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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?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 1says, “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.
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 2is 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 4in 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.
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
● 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
● 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
● 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?
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
● 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
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.
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