What's a parent to do when a child is capable of doing good work-but can't be bothered to try?
Seth Goldstein never liked school. As a kindergartner, he’d moan and complain that he didn’t want to go.
His mother, Rhonda, remembers thinking: “It’s going to be a long 12 years.”
Even so, Seth was placed in classes for gifted students. He got good grades in elementary school, but his marks began to drop in middle school. He either didn’t do his homework or completed the work but didn’t turn it in. He complained of stomachaches and resisted going to school. He and his mother argued often about grades.
“If I knew he was trying his best and his grades were average, that would have been OK with me,” says Rhonda Goldstein, who lives in Silver Spring and has an older son who was a high achiever growing up. “But I think I was stressed because I knew he could do better, and I think that by not working up to his potential, he was limiting his options for college.”
Now 18, Seth says he just didn’t want to be forced to learn subjects that didn’t interest him.
“I didn’t see any immediate reward. So I would say, ‘Why would I do this?’ ” he says. “I was learning to no end. …There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
In an area that celebrates the number of high school students taking advanced placement exams, it’s hard to be the parent of an underachiever.
“In Montgomery County, everybody has a sticker on their car for where their kids are going [to college]. It does create, in a community or in a county, some pressure among the parents to have their kids achieve,” says Britt Rathbone, a clinical social worker practicing in Bethesda and Rockville. He says the pressure starts at the earliest stages of education, with parents worrying about what preschool their children will attend.
Experts say it’s hard to measure how many students could be considered underachievers, mostly because it’s difficult to define the term itself. Underachievers typically are students who don’t have learning disabilities but seem to lack the motivation to work to their potential. Of course, to one parent, a child who receives Bs instead of As is underachieving; to another, it’s a child who receives Cs instead of Bs.
Generally, the term refers to those whose abilities, measured by cognitive tests such as IQ, suggest they’re capable of higher grades than they’re earning, Rathbone says.
“It’s really about lack of motivation,” says Neil Bernstein, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist who lives in Bethesda and is the author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can’t (Workman Publishing, 2001). “We generally use [the term underachievement] when it’s a reasonably bright kid who ‘could do better on the surface.’”
Various factors can contribute to underachievement, says Bernstein, who has lectured on its causes and how to address the issue. Some kids are bored in school. Others perform poorly because of stressful situations at home, such as a divorce, financial problems, changing schools because of relocation, or moving from middle to high school. Peer rejection, substance abuse, or addiction to electronic stimulation, such as computers and cellphones, also may play roles. Some underachievers simply may have difficulty with authority, Bernstein says.
“A kid doesn’t like being told what to do and perhaps is protesting his parents’ demands that he be a superstar,” he says.
Some underachievers have problems with what psychologists refer to as executive functioning skills, which include planning and organizing. These kids have difficulty completing tasks in an organized way. Issues with executive functioning skills often appear during middle school, when there is an increased workload and students need study skills to succeed. That increased workload happens just as they’re undergoing developmental changes, which can distract them from doing schoolwork.
“They’re working on their social skills and figuring out who they are as a person,” says Erika Huck, head of the counseling department at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda.
Psychologist Peter Spevak, the director of the Center for Applied Motivation, which has offices in Rockville and Annandale, Va., has been seeing underachieving kids since he started his business in 1984. He says 75 percent of his clients are boys, probably because girls tend to mature and deal with their emotions more quickly than boys.
“Underachievers are often focused on the fun in life, and they think people who work hard are chumps,” says Spevak, who co-authored Empowering Underachievers (New Horizon Press, 2006). “They don’t understand how people could actually enjoy working. They don’t understand that fulfillment is the real kick in life—to work hard, follow your values and do a good job.”
Seth Goldstein acknowledges that was true of him. He was more interested in hanging out with friends or watching television than doing schoolwork. “My parents were worried about my future and what I was going to do. I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about now, at the moment,” he says.
