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Confronting Underachievement Syndrome

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Millions of students who are very capable of learning - students with average, above average and even gifted abilities - are languishing with "underachievement syndrome."

I first became interested in this population when I worked as a sixth-grade school counselor. Students at the school seemed to have a lot going for them, so I was surprised to encounter so many children who were falling short of their potential, yet barely drawing notice from school personnel. Some of these students were doing well but obviously should have been doing better; others were performing poorly when they should have been average students.

One day, the teacher of the gifted program came to my office to discuss some of the students whom she thought were having "issues." I started to take a real interest in two particular students and noticed that both were struggling not just academically but also socially and psychologically.

Eric had few friends, was shy and withdrawn and was often the target of teasing. He doodled and daydreamed all day long. Lauren, on the other hand, had a lot of friends but was not getting along well at home. She was extremely disorganized and possessed poor study skills. Watching her at her locker, it seemed she was always harried and on the verge of crying.

I went to work putting together a dual treatment plan. I scheduled individual counseling sessions for Eric and Lauren to cover the mental health component and strategized with each about how best to implement changes using hands-on, practical tips. We started by trying to figure out what was working and what was not. For instance, Lauren and I reorganized her locker, putting the textbooks in the order she would need them for class and hanging a whiteboard so she could jot reminders to herself before she had to hurriedly pack up at the end of the day. The key here was basic organizational skills and easy implementation. Then we put together a time management chart and study schedule that included not only school commitments but also extracurricular obligations and free time. Eric and I, meanwhile, worked on ways to approach other students, concentrating on tips for making conversation and maintaining eye contact.

A trifocal approach was used in this process, with parents and teachers brought in to assist in implementing some of the changes. Individual counseling continued throughout the semester on a biweekly basis, with emphasis placed on staying focused both inside and outside of school. We discussed the different relationships in our lives and how, as individuals, we can shape these relationships. We maintained self-awareness as a central theme of these discussions.

Based on the progress made by these two students, I applied some of the same tactics to a group of boys I had gathered to have lunch with me weekly in the conference room. These kids were not gifted- their performance in school ranged from above to below average - but they shared similar characteristics with one another and responded to the same counseling strategies. The Boys Lunch Group became such a success that parents and teachers asked if! could start another one after only a month. Low self-esteem was a common issue among these children, and we regularly made use of fun assessments and role-playing exercises.

After completing that temporary position, I started working with college students. I quickly noticed the tools I had used with the sixth-graders worked with these older students too. One student was

suffering from depression and anxiety after having been put on probation at the end of his freshman year. His parents brought him to counseling, telling him he had to meet with me every week throughout the summer or they would cut him off

After establishing rapport, Randy and I spent the first several sessions discussing school and his studies, using similar time management tools and assessments to determine his strengths and weaknesses. We charted his energy cycle and realized he was studying and doing schoolwork at

the worst possible time, when he was tired and inattentive. Next, we determined his personal learning style and discussed strategies for adjusting to various teaching styles. We also discussed Randy's choice of major and his career options. In the process, we learned he had chosen his major based not on his skills and interests but rather according to his parents' expectations.

In time, our sessions began to revolve less around guidance counseling and instead focused on the psychological issues contributing to his poor performance. By the end of our eight sessions, Randy was more focused and returned to school with note-taking strategies, study skills techniques and a more confident attitude.

Getting to the root of the problem

My experience with this college student and the middle school students suggests there is a serious need for counselors both inside and outside of academia to learn more about the issue of underachievement. Underachievement is generally viewed as a discrepancy between expected

and actual performance. Some measure of intelligence is required to gather information regarding a student's overall achievement potential. This is the only way to ensure that the expectations for the

student are in line with reality. It is also important to make sure that a student's lack of productivity is not due to an inherent disability such as a learning disability or behavior disorder.

For those students who seemingly hate school, appear to invest minimal effort in their learning and consequently achieve at a level well below their capabilities, underachievement may have set in upon being exposed in school to structure, competition, labeling, negative attention or even boredom. Some of the common defining qualities of underachievement include inconsistent work habits, poor study skills, general disorganization, forgetfulness, avoidance of responsibilities, poor self-control, low self-esteem, inadequate social skills, problems in family relations and a limited sense of control over their lives.

Although it may not be obvious, most underachievers are highly competitive. They aspire to be winners and are often poor losers, having never learned how to cope with defeat. Most underachievers are also insecure regarding their ability to compete with their classmates. They are

afraid they cannot reach the expectations set for them by their parents and educators. In truth, they might be able to meet these expectations, but they are unlikely to take the risk of finding out because

they perceive the threat of failure to be too great. Underachievers don't really believe they can achieve their goals even if they work harder. What they do believe is that there is no inherent sense of failure if legitimate effort is not put forth.

In other instances, underachievement results not from lack of effort but because of ineffective learning strategies and study skills. Without the skills necessary to learn and process information, it is almost impossible to succeed. For these individuals, psychological defense mechanisms kick in for their protection. Criticism from parents and teachers can be quite devastat ing for these students, leading to further underachievement. They eventually adopt the mind-set that they do not have the ability to achieve, so why try? Their negative self-concept as learners causes feelings of anxiety, even when they are on the verge of success.

An overlooked need

Although underachievers are pervasive in the school system, virtually no special services are made available to help them, unlike those provided for classified students. Could this be because there is no official diagnosis for an underachieving student? Perhaps a label would allow them to receive the educational and counseling services they so desperately need.

In recent years, increasing demands to work with students in crisis or facing issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, depression or various other mental health issues have forced counselors to turn away from less urgent matters such as underachieving students. While education counselors may not be center stage in the mental health arena on many campuses, neither should they be snubbed. Students are in great need of the services provided by these professionals and would further benefit from a joint effort by academic, career and psychological counselors. Joining together would allow those students who otherwise get overlooked because they are not labeled as "special needs" to get the services they require. Many of these students are at risk not only academically, but for future psychological issues.

No single, straightforward treatment for an underachieving student exists simply because no two individuals are alike. When working with students who are bogged down by underachievement

syndrome, it is important to utilize an integrated approach. A recurring theme among researchers is that underachievers cannot be viewed in isolation from their homes, schools or social settings. Equal

attention should be given to the learning environment and the student's social-emotional development. Counseling should incorporate both psychotherapy and educational services such as study skills and tutoring where necessary.

As academic performance improves throughout the treatment process, the student should also begin to exhibit improvement in other areas, including self-esteem, the ability to approach challenges, tolerance for frustration, a sense of control over his/her life and communication with family, teachers and peers.

Underachievement is a serious issue, but because it is not critical at anyone moment in time, it is often overlooked. This is a travesty because these students are in jeopardy of not becoming successful, functioning members of society as they move forward in their adult lives. It is imperative that counselors look for the signs of underachievement and seek to treat those students. Once given the tools to perform to their true abilities, they will not only become more successful academically, but also socially and emotionally. There is no reason for underachievement syndrome to be a life sentence.

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