Don’t Get Caught in the Lazy Trap

By Linda C. Neumann

This article was first published by SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) in July, 2010.

How many times did I hear the phrase coming out of a teacher’s mouth: “He’s smart, but lazy!” Usually this comment about one of my boys was followed with, “He could do better if he tried, but he chooses not to try.”

For a long time – far too long – I bought into this assessment. I could see that my sons were bright, and I could see that their work and their effort often failed to measure up to expectations. I had no better explanation for what was going on.

Finally one day, it came to me that my kids were not choosing to underachieve. I still had no explanation for their behavior, but I felt certain that something was holding them back. That realization started me on a quest that I’m still on, to understand bright children who underachieve – my own as well as others.

I found validation for my change in perspective from a book that I often recommend to others. It’s The Myth of Laziness written in 2003 by Dr. Mel Levine. In it, he talks about the many factors that affect work output. Of course there are the dysfunctions and weaknesses that come with learning disabilities, attention deficit, and other learning challenges. A gifted child who must contend with these can be left without the self-confidence, abilities, and energy that it takes to achieve in the classroom. But a bright child need not be twice exceptional to be an underachiever. Levine talks about other factors as well that affect achievement. Some are external, such as stress, competition, role models, and family values. Others are internal, such as the level of optimism, flexibility, and adaptability a child displays.

As I’ve searched for information on this topic, I’ve come across many good suggestions for reversing underachievement and many acknowledgements from experts that it is often not an easy task. The longer it goes on, they say, the harder it is to reverse the negative thought patterns that surround underachieving. Parents and teachers must expect that it will be a long, slow process marked by small successes along the way.

Along with changing thought patterns, here are some other suggestions for parents and teachers that experts seem to agree on:

  • Build on a child’s interests and talents, both at home and at school. 
  • Encourage activities outside of school that the child finds rewarding.
  • Focus praise on the child’s efforts rather than on results.
  • To the extent possible, make work you assign the child meaningful.
  • Help the child in setting realistic goals and planning how to achieve them.
  • Don’t deny the child challenging work because of underachievement.

Additional suggestions for 2e students are provide the accommodations and teach the compensation strategies that the child needs in order to achieve.

To this list I add my own suggestion. Educate yourself on the topic of underachievement. There are no easy answers or quick fixes; but the more you know, the better able you will be to help a bright underachiever find success. Keep in mind this exchange from a session on underachievement given at the 2009 NAGC conference. After hearing the presentation, a parent asked why the speaker had not addressed what he felt was the main cause of underachievement, laziness. The presenter, educator Kathy Lundstrom, replied, “Laziness does not exist, according to research.” She explained that there are reasons why children underachieve, like those she presented in her session, and we need to uncover them.

Linda C. Neumann is the editor of 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter (www.2eNewsletter.com), a bi-monthly publication aimed at parents, educators, advocates, and others who help twice-exceptional children reach their potential. She is also the author of the Spotlight on 2e Series, booklets that explore the combination of giftedness and learning deficits in children.

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