Parenting for Achievement

By The Duke Talent Identification Program

For many parents with gifted children, motivation can be a struggle. This article offers explanations for why this struggle exists, and offers some recommendations for how to foster effort and help students reach their potential. One of the prevailing themes of this article is the idea of learning what works best for each child. I’d like to note that “underachievement” is a relative term. What is underachievement for one student may look quite different from underachievement for another student. In this as in all things, context is key.

“I’m smart, and smart people don’t have to study or work hard.”

Does this sound familiar? How unexpected and frustrating to discover that your child who has been identified as gifted is underachieving academically! Twenty percent or more of students identified as gifted do not work to their potential in school. Underachievement is a family affair, and reversing or preventing it is possible with family guidance and support. Following is a discussion of some common reasons that gifted students underachieve, with recommendations for change.

Why Children Underachieve

Children underachieve because of the environment at home or in school and/or because of social or personal factors. To help your child, you must consider all of these variables. Peer pressure, unrealistic expectations, lack of effort, perfectionism, learning disabilities, conflicting learning/teaching styles, general disinterest, poor study habits, and lack of organizational skills are a few things that can contribute to a child’s underachievement.

Keep the following in mind:

  • All children are motivated, but for different reasons and by different incentives. Some children are motivated by grades, others by parental approval; still others are interested in learning or have well-established goals and dreams. Find out what motivates your child; this knowledge can be a powerful tool.
  • Children who do not see the connection between school and the “real world” are not likely to be interested in school. Some children quickly see how what they learn in school can be used in life; others do not. Parents must help such children make this connection. For instance, if your child is interested in baseball but dislikes math, help him or her see how baseball statistics are calculated.
  • Children who are concerned about the opinions of others tend to underachieve in school. For example, if they are teased for being smart and their identities are tied up with being popular, they may give in to negative peer pressure. Frankly discuss the importance of having friends with your child, but also let him or her know that trying to be popular at the expense of doing well in school can be harmful to one’s future and is also not being true to oneself.
  • All children want to be successful, but external factors can sidetrack them. Extroverted children are more likely to place friends before books. Others may be distracted by family problems; some who work part- or full-time jobs end up having too little time for their school work. As much as possible, parents should remove unnecessary barriers and distractions for their children.
  • Children who are not challenged in school, especially gifted children, are likely to be unmotivated. Parents of such children must work with teachers to develop challenging educational plans. Suggest ways for children with time on their hands to use it wisely, for instance, by finding a book to read, working on an unfinished assignment in another subject, or designing a self-selected independent project.
  • Children who have low self-esteem or think they are not smart are less likely than others to do well in school. Many of them may believe that, no matter how hard they work, they are incapable of getting good grades. Find ways to focus on your child’s strengths, especially the nonacademic ones. Once children feel confident of themselves in areas not related to school, they may be more easily led to appreciate their gifts and talents in academic areas.
  • Children who believe that ability is more important than effort are likely to underachieve. Such children frequently develop poor work ethics, study habits, and organizational skills. To convey the message that effort is important, parents should discuss effort with their children when commenting on their schoolwork and grades. Ask them how much effort they put forth on a task and have them think about how more effort might have improved their performance. Be careful about praising children for getting high grades on schoolwork done at the last minute.
  • Finally, children on whom adults place unrealistic expectations may underachieve because they feel overwhelmed or frustrated. Such statements as “Why did you do that? Smart people don’t act childish” and “You’re gifted—you should make all As” may send students the message that they must be perfect in everything. Avoid making generalized statements and establish realistic expectations. Accept that your child may not be successful all the time.
Parenting for Achievement

Preventing or reversing underachievement is no easy task. Children do not become underachievers overnight, and they will not become achievers instantly, either. It takes commitment, time, and persistence on the part of you and your child. Final recommendations:

  • Parent involvement is essential at home and at school. Advocate for your children.
  • Academics come first. Children must learn that homework and schoolwork come before such activities as watching TV, playing sports, and going to parties.
  • Expect excellence and effort, but keep your expectations realistic.
  • Nurture your children’s interests and strengths.
  • Teach time management. Have your children keep a diary for a couple of days on how they spend their time. When they see that time is limited, they may think more carefully about how they manage or mismanage it and about the impact that time management has on their schoolwork.
  • Never let your children’s weaknesses become excuses for failure or low expectations. Help your children build on their strengths and find ways to compensate for their shortcomings. Through discussions with your children and by working with their teachers, you can help your children improve their academic achievement and ultimately be happier and more successful.

—Donna Y. Ford, PhD, and Michelle Frazier Trotman, PhD Donna Y.

Ford is professor of education at Ohio State University. Michelle Frazier Trotman is director of the Millennium Community School in Columbus, Ohio.