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under6Our Underachievement Program is a structured therapy program designed to empower the underachiever to develop ownership, optimism, and successful opportunities in life. Most underachievers fall into one of four psycho-emotional stages of development, but by definition, all underachievers are performing below their potential. At Family Success Consortium, we can help your child change this destructive pattern.


Underachievement is a behavioral syndrome with underlying connections to a child’s emotional life. This syndrome is comprised of identifiable behavior patterns which result in a child performing below their ability. Research on the Underachievement Syndrome began in the 1960s by the military services. Over the years, continued research and clinical experience have further developed understanding of the Underachievement Syndrome dynamics. We now know that underachievement follows specific developmental stages of emotion and behavior.

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Once a pattern of underachievement has begun, it is very difficult to change.  Avoidant coping is the cornerstone of underachievement and avoidance provides a child with immediate relief from fears.  As children struggle to resolve basic psychoemotional developmental stages including trust seeking, approval seeking, dependence seeking, and independence seeking, tendencies to develop problematic behaviors occur. Such tendencies include the pattern of avoiding versus persisting. Blaming others becomes pervasive rather than occasional. Family relationships can deteriorate. Your child can become withdrawn or argumentative. Your child’s promises of future improvement never materialize. These behaviors, suggestive of underachievement, evolve into a repetitive pattern as children struggle to work through the stages of psychoemotional development.

Classic Behavior Patterns

under5The patterns that have come to be understood from working with underachievers are repetitive and ubiquitous. For example, parents report hearing excuses and seeing patterns of avoidance from their child week after week, day after day. In response, parents tend to lecture “You have to bring your books home to get your work done”, “Don’t you understand you’re hurting your future?”, “We can’t help you if you don’t tell us the truth”. In response, parents hear “In a minute”, “I’ll do it later”, or most predominantly, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”. Parents consistently report that nothing seems to change this pattern despite lectures, grounding, or other punishment. Even years of seeking professional help does not often foster change in these patterns of behavior.

As a parent, you know your child has potential, but something is blocking your child from achieving that potential. On standardized tests at school, your child scores extremely well. Teachers tell you consistently, “He or she is smart, but is just not doing the work”. In many cases, medication has been tried for an attention problem or depression. This may have been somewhat helpful, but the underachiever continues to struggle despite these types of interventions. Additionally, tutoring may have been helpful for a short time, but the effects do not carry over for an underachiever. Often times parents have simply lost hope and concluded that their child is lazy.

As parents genuinely examine their child’s behavior they consistently identify that their child has low self-confidence. However, it is less understood that specific fears block the underachiever from their potential. The Underachievement Syndrome is triggered by basic emotional fears. It is these psychoemotional fears that your child has not been able to resolve or even identify for themselves. It has been estimated that the majority of underachievers are chronically seeking approval and experience ongoing fear of failure. Another significant portion of underachieving children experience a persistent fear of success. Regardless, the underachiever is always driven toward avoidant coping systems. In fact, it is this avoidant coping system which perpetuates the underachievement dynamic.

Finally, underachievers vehemently deny that they have a problem. They cannot acknowledge their fears and behavior problems because they are not aware of these problems. Your child’s avoidance of these issues is actually the main reinforcer of these fears and behaviors. Furthermore, this avoidant pattern is what creates such intense frustration for parents. In essence, in a paradoxical trap, your child’s solution increases their problems. Your child’s avoidance of confronting fears actually intensifies the fears.

The Evaluation

In order to understand the dynamics and issues that have resulted in a pattern of underachievement, a comprehensive evaluation including intellectual, academic, and psychological measurement is necessary. This testing will clarify factors that are critical to improving your child’s underachievement pattern. Sometimes children are experiencing an associated developmental lag or a focal learning deficit. Alternatively, more significant learning disabilities in math, reading, or writing may be complicating a child’s progress and triggering the underachievement pattern. Also, an Attention Deficit Disorder may be adversely affecting your child’s academic success. Test results and clinical experience guide the treatment planning process and delineate if your child is indeed an underachiever, identifies what pattern of psychoemotional development with which your child is struggling, and identifies any associated areas of difficulty.

Treatment Model

under4If your child is a candidate for our program, we establish weekly, individual meetings to help resolve the underlying fears and improve school success. We meet every other week with parents to help intensely guide and teach the optimal ways of helping the underachieving child. While parents, teachers, and counselors have the best intentions, without expertise in underachievement, child development, building optimism, parental development, and changing maladaptive underachievement patterns, the best of intentions bear no fruit. Consider for a moment growing fruit trees. How do you best prepare the soil, when do you water, what about pruning and pollination? Needless to say, a child is much more dynamic, hence, the questions only proliferate. When do I support my child, when do I confront them, how do I help them develop persistence, how do I facilitate improved optimism, how do I help them reduce procrastination, why hasn’t medication fixed my child? These questions have repeated circularly for years in families who are struggling with an underachieving child.

Treatment of the child involves a combination of understanding psychoemotional development and family systems dynamics. Regarding psychoemotional development, children pass through stages. While these stages are neither pure nor discreet, they are identifiable. The child must resolve many developmental events, however, none are more psychologically important than resolving fears and anxiety. Resolving developmental fears enables a child to grow in self-worth, self-confidence, and then self-esteem. In essence, to evolve toward emotional maturity, develop healthy relationships, and ultimately achieve fulfillment of human potential as successful, caring, moral and relationally connected people, children must successfully resolve all stages of developmental fears. Identifying what stage of psychoemotional development in which your child is struggling is vital toward developing the proper treatment plan. The underachiever is struggling with at least one stage. They cannot mature, but only repeat patterns of avoidant behavior. Parents try to help them with logic, but the problem is an emotional one. Treating this emotional problem involves meeting with the child regularly, seeing parents, and sometimes coordinating interventions at the child’s school treatment involves a timetabled integration of all of these aspects of treatment. Of course, confidentiality in treatments allows for the necessary emotional safety to explore the matters of underachievement.

Read more about FSC psychologists who specialize in this practice area:

Mark K. Evans, Psy.D.

Call us or email Family Success today!

Hyde Park Office
2650 Madison Rd
Cincinnati, OH 45208