Saturday, October 19, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How to identify underachieving students and motivate them to reach for the stars

Seattle Times staff reporter

If Tim Brousseau went back to his high school, most of his teachers would be surprised he even graduated (he squeaked by with a 2.1 grade-point average), much less became a teacher with a master's degree (3.87 GPA).

"I was the classic underachiever," said the Inglemoor High School teacher, who oversees a distance-learning program for students making up credits for flunked classes. "I had no excuse. There was just always something better to do than homework."

With more emphasis on long-term assignments, larger classes and busy parents, experts say it's easier for children to fall into an underachieving pattern.

At the same time, high-stakes testing, stringent college entry requirements and lack of high-paying, entry-level jobs make it more important than ever for parents to get involved right away when they see students performing below their abilities.

What classifies as underachievement depends on the individual child. A student getting Cs might not be an underachiever if he's working as hard as he can, while an A-student might be underachieving if he's taking standard classes when he really belongs in advanced courses.

But the typical underachiever is one who is smart but skims along with Cs and maybe a D, mostly for failing to turn in homework assignments and not bothering to study for tests.

"The most frustrating group of underachievers are the bright kids who are disappointing — disappointing their parents, their teachers and themselves," said Yvonne Jones, a certified educational planner with the Seattle-based Education Advisory Group.

Underachieving often crops up in middle school. Without one teacher paying attention, it's easier for a child to slip behind, especially if he has trouble staying organized or fails to budget time for the differing demands of six or seven teachers.

"For some kids, just doing the minimum is good enough in grade school," said Christina Hannan, director of education at the Seattle Sylvan Learning Center. "They have difficulty stepping up the output in junior high."

It's also more common with boys than girls, though girls can certainly underachieve as well. "In our culture, girls still care more about pleasing other people," Jones explained.

At any grade, school assignments are getting more difficult for underachievers, who tend to put off work until the last minute (if at all). Responding to corporate demands for employees who can work independently, many teachers in all subjects give long-term assignments due at the end of a month or the quarter.

"Underachievers have a terrible time with that," Brousseau notes. "They don't get the idea of working for a later payoff. Everything is 'What's in it for me in the next 15 minutes?' They keep thinking they'll get it all done later and then it catches up with them."

Part of that attitude may be personality, while part may be developmental, Jones said. "It's hard for students to see their future," she said. "They don't know what they're working for."

Students in Brousseau's program use computers to complete online coursework to pass courses they flunked. Rarely do they fail because they don't understand the material, said Brousseau, who has taught for 22 years.

Most commonly, students skipped class; they automatically lose credit if they have too many unexcused absences. Or they did just enough to pass the course, hovering at a D, then failed a final or skipped a key assignment, dropping the grade to an F.

For his part, Brousseau blames immaturity for his lack of interest in high school. Once in college, "I had no problem sitting down and doing homework," he said. "But it didn't happen until I convinced myself it was in my best interest."

Motivate, don't nag

From a parenting standpoint, experts say they too often see a cycle of incrimination and excuses. "There is a lot of frustration and guilt and anger on both sides," Jones said.

Brousseau knows that firsthand, having watched his 18-year-old son "slug along," he said.

"It's not fun being a nag, but by the same token, I know what he's capable of," he said. "I keep saying, 'Get your face out of the video game and do your homework.' "

After reading a mediocre paper his son wrote, Brousseau expressed his disappointment. His son's response: "I got it done, didn't I?"

"There's got to be something better than 'I got it done,' " Brousseau replied.

Ruth Peters, author of "Overcoming Underachieving: A Simple Plan to Boost Your Kids' Grades and End the Homework Hassles," is an advocate of incentives to prod better performance. Parents have to find out what rewards mean the most to kids — a new CD, clothes, toys, TV or video-game time or trips to the mall. If children complete the tasks expected, then they get the reward or tokens (such as poker chips) that earn them credit toward their prize. Parents may also want to impose a penalty (no TV, no friends over, etc.) for kids who don't do what's expected.

"Students underachieve mostly because they don't give a hoot," said Peters, a child psychologist who is also author of "Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting."

"They're not internally motivated to do the work," she said. "So externally motivate them (with incentives). Then they start learning and they're prepared in class. They start getting good grades and it becomes second nature."

Others, however, warn against becoming too dependent on incentives for schoolwork because at some point, the rewards might not be great enough.

"Kids start to see school as the parent's thing," said Anne Rambo, a child and family psychologist and author of "I Know My Child Can Do Better: A Frustrated Parent's Guide to Educational Options." "They start upping the ante. They don't want to go to the park, they want a Nintendo. It can become a way to blackmail parents."

A system of rewards and penalties works much better than nagging or anger, Peters said.

"I'll take a kid who makes good grades because he wants to earn a reward (or to avoid a punishment) over a child who's left to his own devices and chooses to accept poor grades," she writes.

A parental balancing act

However, parents need to make certain their expectations are reasonable, notes Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie, author of "The Trouble with Perfect: How Parents Can Avoid the Overachievement Trap and Still Raise Successful Children."

"Parents expectations have ratcheted up much sooner, when kids are much younger," said Guthrie, clinical director of the Learning Diagnostic Center at Blythedale Children's Hospital in New York state. "It's sometimes developmentally inappropriate to expect high performance out of youngsters. Parents need to focus on the effort the child puts in rather than the grade."

Other parents worry about making children unhappy or mad and therefore fail to force kids to do tasks they dislike such as homework, said Paul Auchterlonie, an educational consultant with the Education Advisory group.

It's a balancing act for parents to keep expectations high while not sacrificing their relationship over grades.

"It backfires if you focus all the time on your child's weaknesses," said Rambo, a professor at Nova Southeastern University. "I've seen families so frustrated with each other that they've gone months without doing anything fun together. Talk about something other than how your child should do better in school."

Stephanie Dunnewind:


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