Personality Styles of Chronic Academic Underachievers

Not all academic underachievers are alike. The problem of under achievement is a symptom – like a stomach ache – that can have many different causes, each of which requires a different solution.

Consider a random sample of, say, 100 students (from about 3rd grade through graduate school) whom we would identify as “underachievers.” If we carefully assess each one, we will find that there are many different underlying causes. These can include ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), LD (Learning Disability), various medical problems, ability issues, significant emotional or psychological problems, situational problems (such as parental illness or divorce), academic problems (such as not being prepared for certain courses, or not having effective study skills), and others. A student can also underachieve because the orientation and teaching style of the school is not consistent with student’s learning style or cognitive pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

In our random group of 100 underachievers, if we identify those having any of these typical reasons for under achievement, we are usually left with a sub-group (possibly 15%) who are consistent academic underachievers and who do not appear to have any of the above problems (at least to a significant enough degree to explain the under achievement). These “chronic” academic underachievers do not respond to any of the usual treatments or approaches for any of the above problems.

Based on over 35 years of professional experience in diagnosing, counseling, researching, consulting, and training specifically in working with this group of chronic underachievers, we have found that they typically can be subdivided further by personality style. Each of these personality styles is at the heart of the under achievement, and each requires a careful assessment and a different counseling or remedial approach in order to change the under achievement into achievement.

Each of these personality styles can be described as having a predictable pattern of behavior and characteristics, and each requires a different way of intervening. This is described in detail in the books which chronicle the work of me and my colleagues (see below). In a nutshell, the five most common styles are as follows:

1. The worried or anxious underachiever. This student is indeed typically described as anxious and insecure. Often they are over-worried about details, have a high level of self-doubt, and experience a high level of tension that interfere with their ability to concentrate and do their best work. They are often dependent on what others think about them, and need constant approval and reassurance. They really are motivated to achieve, but their own insecurities and anxieties get in the way. The most productive approach is to help them reduce their level of anxiety, focus on the tasks that are important, and provide enough support to reduce their sense of dependency and self-criticism.

2. The acting-out and manipulative underachiever. These students are typically described as impulsive and as not having any patience, especially to do the kind of quiet and persistent thinking and attention that schoolwork requires. They can seem very charming and friendly, but have a history of irresponsible behavior and getting into trouble, often by doing things that break the rules or are otherwise less than proper. Helping them to achieve typically requires an ability to confront their self-defeating and often manipulative behavior, focus on their need to learn self-control, and pinpoint the real benefits to them of achieving in school, and do all this while maintaining a supportive relationship.

3. The easygoing, “lazy and unmotivated” underachiever. This group may account for 50% of chronic academic underachievers. This is the most common style of all, but is typically a puzzle to teachers, counselors, and parents, and is a student who does not respond to the usual approaches (counseling, rewards and punishments, medication, tutoring, etc.). These students appear to have no other significant problems – they just continue to underachieve. They claim that they would like to get better grades, but they always seem to have an excuse (such as forgetting their books, studying the wrong material, or getting bored). They procrastinate, not only with schoolwork but also with household chores and other personal responsibilities. Otherwise, they are relaxed and friendly. These students are usually thought of as lacking in motivation and lazy. Our work with this style clearly indicates that they are actually highly motivated – not to achieve, but to maintain a kind of mediocre status quo and avoid the pains of growth, responsibility, and achievement. The approach that has been the most successful is a careful intervention into their excuses and their way of thinking about why they are not getting the grades they seem to want. This requires working with them on the specifics of their actual, day-to-day academic preparation, linking these problems to their professed goals, and following up. This approach is chronicled in detail in “The Psychology of Under achievement” and “Could Do Better” by Drs. Mandel and Marcus.

4. The oppositional underachiever. These students are constantly negative towards the authority figures around them. They often have a defiant and angry stance towards others. They are motivated to underachieve because the under achievement is an act of rebellion. The most productive approach to this style is to point out the self-defeating nature of the rebellion and to avoid getting to any power struggles with the student.

5. The introspective underachiever. These students are very thoughtful, confused, and independent. They are typically at a point in adolescence or early adulthood in which they are trying to figure out who they are, where they are going, and what life means. In their intense focus on these issues, achievement in school is not a primary consideration. The most effective approach with this style is supportive, empathetic, and reflective listening, with a focus on values and self-perceptions.

Whether you are a parent, teacher, counselor, or other professional, keeping these different styles in mind can help to identify the causes of under achievement in a given student and provide a path towards an effective solution.-