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A Proven Way to Make Underperformers Do Much Better

A Proven Way to Make Underperformers Do Much Better

You know your child is smart. She exhibits intelligence every day, and family friends have remarked about how bright she is. But when report card day comes it’s like someone is evaluating a different child. What happened on the way to school? Did she travel into an alternate universe?

At first as the bad grades start to emerge, you think your child will pull out of it. You just need to help her with the homework, help her understand the concepts better. Yet your attempts to help are like banging your head against a wall. The will to perform is just not there.

You’re not alone. Plenty of children and teens are underperformers. Child psychologist Dr. Sylvia Rimm [1]says, “Underlying these children’s poor study habits, weak skills, disorganization, and defensiveness is a feeling of a lack of personal control over their educational success.” Some kids just don’t feel personally invested in getting good grades.

This is becoming a real problem because your child isn’t learning what it means to work hard and succeed at something. School is “boring,” the teachers “suck,” the other kids are “jerks.” You’re pulling teeth just to get her to finish and turn in assignments, and when test time comes, it seems like she’s tanking on purpose.

If your child doesn’t learn how to perform up to her potential in school, how will she be able fulfill that potential in real life?

The key is to connect your child’s educational goals to her life through strategy, affirmation, and rewards.

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Introduce Values-Based Self-Affirmation

Stress is a huge factor for kids in school. You can remember what it’s like, but there’s nothing quite like being there. Values-based self-affirmation [2]is a proven method of confronting stress and empowering your child to cope with it positively.

In multiple studies, African-American and Latino American students thought about and wrote about what was most important to them. These students face a lot of stress due to their minority status, and it causes them to underperform. They wrote about their values at critical times of stress during the school year—at the outset, before tests, and around holidays.

The students saw a 30 percent improvement in performance, and their grade-point averages were much higher than students who didn’t do values-affirmation assignments. This also worked for female college students in physics.

Brain scans [3] show that self-affirmation increases activity in the self-related and reward-related areas of the brain. Values affirmation also reduces cortisol response [4]in students, effectively lowering stress levels and heart rate.

Sit down with your child when she’s feeling stressed out about school and ask her to write about what she values—her relationships, her interests, her passions. Ask her to write a little bit about how her values relate to her future. Do the exercise with her, and keep it up as the school year continues.

Adopt Strategies that Work for Professionals

The people who teach and tutor for a living and do it well depend on engaging their students. Chances are you may be pushing your child away from performing well by putting on pressure and expectations that aren’t necessarily helping your child engage with the material.

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To take advantage of strategies for engaging underperforming students [5]

Make it relevant: Talk about and show your child how school subjects
apply to things she really likes—e.g., her favorite movie had a scriptwriter
who learned reading comprehension in English class, an actress who got
good enough grades to go to art school, an accountant who learned how to
crunch numbers in math class

Make it engaging: If there are any subjects your child is doing well at, or at
least making an effort to understand, praise their effort; ignore the negative
and focus on the positive—it’s proof she can make an effort with other
things, too

Focus on emotion: How does it feel when your child does well at
something? How does it feel when she blows it off and performs poorly? Ask
open-ended questions

Note what stimulates her intellect: Pay attention to the intellectual
challenges she does want to tackle, as they may be much more difficult than
what she’s getting at school; think about ways you can connect under-
stimulating challenges to those that stimulate her

Don’t forget physicality: This can come in the form of rewards she can
touch and feel, or punishments that take away physical livelihood; it can
also be an interactive, physical method of learning

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Create structure: Your child needs you to model organization and
structure; craft a homework routine and stick with it

Focusing on these strategies will help you align with what her teachers are doing at school. Talk to her teachers and ask what strategies they’re using the most. Find out if they’ve seen any bright spots, any moments when your child has been engaged. Request regular updates about any sort of positive engagement, and focus on that engagement in conversations with your child.

Follow Through with Rewards

Self-affirmation will help your child understand she can do it. Now it’s time to seal the deal.

Your child’s everyday life is full of stimulus. Her interactions with friends are rewarding, entertainment is rewarding, technology is rewarding, even exercise is rewarding. All of these things cause her brain to release stimulating chemicals.

Interactions with her boyfriend and close friends cause her pituitary gland to release oxytocin [6], a hormone related to social bonding. Her experiences with entertainment, technology, and any sort of stimulating substances cause her brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter directly linked to motivation and rewards. Dopamine release is heightened in teens [7], causing them to take risks even when they’re aware of the consequences. And exercise stimulates the release of endorphins [8] .

If there’s no stimulus involved in doing well at school, chances are your child is bored and doesn’t connect schoolwork to reality. And with good reason: when we do work and do it well, we get a paycheck. Why shouldn’t it be the same with school?

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You don’t necessarily have to pay your child for getting A’s, but it doesn’t hurt. Here are some ways to offer rewards:

Pay attention: Positive attention from you is a reward—it’s a social
stimulus; pay heightened attention to academic life, delve deep, ask
stimulating questions

Involve her in a study group: This is a way to connect social life to
schoolwork; talk to her friends’ parents about setting up a group

Offer concrete rewards and don’t avoid punishments: A study group is
all fine and good, but what if they don’t do any work? Use a favorite activity
as reward for work completed, and remove privileges when she
underperforms

Underperformers need consistent rewards to connect academic performance to their everyday livelihood. They’re smart enough to do well in school, but they’re at a time in their life when the only thing that matters is having fun. Rewards may sound old-school, but they work.

Author’s note: How do I know rewards work? When I was in school, my parents consistently paid me for every A and B on my report card. I graduated from high school with a 3.98 GPA.

