by Cathy Amsbaugh
It is mystifying and frustrating when an evidently capable student doesn’t meet grade-level expectations. All too often I also hear that one of those students is bored and it raises my hackles. I’ve made a lot of assumptions about why an individual student doesn’t seem to engage in classroom content or gets lower test scores than expected, but my guessing hasn’t helped me help kids. This year, I tackled the research and professional advice on underachievement, especially regarding high ability students.
When working with parents or teachers who are concerned by a student’s lack of achievement, it is important to start with common understandings. Underachievement occurs when there is a gap between a student’s ability and achievement. If an IQ score indicates high ability, it does not correlate perfectly with high achievement. There are other factors that influence achievement, such as personality traits. Being conscientious contributes to achievement independent of IQ. It may sound obvious, but performance on high-ceiling achievement tests are the best predictor of future achievement.
When a student’s measured ability is consistently different than their achievement, it can be due to a disability, student motivation, a lack of executive skills, or even perfectionism. I’m sure sometimes it can be caused by conditioning. Consider the habits and attitudes a student can develop if he has spent years getting top grades with little effort.
The truth is, there are many individual causes of underachievement. However, I think most of those causes can be categorized in two ways: those who want to but can’t and those who don’t want to. It’s important not to assume either of these cases without serious investigation. It’s also important for teachers not to take it personally if it’s the latter. Everyone wants that sense of accomplishment that comes from hard work. If a student is avoiding hard work, there’s a reason and the teacher can help. Here are the actions that may be effective in supporting the student:
Conversations about student achievement can be tricky. Teachers may feel offended when a parent says their child is bored at school. Parents may feel judged if a teacher indicates their child resists challenging work.
Parents: It’s okay to advocate for your child at school. If you observe that your child is doing work that is too easy, or isn’t engaging with content, talk to the teacher and offer your support.
Teachers: It’s okay to advocate for your student. A student’s primary source of value acquisition is the home. Talk with parents about chores, how the child is expected to contribute to the work of the household, and ways parents might model the hard work they do outside of the home. It’s helpful to children to hear parents talk about the satisfaction they feel from the contribution they make in their workplace both to the nature of the business and how their work makes the world a better place.
Always keep challenging
If you know a student is capable of more, support him to do more. Some students may need help with time management, guidance in recognizing the skills they have to be successful, or technology to make a component of the task more accessible (for example, text to speech). Other students need to have choices to make the content more interesting or meaningful to them. Choices in reading materials, subtopic to research, or product of learning can make a big difference to a disengaged student.
It’s natural to feel wary of offering content challenges and choice to a student who has been performing poorly in the classroom. It seems students should meet a certain standard before going beyond. However, if there is already data to show the student has higher ability, what’s the harm in offering challenge? It’s unlikely the student’s grades will decline.
Build a growth mindset
Kids need to know that everyone can get smarter. Those with a fixed mindset tend to think assignments are for proving what they know. They sometimes believe that the kid who has to work hard isn’t as smart. Those with a growth mindset are more open to the learning that comes from classwork and are willing to tackle a challenge.
Teachers need to explicitly create a culture of learning in the classroom by focusing on a growth mindset. Teach about how the brain learns through growing new synapses when a person works on a challenging task, even if mistakes are made (and even if those mistakes are not corrected!). Give specific feedback and genuine, but modest, praise. Students should understand that it is their effort that moves their ability to the next level.
Above all, focus on the relationship
We know every student responds better when they feel understood and cared about. Recognizing a student’s interests and abilities is a big step in that direction. Challenging and supporting children is what teachers do. We can’t give up just because a student resists.
It’s worth repeating: if a capable student’s grades are suffering, we take very little risk in trying to understand why and providing support, yet we have the potential to make a lasting impact on the child’s attitue, engagement and success in school.
Cathy Amsbaugh is currently a gifted specialist working in Summit School District, where she began her teaching career as a 5th grade teacher. She is a board member of TMIRA and a member of the International Baccalaureate Educator Network.
Delisle, J. R. (2018). Doing poorly on purpose: Strategies to reverse underachievement and respect student dignity. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Rimm, S. B., & Rimm, S. B. (1995). Why bright kids get poor grades: And what you can do about it. New York: Crown.
Siegle, D. (2013). The underachieving gifted child: Recognizing, understanding, and reversing underachievement. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.