Seth says his schoolwork was easy when he did it, but he found it boring. “I just felt like it wasn’t worth it,” he says. “If I felt like I accomplished something, I would have done it more.”
Seth also found school a “confining way to learn,” and rarely paid attention in class. “You have people spitting out knowledge to you and it’s not an interactive way of learning,” he says. “I don’t want to be forced to learn.”
Rhonda Goldstein, who was divorced from Seth’s father when the boy was a year old, frequently checked her son’s assignments and grades through an online system that parents can access. She spoke often with her son’s teachers and counselors. “They couldn’t really help because it was really Seth not wanting to go to school,” she says. “They listened, but they didn’t have any solutions for us.”
She heard an advertisement for Spevak’s center on the radio and took Seth there when he was in eighth grade. Testing showed that Seth had a high IQ.
When he first started treating Seth, Spevak shared his own experiences as an underachiever. Growing up in La Porte, Ind., he says his goal was just “to not flunk anything.” He got high scores on his college admissions test and enrolled at Purdue University, but flunked out and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. That’s where he discovered that having a resistant attitude—he didn’t like taking orders—got him nowhere.
“You were forced to look at the reality that you had to do things, rather than what you wanted to do, and that was a real wake-up call,” Spevak says.
Spevak tells underachieving students that it’s their decision whether or not to do well in school, and he discusses the importance of having the right attitude to engage in their work. He says life is full of decisions.
“If you’re confident, you engage and you get outcomes. If they’re not real good outcomes, you change a little and you get a better outcome tomorrow,” he says. “It’s a process.”
Seth remembers Spevak telling him, “There is something you’re working for, you just don’t know what it is yet.”
Seth saw Spevak regularly for a year, then periodically the next. Although he still disliked school, Seth says he tried harder because he finally understood its importance. Rhonda Goldstein saw her son’s attitude and grades improve after about two months. He went on to take honors and advanced placement classes in high school. And though he still found many of them boring, “he just learned to take responsibility for his life and his actions, and he knew that he had total control over it,” his mother says.
Judging from a brief survey of some of Montgomery County’s 200 public schools, administrators are well aware that some students are underachieving, and many try to keep those children from falling through the cracks.
At Westbrook Elementary in Bethesda, Principal Rebecca Jones says she and the school counselor meet quarterly with teachers from each grade level to review students’ performances in reading and math, and discuss how to help those who aren’t achieving.
An underachieving student might receive extra support, called an intervention, from a teacher two or three times a week, according to Jones. “We don’t want any child to give up or feel like they can’t do it, or leave elementary school with a negative feeling,” she says.
Teachers at Westbrook, which has an enrollment of about 400, work with small groups of students who are at the same level academically. “We do not teach to the common denominator. You can’t,” Jones says. “If you do, you have kids who are way above and bored, and kids who are below and not able to make progress.”
At Pyle, the county’s largest middle school with about 1,300 students, Principal Jennifer Webster says she often thinks about how to help underperforming students. High-achieving students and those at risk tend to get the attention, she says. “The challenge becomes what we do for kids in the middle,” Webster says. “They’re just kind of flying under the radar and doing what they have to do, and parents and teachers may sense that they are capable of doing more.”
English, math, science and history teachers at each grade level meet twice a week at Pyle to discuss how students are doing, Webster says. Pyle also changed some of its instructional methods last year. Now teachers ask questions that challenge students to evaluate or analyze, rather than simply recall. Teachers also pause after asking questions to give students time to think before they take answers. And they might call on students randomly by reaching into a jar and pulling Popsicle sticks with names on them to encourage full participation.
At Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, 50 to 60 underachieving students are identified before they start freshman year and are asked to attend school for one week during the summer. They meet teachers and get a preview of what they’ll learn during the first few weeks of school, Principal Michael Doran says. The program is designed to make them feel comfortable in the 2,400-student school. Most of these students then continue to meet during the year.