by Dr. Shanthi Thomas
The typical underperforming child is an enigma to parents and teachers alike. They find it difficult to understand why some children would not do homework, don’t listen, daydream, and look out of the window during class. They may have poor study skills, and find school boring and irrelevant. Their abilities and intelligence may be quite clear in other spheres of life, but not in studies.
What does a parent do with an underperforming child?
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can cause a child to have difficulty focusing, staying on task, and completing tasks. They may be disorganized, often forget to bring stationery to school, lose things easily and avoid tasks that need a lot of mental effort for a long period of time. Very young children with (ADHD) have difficulty sitting at one place, and will squirm and fidget if they are forced to do so. Depression and anxiety disorders are other psychological problems that will interfere with studies. When a child refuses to go to school day after day, has difficulty making friends, is unusually quiet and tired, is in bed for unusually long periods of time, has trouble sleeping, is having problems with food intake, or has lost interest in activities that she used to enjoy/normally all children enjoy, there is reason to suspect depression or anxiety. A psychologist may be consulted in such cases without delay.
Common learning difficulties are dyscalculia (difficulty in understanding numbers and math facts), dysgraphia (affecting handwriting ability and fine motor skills), dyslexia (difficulties in reading and related language-based processing skills), non-verbal learning disabilities (difficulty in interpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions or body language along with poor coordination) and comprehension deficit (difficulty in understanding oral and written language). Typically, learning disorders are diagnosed at a very young stage, and if not treated or accommodated properly, can wreck the child’s school life.
It is important to believe that the underachieving child wants to do well in studies, if only he knew how. No matter how dire the situation is, your child deserves to be given unconditional love and support. He should not be punished or threatened with severe punishments for poor grades. Instead, try to understand why he is performing badly, by communicating with him openly. He has to feel that you are on the same team with him, willing to support him in his struggle. He should feel close enough to you to talk openly about what is pulling him back from performing well.
Typically, underperformers have low self-esteem and low self-efficacy. This means that they do not believe that they can do well, even if they try. This lack of self-efficacy and self-esteem will worsen if the child is compared to a better performing one. Therefore, it is important that parents should never compare their children, especially an underperforming child, with one who is doing better. He has his own strengths. You just need to bring them out.
It can be painful to hear negative remarks about your child from the teacher, but it is important that you talk to him/her. Most teachers are only too happy to help if they know that parents are really trying their best to support the child. Moreover, it is the teacher who can give you invaluable information about your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses.
Some children underperform because they are overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do. Here, the parents can be of huge help, by offering strategies such as breaking a formidable task into smaller chunks of work and prioritizing different tasks. Help the child to maintain a check list, and a calendar on which he notes down work to be done and submitted. Parents can also help by setting time limits for mobile phone use, and reminding the child when it is time to start doing homework.
If parents can afford it, it will be a good idea to hire a professional tutor who can sit with the child every day to help him complete tasks. This, however, is best seen as a short term strategy, because in the long term, the child has to develop his own learning strategies and study skills. It is important to make sure that the tutor you engage is empathetic and patient.