Six Tips for Helping an Underachieving Student

Although I enjoy tutoring students in secondary mathematics, and I certainly don't want to put off parents who naturally want their children to learn, I feel I need to make the point that not every student is in the right frame of mind to benefit from tutoring especially an underachieving student. My purpose for writing this article is to try to explain to parents that tutoring sometimes has limits. When I am tutoring students in mathematics I want my students to learn and I want their parents to feel that for their hard-earned money, their children are receiving effective tutoring.

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Tutoring may not work for different reasons, but the student I want to focus on in this article is the underachieving student. I have had several experiences working to transform student underachievement where parents have pushed their underachieving student into tutoring which often just doesn't work and can even exacerbate the problem. These students resisted and put no effort into learning. Being a parent myself (my wife and I have three sons) of boys who were not stellar students, I am aware of some of the challenges and frustrations dealing with an underachieving student.

In an attempt to offer some help, I cite the work of Dr. Michael D. Whitley, a nationally-known psychologist specializing in helping children, adolescents, students and adults overcome underachievement and discouragement. His book, Bright Minds, Poor Grades: Understanding and Motivating Your Underachieving Child (Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, N.Y., 2001), contains some good strategies, in the opinion of many experts. [DISCLAIMER: I have never communicated with Dr. Whitley, nor have ever received compensation of any form for this referral.]

On Dr. Whitley's website (, you will find Podcast2: Joyous Living (Friday, July 7, 2006), which is a video that introduces his basic program, The Six Pillars of Personal Success -- for helping the underachiever (both adult and child). Below is my summary of the video:

[Dr. Whitley speaking] "...I call these six personality skills the six pillars of personal success because they hold up the entire house of a person's achievement in life...If any one of them is weak or under developed ...there's going to be a problem with achievement. It's inevitable.”

“When I first went to college, some upperclassmen took me aside and asked me if I wanted to graduate. I said, 'Well, yes, of course, I do!' Then they asked me what kind of grades I wanted to get. I said that I wanted to do very well. 'Then, you will have to learn to love studying,' they said.”

"College is full of distractions, worries and problems. There's always trouble but if you love studying then you will find a way to do what you need to do anyway, no matter what happens. If you don't love it, if you are negative about it, if you're anxious and nervous, or if you hate it or you don't enjoy it then you will find a way not to do it!"

That made sense. I decided to give it a try. It worked! It worked so well that it carried me all the way through my program. In fact, I still like it today. Once you really learn something like that, you don't let go of it. It taught me a lot about life.

When I started my practice and started working with underachievers, guess what the biggest deficit was? They hated school! An underachieving student, whether they're children, adolescents, young adults or adults in the workplace who cannot find a way to connect positive feelings with their everyday lives and work are going to be miserable. They are going to take that misery wherever they go. Some of the most unhappy people I've known in my life are friends of mine who cannot transform those feelings, cannot learn to love and work and combine those two skills into one. They are not very happy people. In fact, some of them are tremendously unhappy in both their personal lives and at their office. It's a miserable life.

I would not wish this life on anyone and I devoted my life to changing the destiny of the kids I work with. I want you to change the destiny of your children and maybe yourself as well and learn these six basic pillars of success. These six skills, once you learn them, you have the magical ability, the mental health of learning to work and to love and combining the two to have a rich, rewarding life. The six pillars are:

Help an Underachieving Student Tip #1. Self Control- The ability to delay the desire and drive for the immediate gratifications in life in order to work for long-term gain and the gratification and satisfaction that comes from that delay.

Help an Underachieving Student Tip #2. Independence- This is the ability to work consistently toward task completion. To be able to organize it and get it in on time, whenever it's due. An underachieving student cannot work independently and cannot delay the desire for immediate gratification -- they usually seek it out.

Help an Underachieving Student Tip #3. Will Power- The power of will to force yourself to do things you know are the right things to do even if you don't want to do it. Even though you may be very afraid, getting overwhelmed, or down and depressed about something you force yourself to get the work done that you need to get done. That's what adults need to be able to do and the role that children need to take on by working at it step-by-step. They need to learn that emotional skill of will power.

Help an Underachieving Student Tip #4. The Spiritual Side of the Work Ethic (transformational skills)- The ability to take negative moods, negative feelings and negative attitudes and work them around into a positive framework that you can use to connect your everyday need to work and to achieve a long-term goal. That is a major skill and it is fundamental to a rewarding life.

Help an Underachieving Student Tip #5. The Radical Sense of Personal Responsibility- The feeling that I alone am the one who must do something to make my life better, to change my destiny. If I'm unhappy it's me, it's my problem to solve, not my teacher's problem, not my mother's or my father's problem, not my work place, not the world -- it's something I must do. A student’s underachievement is something that they must want to change themselves.

Help an Underachieving Student Tip #6. Development of a Rational Soul- The ability to be able to think rationally about one's life - to have rational thoughts, rational feelings, a rational life that commits one to dealing with the real world out there. The ability to meet problems head on and, if you realize current solutions aren't working, the ability to recognize that and come up with/create solutions to the challenges you face.

An underachieving student cannot do that. They keep running into the same problems, they keep creating the same problems over and over again, whether they're adults or adolescent children, it doesn't matter. Sometimes an entire culture is that way. Whole political systems become that way unfortunately. A rational soul is the ability to see that my instinctive reactions, my natural reactions are hurting me. My reactions are not right or adaptive, and they're not creating a problem-solving effort. So I need creative solutions and a rational world to be able to recognize that and use rational thinking to help myself work, survive, prosper, and become happy.

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