Dear Dr. Sylvia

What Causes Children to Underachieve?

January, 2014



How can a parent figure out if a child’s lack of achievement is due to parenting issues, the child’s diagnosis of “slow processing,” or other learning issues?




Your question is one that I struggle with each time I meet with families at the Family Achievement Clinic. I’ve written a book about it called Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It (Great Potential Press, 2008). While I think the book would be very helpful to you, let me at least summarize the ten issues I watch and listen for in my clients.


1. High, but not too high, expectations. Parents should believe their children can be very good students, but not set them up for feeling the need to be the smartest in the class or school. As children achieve more and more, they can gradually increase their expectations, gradually developing confidence without feeling impossible pressure.

2. A work ethic. Children who believe that work is a good thing and understand the relationship between hard work and good results are more likely to be lifelong achievers. If they believe they can easily and magically achieve by just being lucky, they are in trouble.

3. Competitive resilience. All children love to win and all should have winning opportunities. Achieving children need to be resilient when they lose so they don’t see themselves as losers, but only as needing to try harder or learn differently next time. They need to understand that all successful people experience losing.

4. Disabilities or attention problems. Sometimes these can be minor and hard to identify like processing speed, or sometimes they can be major, like processing speed. Yes I did say that twice. If a child is a very slow worker, it’s much more problematic than being a little slower than others. Also there are reading, math, and writing disabilities than cause major problems. School programs can be adjusted for children to learn and feel successful.

5. Appropriate curriculum. There should be a match between children’s abilities and the complexity of curriculum. If work is either too easy or too hard most of the time, children can give up and stop doing their work at school.

6. Peer environments. It’s important that children have friends who enjoy learning and working hard at school. It’s not a revelation that if your children hang around with troublemakers, they’ll soon learn to fit in with them.

7. United positive parenting. Parents can have some differences, but it’s important that they agree on what to expect of their children. If one parent expects too much and the other protects too much when faced with challenge, children usually get into the habit of trying to get by or finding the easy way out. They tend to manipulate to get the easier parent on their side.

8. Parenting support for schools. Parents who value education, respect teachers, and are supportive of their children’s schools increase the likelihood that their children will learn in school. If children hear their parents saying negative things about teachers, they will not respect or learn from them.

9. Appropriate role models. Children observe parents, teachers, and other adults all the time in the process of figuring out the kind of adult they want to become. If they see adults who enjoy their work and balance their life between work and fun, they are motivated to work to become that kind of adult. On the other hand, if life at home is full of sadness, meanness, or unhappiness about work and life, they can feel there’s no reason to work hard to accomplish anything.

10. Reasonable balance. Children need to experience reasonable balance in their lives. That doesn’t mean that every day has to be balanced. Overall, we want to encourage them to work hard to achieve, but we also want them to experience friendship and family fun. The goal is to have them avoid “majoring” only in their social life and being too “cool” to do the learning and hard work that will help them accomplish interesting careers where they can both make a living and make a positive difference for our world.

Parents don’t have to be perfect; but when two or three of these top ten things go wrong, it causes children to underachieve in school. Sometimes life events will help underachievers reverse their underachievement; sometimes they underachieve for life.

Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For free newsletters about why bright kids get poor grades, learning disabilities, ADHD, and/or how parents make a difference, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s articles on this topic and submit questions online at All questions are answered.

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