It can be so frustrating to have a student in class who you know can be doing
much better than they actually are. It may be that the student started the year
strong and something happened to them personally that made them start to slack
off. For some it could be caused by family trauma, for others, it could be the
social pressure of trying to fit in or be cool, while there will also be those for
whom there is no obvious reason.
Or, perhaps this is a student who is consistently low-achieving, possibly even
considered a trouble-maker, but you perceive that he or she is just bored, and
you see a glimmer of creativity and longing for the right spark.
Purdue University professor Jean Sunde Peterson states, “When highly
intelligent adolescents are turned off by school or are struggling to stay involved
during adolescent or family upheaval, their underachievement may represent
great pain and frustration, not to mention the loss of potential adult productivity.
Teachers must begin identifying and intervening on behalf of these students or
society pays the cost.”
We’ve all seen this, and we all have wanted to help and intervene, but with a
classroom of students with other needs, it can be overwhelming to try and come
up with real solutions.
Schools have the option of tackling underachievement through two types of
intervention: counseling and instructional. While counseling is more of a formal
attempt at goal-setting and looking to see if success is the desired goal,
instructional interventions could include placing students in a full-time or part-time
self-contained classroom, working with smaller student-teacher ratios,
unconventional types of instruction and activities, and the exploration and
utilization of various learning strategies.
Once students have been categorized as underachievers, it is important for
teachers to identify the cause of their underachieving. Servicing the wrong cause
with an inappropriate treatment can have serious consequences, so one must
take the time to investigate and discover the true source behind these actions.
Here are some basic steps to help you as you start this journey with these
Create a Welcoming Environment
The first thing teachers must do is create a welcoming learning environment that
1) addresses identity and learning goals at the same time, 2) normalizes conflicts
students experience by acknowledging the mixed messages they receive, 3)
include cultural brokers that understand gender, class, racial, or ethnic cultures
enough so they can explain concepts and build bridges, and 4) provide direct
instruction in social skills for leadership.
Avoid Inflexible Classrooms
For some students, classroom procedures need to be changed or relaxed. Some
students will finish tasks faster than their classmates or find the work dull so they
find diversions to occupy their time, which often leads to distracted classmates
and a frustrated teacher. This is the most trouble in an inflexible classroom.
Instead of demanding that students all stay together and stick with the scheduled
plan, allow students to further explore areas of interest when they come up. Be
open to take discussions deeper or in a whole other direction.
For students that finish before their classmates, instead of making them just wait
or giving busy work, provide options such as another level of work that is not
necessarily more difficult or more work, suggestions for further study, or tasks
that complement their interests.
As mentioned, boredom is a major cause of underachievement. Boredom can
lead not only to diminished attention and interference with student performance
in the classroom, but it can be demoralizing to teachers and parents, and even
has the potential to lead to drug use, eating problems, and leaving school both
temporarily and permanently.
This boredom is usually caused by a lack of challenge and is characterized by
abstract questions, disruptive humor, the reading of unrelated material, or simply
sleeping in class. If allowed to continue, these students will associate school
Students complain that instruction that is teacher-centered and text-book-based,
or that involves copying, rote memorization, drilling, repetition, waiting, or
dwelling on concepts that they have already mastered were the chief causes of
In addition to avoiding these things in the classroom, engaging learning consists
of a caring teacher, complex and challenging content, and allowing for students
to have a level of control in how they learn and choice about what they learn.
Teachers that are truly interested in overcoming this hurdle should ask students
why they are bored, verify that they understand, and actually follow through on
what they hear.
Avoid Reinforcing Perfectionism
Students who have tendencies toward perfectionism may also struggle in a
highly competitive classroom. To counter this problem, try not announcing
grades to the class or comparing students’ scores, and don’t act surprised when a student unexpectedly gets a question correct. These actions simply tend to
reinforce the perfectionism that leads to underachievement.
In an attempt to further combat perfectionism, attempt to eliminate the word
“perfect” from the classroom since it only reinforces impossible expectations.
Teachers must also make sure that they are providing at least as much positive
feedback as they are negative so as to prevent a sense of hopelessness and an
overall negative association with school.
One strategy that could actually overlap both the counseling and instructional
avenues of intervention is bibliotherapy which is simply using reading to help
students cope with social issues or personal trauma. This can be done
individually, in a small group setting or formally in a class such as an elective on
gender issues through literature.
In successful bibliotherapy, the reader associates themselves or something
about themselves with a character in a biography or piece of fiction; reflects on
his or her actions, motivations, and consequences; and experience some sort of
growth as a result.
Confronting Transition Anxiety
Many students experience underachievement in association with transition
anxiety experienced when going from high school to post-secondary school. The
most helpful way for schools to deal with this is to make advising personal and
not simply academic. Advisors should be encouraged to be caring, helpful,
supportive, and feel free to engage in non-academic talk and decision making.
Schools can also provide information about potential underachievement to
parents and potential students so they won’t be surprised or discouraged should
Many colleges and universities also provide in-depth orientation and transition
programs that include everything from overnight stays to summer sessions that
teach basic skills needed for college. It has been proven quite helpful to provide
students a forum for sharing and discussing these frustrations and providing
support for each other.
Schools should be conscious of who their first-generation college students are.
These students may not have the support that others have at home or at least
not the guidance and wisdom that comes from parents who have taken the
college path themselves.
Some secondary schools are taking transition anxiety into consideration for lower
grades and attempting to eliminate it by making secondary school seventh
through twelfth grade while others are adding a ninth-grade campus in between
middle school and high school.
Formal Plan for Gifted Underachievers
Sylvia Rimm, author, lecturer and general expert on gifted underachievers,
provides a series of questions to help keep teachers working with gifted
underachievers evaluate their curriculum and instruction.
● Are we giving clear and positive messages that will help gifted children
relate their personal efforts to future outcomes?
● Are we being realistic or are we setting these children up for feelings of
pressure by praising their intelligence too extremely?
● Are our children enjoying learning and challenge?
● Are our children learning perseverance?
● Can they cope with competition and losing or are we expecting them to
win all the time?
Rimm also has a very thorough model for reversing extreme underachievement
called TRIFOCAL. In this intervention-like model, parents and teachers plan and
work together quite closely as they are the key to its success. All the steps must
be put into place at approximately the same time:
1. Assessment of skills, abilities, reinforcement contingencies, and
types of underachievement;
2. Communication – supportive communication between teachers and
parents, or a child advocate, to ensure that the underachievement
is not being reinforced;
3. Changing expectations of important others – this includes private
counseling, group therapy, addressing an entire class, and possibly
changing the school environment along with teachers and family
members being able to provide honest support;
4. Correcting skill deficiencies; and
5. Modification of reinforcements at home and school – working with
the student to develop the smallest possible effective
reinforcements for meeting goals.
For students facing achievement/affiliation conflicts, there are a number of skills
that can be learned to help combat these issues. Many students try to assimilate
into one group or another. If students can keep from losing their own identity in
the process, this along with code-switching (deliberately changing behaviors to
accommodate the expectations of an environment) can be very helpful.
It is also extremely beneficial if these students will take the risk and try
communicating how class, race, and/or gender affect their lives and critique the
stereotypes associated with these things with other students.