Need some more advice? Your child may be withdrawing from school because it’s too much for her—there are bullies, deadlines, pressure to make friends. There are a lot of fear-inducing factors. Here’s a list of books to help make school less scary . The more interested and less afraid of school your child is, the better she’ll be at executing a great academic performance.

Reference

More by this author

Dan Matthews, CPRP

A Certified Psychosocial Rehabilitation Practitioner with an extensive background working with clients on community-based rehabilitation.

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Last Updated on September 11, 2020

Why a Life Without Pain Is the Guarantee to True Suffering

Why a Life Without Pain Is the Guarantee to True Suffering

No one wants to suffer. As a general rule, people like to avoid hurt and pain as much as possible. As a species, humans want a painless existence so much that scientists make a living trying to create it.

People can now choose “pain-free” labor for babies, and remedies to cure back pain, headaches, body-pains and even mental pains are a dime a dozen. Beyond medicine, we also work hard to experience little pain even when it comes to loss; often times we believe a breakup won’t hurt as much if we are the ones to call it off.

But would a world without pain truly be painless? It’s unlikely. In fact, it would probably be painful exactly for that reason.

If people never experienced hurt, they wouldn’t know what it was. On the surface level, that seems like a blessing, but think for a moment: if we didn’t know pain, how would we know peace? If you don’t know you’ve hurt or been hurt, how would you know that you need to heal? Imagine someone only knowing they have an incurable cancer at the final stage because no obvious symptoms have appeared at early stages.

Without the feeling of pain, people won’t be aware of dangerous situations—what should or shouldn’t do for survival.

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Pain Is Our Guardian

Pain serves to protect human beings from harmful actions. It’s the same reason parents teach babies that fire equals hot, and that hot equals hurt. Should the baby still place its hand in a fire or on a stove, the intense pain remains so memorable, that the child is certain never to repeat that action.

In the same way, pain within human bodies can serve as a warning that something is not right. Because you know what it is to feel “well,” you know what it is to feel poorly.[1]

Along with serving as a teacher of what not to do, pain also teaches you what you are made of in terms of what you can handle as an individual.

While the cliche, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a tired term, it’s used excessively for a reason: it’s true. Pain helps you learn to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and sadnesses— to develop the grit it takes to push past hardships and carry on.

Whether it’s a shattering pain, like the loss of a loved one or a debilitating accident, pain affects everyone differently. But it still affects everyone. Take a breakup as an example, anyone who has experienced it knows it can hurt to the point of feeling physical. Especially the first breakup. At a young age, it feels like the loss of the only love you’ll ever know. As you grow and learn, you realize you’re more resilient with every ended relationship.

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No Pain, No Happiness

You only know happiness when you have known pain. While the idea of constant happiness sounds nice, there is little chance it would be. Without the comparison to happiness, there’s no reason to be grateful for it. That is to say, without ever knowing sadness or pain, you would have no reason to be grateful for happiness.

In reality, there is always something missing, or something unpleasant, but it is only through those realizations that you know to be grateful when you feel you have it all. Read more about why happiness and pain have to exist together: Chasing Happiness Won’t Make You Happy

In a somewhat counter-intuitive finding, researchers found one of the things that brings about the most happiness is challenge. When people are tested, they experience a greater sense of accomplishment and happiness when they are successful. It is largely for this reason that low-income individuals can often feel happier than those who have a sense of wealth.[2]

This is a great thing to remember the next time you feel you would be happier if you just had a little more cash.

Avoiding Pain Leads to More Suffering

Pain is inevitable, embrace it positively. Anyone who strives to have a painless life is striving for perfectionism; and perfectionism guarantees sadness because nothing will ever be perfect.

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This isn’t a bleak outlook, but rather a truthful one. The messy moments in life tend to create the best memories and gratitude. Pain often serves as a reminder of lessons learned, much like physical scars on the body.

Pain will always be painful, but it’s the hurt feelings that help wiser decisions be made.

Allow Room for the Inevitable

Learning how to tolerate pain, especially the emotional kind, is a valuable lesson.

Accepting and feeling pain makes you human. There is no weakness in that. Weakness only comes when you try to blame your own pain on someone else, expecting the blame to alleviate your hurting. There’s a saying,

“Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die.”

Think back to the last time you were really angry with someone. Maybe you were hurt because you got laid off from a job. You felt angry and that anger caused so much pain that you could feel it in a physical way. Being angry and blaming your ex boss for that pain didn’t affect him or her in any way; you’re the only one who lost sleep over it.

The healthier thing to do in a situation like that is acknowledge your pain and the anger along with it. Accept it and explore it in an introspective way. How can you learn and grow? What is at the root of that pain? Are you truly hurting and angry about being laid off, or is the pain more a correlation to you feeling like you failed?

While uncomfortable, exploring your pain is a way to raise your self-awareness. By understanding more about yourself, you know how to deal with similar situations in the future. You can never expect to be numb to difficult situations, but you will learn to better prepare financially for the loss of a job and be grateful for an income since you now know nothing is promised (no matter how much you work or how deserving you may feel).

Pain Hurts, but Numbness Would Be Worse

Pain does not feel good, but the bad feeling of it will help you learn and grow. It makes the sweet moments in life even sweeter and the gratitude more sincere.

To have a happier and more successful life, you don’t learn from success or accomplishment, but through pain and failures. For it is in those moments that you learn how to do better in the future or at least cope a little more easily.

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You are the strong person you are today because of the hardships this life has presented to you. While you may have felt out of control when those hard times came, the one thing you will always have control over is how you choose to react to things. The next time you hurt or you’re angry or sad, acknowledge it and allow yourself to ruminate in it. Then take a deep breath and start learning from that pain. You’ve got this!

Featured photo credit: Stocksnap via stocksnap.io

Reference

[1] University of Calgary: Why is Pain Important?
[2] Greater Good Magazine: The Importance of Pain

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