Reasons Why Smart Kids Underachieve And Underperform

Rebecca Massey knows it can be frustrating for parents to watch their bright kids underachieve & underperform. She offers an explanation.

by Rebecca Massey
Originally Published: 

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What causes smart kids to underachieve and underperform?

Whenever you’re reading or thinking about “underachieving” kids, please keep in mind that children:

  • Kids may not be aware that they have a specific difficulty (they can see the effects — something is hard to do, or other kids make fun of them, or adults get mad, but figuring out the cause is another story)
  • Kids often do not know how to express the problems that they’re having (heck, how many adults do you know who can’t express the problems they’re having?)
  • Kids, when they do know how to express it, are teased by other kids for doing so, or get told by adults to shush or stop being difficult or stop lying.

So, figuring out that there is a problem is only half the battle — it may be entirely up to a caring adult to draw out what the problem is, and even to convince the child that it’s worth helping.

I was a goody-two-shoes overachiever type. I was also constantly forced by teachers — from as far back as I can remember, literally from preschool onwards — to work with any kids that the teachers felt might somehow absorb my personality and skills by osmosis: well-behaved underachievers, badly-behaved underachievers, badly-behaved overachievers, ESL kids, kids the teacher had no idea what to do with, you name it. Here’s my view from the inside, tempered with the hindsight of being an adult and the new knowledge of being a health care professional who has worked with children. Reasons a child might underachieve can include, but are not limited to:


Kids have a much better nose for BS than adults ever give them credit for. Some kids are perfectly happy to do boring, easy things in exchange for an adult’s approval or an overt reward. Many are not. For the latter, pointless activities — like drilling skills they’ve already mastered, or doing tasks well below their skill level or intelligence — are nothing short of torture, regardless of any offered reward. (Guess what most of an average school day is?) Also, keep in mind that if a child cannot understand the purpose of an activity, it is purposeless as far as they’re concerned. You don’t accept “because I said so” or “trust me, this is important” as a sufficient explanation from your boss — why should a child accept it from an adult? (“This will help you in the future” is also not sufficient for most kids. Children’s concepts of time, especially of the future, are very different from those of adults.)

Flickr (Greg Westfall)

Physical Impairment Or Learning Disability

Vision problems, hearing problems, sensory processing problems, motor delays, attention deficits, and dyslexia are just a short list of things that can obstruct the efforts that a child puts forth. We are immensely lucky to live in an era where public knowledge of these problems is growing all the time; kids who have these problems are more likely than ever to get the supports they need at young ages. But the kids still need adults to look out for them on this front.

Normal Variation In Ability From Skill To Skill

Be careful not to assume that a bright kid is going to be good at everything. I started struggling with math in fourth grade, and I’m not exaggerating or joking when I say that I didn’t catch up until graduate school. I often wonder what might have happened differently if an adult had ever tried to help me in a non-judgmental and non-confrontational way, instead of just looking shocked and protesting “But you’re so smart!” Guess what my least favorite subject was by the time I got to 5th grade?

Language Barrier

I feel compelled to bring this up because of the common misconception that a kid who can converse in English with other kids on a playground is a kid who can function perfectly well in English in a classroom. Casual conversation with peers and formal instruction in a classroom are 2 completely different language situations, with different social and pragmatic rules, different vocabularies, and different standards for syntax and semantics. It is very possible for a kid to be fluent in one or the other situation, but not both.

Social Isolation

It’s not easy being a bright kid, and many social situations only make it worse. Other kids your age don’t think about the same things you think about. You’re a step ahead of most of the other kids and even some adults. Does this sound like a magic power? It’s not. It’s exhausting, scary, isolating, and can even make you question your own sanity. Other kids will be quick to figure out that you’re different, and remind you of it at every opportunity; many will stay away because they don’t understand you. Meanwhile, adults treat you like you’re an idiot even when you know that you’re smarter than they are, or they single you out for an extra helping of attention and expectations that you never asked for. Why bother trying to reach out?

Flickr (jucanils)

Problems At Home

Kids have no power to change their home situations and few emotional tools to manage them on their own. Ask anyone who works with kids, even the ones in the fanciest suburbs or the ones who work with very small children. They all have stories about wonderful kids who struggled because they were living with terrible things happening at home.

Problems At School

Kids likewise have little power to change their school situations. Teaching style, disciplinary style, structure of the day, methods of measuring success or progress, social climate, a specific teacher, a specific class… any of these things can simply not work with a kid’s learning style or personality, and cause them to withdraw.

Problems With Peers Or Friends

Once again — a kid may be having problems directly with a peer or a friend, or they may be helpless in the face of a terrible thing that a peer or friend is going through. They’re not likely to be able to work through the situation like adults. More likely, they’re going to disengage from something else in order to have the energy and attention to deal with their emotions.

Poor Emotional Coping Skills

Kids are not adults and cannot be expected to consistently respond to situations like an adult — but they still need to be taught skills for dealing with their emotions and with external obstacles and setbacks. Sometimes a kid who’s ahead on brains is behind on these. (And, once again, how many adults do you know who can’t respond to situations like adults? Probably enough to make you a little uncomfortable.)

Flickr (Donnie Ray Jones)

Overt Instruction To Underachieve

They don’t happen often, but they do happen: situations where kids will have been directly trained to fail, either explicitly (e.g., actually told they’re stupid and will fail and shouldn’t try) or implicitly (e.g., parents don’t pay attention to them except when they mess something up, or parents set such high expectations and stringent punishments that the kid feels hopeless or punished before they even start).

They Just Don’t Care About The Things They’re Being Told To Care About

Even with all of the other things on this list being controlled for or set equal, some kids really just don’t give a crap about meeting others’ expectations. One of my in-laws was like this as a kid — he simply did not care about doing anything other people told him to do. He did things only if he saw value in them or wanted to do them; if he didn’t want to do them, nothing on earth could force him. Now, in his late 20s, he has a graduate degree and is doing very well for himself. As an adult, he found things that were important to him, and aced them.

If you want to help an underachieving kid, the first thing to do is get “He just doesn’t apply himself” or “Why doesn’t she just try harder?” out of your head. The second is to figure out the reason why they’re underachieving, because it’s never happening for no reason. The third is to act — if you can’t help solve a problem that’s leading to underachievement, maybe you can help the kid manage their stressors, or provide them with a new focus that they might find fulfilling. Above all, try not to give up. You never know when you might be the person who turns things around for a kid in your life.

Rebecca Massley is a health care professional and writer, and her work has been published in the Huffington Post and Inc. You can read more from Quora here:

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