GUEST OPINION: Challenges of underachievers

An underlying factor that affects the validity of school test scores is the impact of the scores of underachieving students.

Underachieving students present an entirely different problem for teachers and parents, presenting performance scores that do not often reflect a teacher's ability to teach or a parent's ability to parent. In short, the underachiever's behavior is so deeply ingrained and difficult to change that unless corrected, his learning style can become a life-long debilitating disorder.

Studies have defined four underachieving types that teachers and parents deal with on an everyday basis. There is the distant underachiever, who is afflicted with abandonment issues caused by adoption, multiple moves, death of a loved one, traumatic illnesses, divorce, etc. Their fear of abandonment is punctuated by a fear of failure, which undermines achievement.

The second type is the passive underachiever. Such students are often so well liked that their teachers and parents will go to great extremes to rescue them. The end result is that these students are perpetually stuck in a fear of losing the support of teachers and caregivers — so they underachieve in order to receive the nurturing energy of concern and coaching.

The third type, the independent underachiever, is someone who distances himself from help by insisting that he can achieve on his own. However, the independent underachiever starts and stops and makes up excuses for his failures. Unfortunately, in his need to be independent, he fails to develop the necessary skills or tools to be independent, which is why he constantly underachieves.

Lastly, there is the defiant underachiever, who avoids an extreme fear of failure by using defiance to blame others for his underachievement. This group often resorts to truancy as well as extreme behavior problems.

One simple but effective strategy for parents and teachers to help underachieving students deal with failure is to define the underachiever's multiple intelligences.

Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University defined eight particular intelligences — naturalist, math/logical, kinesthetic, musical, spatial, intrapersonal, interpersonal and linguistic — that can offer some help to parents and teachers of underachieving students. This can be achieved by tapping into the students' brain centers associated with underachievement and the students' relationship to failure. In other words, when you attach the underachiever's multiple intelligence to achievement, you are actually stimulating the brain's primal achievement centers associated with learning and intelligence. That is, the underachieving student is in a constant fight or flight response due to his fear of failure.

Further, this fight or flight response directs learning away from the brain's hippocampus, our emotional and relationship component associated with successful learning, and instead directs the energy to the brain's amydala, justifying the underachiever's constant fear of failure. The result is not only decreased learning potential and intelligence but also a life-long pattern of underachievement leading to school failure.

Another simple strategy is to create a behavior contract. Underachievers need predictability and consistency, particularly with rules and boundaries. Rules create boundaries that allow the distant learner to trust, the passive learner to not wiggle out of responsibility, the dependent learner to sense empowerment and the defiant to help set his own rules.

Finally, a contract empowers the underachiever. A mutually acceptable contract not only stimulates the brain's hippocampus (trusting relationships) but also activates the prefrontal cortex, seat of organization and executive functioning.

The bottom line is that underachievement can be a lifelong debilitating disorder, and teachers and parents, as their students, should never underachieve in the option of seeking assistance and information.

<i>David Sortino, a Graton resident, is a psychologist and retired teacher. Email him at davidsortino@comastcast.net or contact him through his blog "Awakening every child's genius," on pressdemocrat.com.</i>