Although the term “underachiever” commonly refers to anyone, child or adult, who performs below his or her potential, psychologists typically use the term to refer to a student whose performance in academic studies falls significantly below his scores on standardized tests of aptitude or ability.
A student may also be considered to be underachieving based on the educator’s evaluation of her learning potential in relation to the quality of the work she does on class assignments.
There are many explanations for achievement that falls below evaluated potential. Some problems may be the educational experience itself: bright students may be bored by class assignments, and therefore do not give them much attention; or a student’s learning style may conflict with the method of instruction used in his school.
Underachievers may also have learning disabilities that prevent them from making full use of their capabilities. Family factors may also contribute to a pattern of underachievement in a variety of ways.
When parents’ expectations are low or nonexistent (the family doesn’t expect the student to do more than pass), the student may work “just hard enough”—well below his full potential—to get by. When a student’s peer group does not value academic achievement, peer pressure may be another factor contributing to underachievement.
Parents, educators, and the student can all work together to counter underachievement. First, working with the family and school personnel, the student must understand the factors that contribute to low academic achievement.
Factors may include poor time management, self-defeating thought patterns (“I could never get a B in science.”), weak writing skills, poor (or no) study environment (i.e., homework done while watching television), friends or role models who do not value academic performance, or self-destructive habits like alcohol or drug abuse. Next, the student needs to acknowledge that she could be more successful in school.
Parents and teachers can help the student compile a list of strengths, both academic and other, that she can build upon. They can also help direct the student to peer groups (through clubs, sports, or other extracurricular activities) that support academic success.
In addition, role models can be presented to the student to help her focus on the possibilities in academic life, rather than the limitations. Finally, where necessary, families can seek counseling and treatment for problems such as alcohol abuse that prevent the student from focusing on school.