When kids perform beneath their capabilities, parents typically try encouragement, lectures, rewards, threats, teacher meetings, private tutors, and maybe even testing for issues like ADHD. Some go so far as to let their child fail, hoping that will teach him a lesson. When none of these works and the problem stretches to a year or more, chances are he’s one of the fifteen percent of underachievers known as chronic underachievers.
If so, it’s important to back off and dig deeper to understand the roots of the issue. Further attempts to help can actually make things worse. Chronic underachievement may stem from depression, anxiety, rebellion against authority (which applies to boys more than to girls), a high level of self-doubt, or even a desire to not stick out among classmates. Also, many kids (especially those with over-involved or under-involved parents) become masters at manipulating their parents, either because they’ve never learned how to do things for themselves or because they’re seeking approval or a more emotional relationship from an aloof parent.
In this case, showing anger or frustration rewards their subconscious need for attention and dependency. Or perhaps they’re so busy trying to live up to parental ambitions that they don’t get around to forming self-motivation. Regardless, this variety of chronic underachiever becomes expert at transferring responsibility to others, and/or develops a debilitating dependency on others often masked by a charming and manipulative personality.
Does he do homework only when you’re hovering? Does he continually blame shortcomings on the teacher, the class, or other factors? (“It’s not my fault.” “The teacher doesn’t like me.” “The class is boring.”) Does he lie? (“I did my homework at school.” “She didn’t tell us there was going to be a test.”)
Here’s advice from Michael D. Whitley, Ph.D., author of Bright Minds, Poor Grades: Understanding and Motivating Your Underachieving Child: “The lies say to parents, ‘If you really want to know the truth about me, then you have to become so involved and entangled in my life that I will never have to be separated from you.’…If parents focus only on the facts their children lie about and never on the deeper psychology of lying, then parents simply feed the problem even more.”
With chronic underachievers, rewards and punishments don’t work because they don’t teach self-motivation. Tutoring often exacerbates these kids’ dependency. And making them suffer the consequences doesn’t work because they only fall back on excuses.
Instead, chronic underachievers must “learn to understand themselves, think out their own solutions to their problems, exercise self-discipline, and learn to feel positive feelings about schoolwork.”
This may require professional counselling, or parents may be able to turn things around by working through the advice in Whitley’s book or Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline books. Most essential is that parents don’t fall into the common traps of shaming, humiliating, or rescuing their kids. Learn how to really encourage them, as we emphasize in Chapter Ten.
Another resource is Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It: A Six-Step Program for Parents and Teachers by Dr. Sylvia Rimm, who says she reverses underachievement in roughly four out of five children in an average of six months.
Here’s a sampling of Rimm’s advice: “Under no circumstances should your children expect to have you or your spouse sitting next to them regularly at homework time… If your children are accustomed to reminders, nagging, sympathy, and assistance, they have learned to get you to focus your attention on their dependence… Tough to watch them struggle, but don’t deprive them of this only way to develop self-confidence.”

Excerpted from Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life, by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill (Viva Editions). All references (footnotes) contained in the book.