Academic Underachievement in Students With Learning Disabilities

Children with learning disabilities are at risk for academic underachievement in school in more ways than we might expect. Many​ children struggle in their specific area of ​diagnosed academic weakness and perform below their potential in subjects where they have no disability.

This form of underachievement in school is damaging because it affects students' self-esteem, can lead to school failure and keep students from reaching their full potential in school and later in life. Learn about underachievement among students with learning disabilities--its signs, causes and what you can do about it.


What Is Underachievement?

Frustrated boy taking a test in a classroom

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Underachievement among children with learning disabilities occurs when they do not perform to their potential in areas where they are not disabled. For example, an underachieving student may have a diagnosed learning disability in reading. His math achievement assessment might show his skills should be on par with peers, but he is failing the subject.


Signs of Underachievement

Common signs of academic underachievement in students with learning disabilities may include failure to complete or turn in homework in a class that does not involve the student's disability. Lack of motivation or disinterest in school, along with a tendency to make excuses for school failure, are additional signs.

Refusal to accept blame or responsibility for his own achievement, daydreaming or socializing too much and making school work the lowest priority indicate underachievement as well.

Students with failing grades and who take no satisfaction or pride in schoolwork likely suffer from underachievement too. The same goes for students who see themselves as having no chance to succeed so behave as if they're already defeated rather than try to perform well.


How to Know When School Underachievement Is a Problem

Students with learning disabilities, like everyone else, may not do their best work all of the time. Occasionally, most students receive poor grades on assignments. Further, many students go through phases where they let their schoolwork slide.

School underachievement should be considered a problem if:

  • It occurs over a long period of time, and the student falls so far behind that she cannot catch up.
  • The student is missing important foundational skills that are needed for future classes.
  • The student is showing signs of depression, isolation, problem behavior or is hanging out with a delinquent crowd.

Causes of Underachievement in School

Causes of underachievement are often complex and may be difficult to determine. The student may feel overwhelmed and incapable of doing better, or they may be influenced by peers.

Some special needs students feel picked on by teachers or have a learning style that is not being accommodated in class. They might lack the ability to discipline themselves to do the work or resist parents' or teachers' authority.

Students who've been allowed too much independence at home or school may struggle as well. Other students underperform as a way to get attention from parents or teachers.

Other causes include low teacher expectations, gaps in attendance, frequent moves, inadequate prior instruction or unhealthy relationships at school or home.


Strategies to Improve School Underachievement

Depending on the cause of underachievement, it is possible to help an underachiever improve. Early intervention increases the possibility of improvement and may prevent the behavior from becoming a problem in adult life.

Meet with your child's teacher and the IEP team to discuss the problem and share ideas to help. Build positive communication with school staff.

Consider requesting ​an assessment to diagnose any underlying problems and suggest possible interventions. Think about getting counseling and tutoring for your child.

Explore the possibility of a behavior modification plan targeting academics and on-task behavior.


Support Interests and Activities Your Child Enjoys

While it may be necessary to limit activities beyond school to provide time for your child to get his schoolwork done, resist the temptation to stop them entirely. Your child needs something positive in his life to reduce stress and keep him motivated.

Help your child build positive relationships with others. If your child has no outside activities, help him identify something he will enjoy.


Work on Organizational Skills

Your child may benefit from improving her organizational skills. such as using a planner and organizing her workspace at home.


Find Parent Support Groups

Coping with a child's school failure is stressful for parents. Many find help through support groups for parents of children with disabilities. Support groups offer a forum for discussion and ways to cope with common problems. Ask your school counselor or contact your state's department of education office for exceptional children for information on groups in your area.

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