorities. One of these misguided values is the emphasis on talent rather than on hard work. For some reason, we take pride in our innate ability as if we can somehow wear it as a badge. We might even boastfully celebrate success achieved with mimimal or no effort. Children internalise their parents’ values, whether we like it or not. If we are overly preoccupied with results and material success, our children will follow suit, whatever we tell them. This will, amongst other things, engender an unhealthy performance anxiety for tests and exams, leading to sub-par results. Rather, from an early age, we need to emphasise the importance of a healthy work ethic, as part of our child’s overall character development. Out of respect for herself, her parents and her teachers, she does her best, and these efforts needs to be praised and rewarded, whatever the results…and the results will follow!

Finally, let’s remember that a child is a work in progress. His character development, work ethic, ability to prioritise, strategies for managing stress, and indeed his cognitive capacity, are all developing over time. Viewed in this light, It shouldn’t surprise us that our children are underachieving; as my professor once said, ‘who doesn’t?’


Written by: Dr Brendan Belsham
Author of “What’s the fuss about ADHD”