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Why Do Bright, Capable Children Underperform Academically?

How to help your child regain self-confidence in their academic ability.

Key points

  • Many kids start out excelling academically, only to later hit a plateau or, worse yet, underperform relative to their ability.
  • In many cases, these students have internalize unintended negative messages from teachers about their ability.
  • Parents should encourage their children to question early predictions about their future performance.
  • Parents should enlist their child’s school to encourage their child’s academic persistence and sense of competence.
Pixelhead Photo/Getty Images
Source: Pixelhead Photo/Getty Images

So many parents do everything they can to give their kids the best education possible. They move to a particular neighborhood because they learn the public schools there have high standardized test scores and admission rates to top colleges and universities. If they send their kids to charter or private schools, it’s often for the same reason. All these parents might imagine that any of these school options would be the ticket to a future of opportunity for their children. Why, then, when a child has demonstrated ability early on in their academic journey, do they seem to fall flat academically in middle or high school?

For parents who see this in their children attending private schools, the irony of their investment can make them feel guilt, sadness, and resignation. In aiming to give their children an exceptional opportunity and what could be a competitive edge, they have instead placed them in a situation that has seemed to shake their confidence. Their performance has become mediocre, and they tend to blame themselves, thinking they are not smart enough.

Antonio Guillem/Getty Images
Source: Antonio Guillem/Getty Images

Their low self-concept may be hard to comprehend, and you may feel at a loss for how to shift your children’s mindset about who they are as a learner. Simply telling them how smart they are might not be enough because kids can frequently disbelieve their parents’ faith in them, thinking they are obligated to praise their children. Unsurprisingly, children who lack confidence have given up, making poor performance in school more likely.

Oftentimes, these students have internalized unintended messages of mediocrity from their teachers. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why do these students believe their teachers can predict their future success at this age? Such resignation on the part of the student definitely reduces their likelihood of improving.

So how should you proceed?

First, have a conversation with your children to help them understand that with hard, consistent work and faith in themselves, they can achieve the level of success they achieved in the past and imagine and wish for their future. (See my previous blog post for specific tips and some questions you can ask your child.)

Digital Skillet/Getty Images Signature
Source: Digital Skillet/Getty Images Signature

My second suggestion, which is the focus of this article, is to have a conversation with the school. The school is where your children’s confidence was called into question. It can also be the most validating source of encouragement because it is the primary evaluator of their academic achievement/performance.

Keep in mind that if you chose a school because of its prestige, you have indirectly given a lot of credibility to whatever messages it communicates to your children. After all, aren’t they there because this is a superior school that knows who the best and the brightest are and how to teach them? So, when the school communicates that your child is not as amazing as their peers, you can’t expect them to question it.

This is why it is important to enlist the school’s help in reaching out to your children.

The person you choose to contact first needs to be someone who will be moved by the possibility of helping your child. Ideally, this would be one of their teachers, but it could also be an advisor, principal, or division head with whom you think you have a relationship and who would be willing to ask teachers to encourage your child.

Not surprisingly, researchers have found that when teachers reach out to students, especially those who may doubt their own ability, their performance improves significantly. Teachers’ attitudes toward their students appear to be critical in encouraging student effort and outcome. When kids believe that teachers believe in them, they are more likely to invest effort, and that effort is obviously likely to pay off.

When you meet with your children’s teachers, try to paint for them a picture of your child when they seemed more confident and indicate what you had hoped for them as learners at this school. Without casting blame, let the teachers know that you have grown concerned that the fire to achieve seems to have gone out of your child and at a point when they are too young to be disengaging from learning. If your children show enthusiasm for things outside of school, you can talk with teachers about those activities, mentioning your hope that if they could direct this same kind of energy toward school, they might be more successful.

One of the top reasons for children not seeking teachers’ help is their belief that it won’t yield results; if teachers can get the ball rolling, they can help your children get over the inertia that has become too familiar. Remember that when your children were very young, telling them to clean up their toys sometimes required your helping them to get started and motivating them to do something with no obvious reward. Once they began, however, they could witness their own progress, feel a sense of accomplishment, and have enough of a reason to see the task to completion.

Along these lines, you can ask teachers if they could sit with your child every so often and help create notes from the previous class. Or you might suggest that they offer your child a meeting before the next assessment is due and again after it is turned in, providing suggestions for how your child could improve their performance. It’s also important that teachers indicate directly to their students that they believe meetings like this will result in positive outcomes. When teachers show students how to implement useful supports for themselves, it will encourage kids’ investment in their own learning.

Ideally, you want these teachers to want to continue to engage your child, communicating a message of optimism coupled with action. Your child won’t put forth effort with teachers or anyone else if they believe their efforts will be fruitless. This only makes sense. It’s pragmatic and efficient. You want teachers to do with your children what they do with their best, top-performing students. You and your children might be surprised to learn that stellar students check in often with their teachers, clarifying even minor questions and ensuring their comprehension is clear and accurate.

Monkey Business Images/Canva for Education
Source: Monkey Business Images/Canva for Education

Returning to a sports analogy I have used, coaches and trainers repeatedly reinforce the same messages with their players. They are constantly reminding even the best athletes of the mindset they must have to maintain their high level of performance. Coaches know this to be especially important after a disappointing performance, and they continue to encourage and finetune their input even after successes.

You want your children to realize that this is what the top students receive because they seek this kind of relationship with their teachers. This is also what your children need to build into their lives at school, step by step, with encouragement from teachers along the way to remind them that even the most capable students benefit from guidance. They will get there eventually.