New Perspectives on Counseling Underachievers.
by Bleuer, Jeanne C. - Walz, Garry R.
Too often parents, teachers, and even counselors, assume that underachievers
are students who can, but simply don't (or won't) achieve. Mandel and Marcus
(1995, p. 4) identified six types of underachievers: 1) Coasters, those
who are the ultimate procrastinators - easy-going and unmotivated; 2) Anxious
Underachievers, those who want to do better but are too tense and uptight
to work effectively; 3) Identity-Searchers, those who are so wrapped up
in figuring out who they are that they become distracted from schoolwork;
4) Wheeler-Dealers, those who are impulsive, manipulative, and so intent
on instant gratification that they see no point in doing well in school;
5) Sad Underachievers, those who lack the energy needed for schoolwork
because of their depression and low self-esteem; and 6) Defiant Underachievers,
those who underachieve as an act of rebellion. Of these, only the "coasters"
and the "defiant underachievers" clearly fit the stereotype. The priorities
of the "identity-searchers" and "wheeler dealers" make it difficult for
them to focus on achievement; and the situation of the "anxious underachievers"
and the "sad underachievers" could almost be described as, "They can, but
RELEVANCE OF STUDENT UNDERACHIEVEMENT TO CURRENT NATIONAL PRIORITIES
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 which President George W.
Bush signed into law on January 8, 2002, clearly demonstrates a strong
national commitment to improving the academic success of all children (U.S.
Department of Education, 2002). Although the specific term "underachievement"
may not be used in the NCLB, the law is clearly aimed at all students who
don't succeed, whether it is because they can't or because they won't.
The U.S. Department of Education's increasing emphasis on scientifically
based evidence and the establishment of the What Works Clearinghouse (w-w-c.org/public/index.html)
represent a second priority that has significant implications for providing
assistance to underachievers. While there are abundant documents in the
education literature that examine the relationships among achievement variables,
the What Works Clearinghouse's mission of collecting and disseminating
scientifically-based outcome research should help to encourage researchers
to shift their emphasis from looking at causes of underachievement to looking
at solutions that can enable all students to achieve.
THE ROLE OF THE SCHOOL COUNSELOR
Nearly all underachievers, at one time or another, are referred to the
school counselor either by a teacher or the student's parents, with the
high expectation that the counselor can magically "cure" the student's
lack of achievement motivation. However, even though the task may seem
impossible and the expectations unrealistic, school counselors are well
qualified professionals in an advantageous position to help underachievers
improve their performance.
In recent years, increasing demands for school counselors to help students
and staff deal with crises such as violence, bullying, drugs, and suicide
have seemed to pull counselors away from a focus on less urgent matters
such as working with underachievers. However, as Hanson (2002, p. 167)
points out, "Academic support has long been accepted as a major, if not
primary, role of school counselors." Evidence that school counselors are
returning to this position is provided in the draft of the American School
Counselor Association's National Model for School Counseling Programs in
which the authors state, "Today, in a world enriched by diversity and technology,
school counselors' chief mission is still supporting the academic achievement
of all students so they are prepared for the ever-changing world of the
21st century (Bowers & Hatch, 2002, p.7).
CURRENT RESEARCH ON COUNSELING UNDERACHIEVERS
A search of the ERIC database for the ten-year period from 1992 through
2001 yielded only twenty items that were indexed using the descriptors,
UNDERACHIEVEMENT AND (COUNSELORS OR COUNSELING). Limiting the search to
major descriptors reduced the number to seven. Of these, only two were
research/technical reports, with one focusing on gifted underachievers
and the other on the role of the school psychologist.
A similar lack of research-based, counseling-relevant resources for
working with underachievers in the mid-80's prompted the director and associate
director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services
to conduct a thorough review of the research on achievement motivation.
The purpose of the review was to identify factors that affected students'
desire and ability to achieve so that appropriate counseling interventions
could be developed. This led to the development of a comprehensive model
for counselor intervention and the publication of the first edition of
Counseling Underachievers (Bleuer, 1987).
The original Counseling Underachievers model (Bleuer, 1987, p. 31) incorporated
elements of expectancy-value (Atkinson, 1964); self-efficacy (Bandura,
1977); learned helplessness (Dweck, 1975); internal-external locus of control
(Rotter, 1966); perceived personal control (Stipek & Weisz, 1981);
and attribution theory (Weiner, 1979). Reports of recent studies (e.g.,
Stipek, 2001; Wigfield & Eccles, 2002) validate their continuing relevance.
These studies also provide a more in-depth understanding of how the constructs
work and identify new factors such as the importance of goal setting (Schunk,
2001) and psychological resilience (Benard, 1995) in promoting academic
Based on these new insights, Bleuer and Walz have updated the model
and are preparing a new edition of Counseling Underachievers (to be available
in December, 2003).
BASIC CONCEPTS OF THE UPDATED COUNSELING UNDERACHIEVERS MODEL
While it is beyond the scope of this Digest to provide a full description
and diagram of the complex relationships among the achievement variables
that have been incorporated into the updated Counseling Underachievers
model, the following discussion highlights the major components.
The model begins with "input" variables which are organized into three
sets: 1) external variables (family/community, peers, school, teachers,
teaching methods, task difficulty); 2) cognitive variables ( mental ability/aptitudes,
prerequisite knowledge, past learning experiences, study skills, learning
style); and 3) affective variables ( mood or disposition, psychological
development, values/goals, risk-taking propensity, resilience). These variables
interact with one another to lead the student to a preliminary level of
life/career goals and aspirations.
The input variables and the student's life/career aspirations continue
to interact with one another to lead the student to a perception of his/her
academic ability (the "I can achieve" stage) and a desire to achieve (the
"I want to achieve" stage). Next the student must proceed through a commitment
stage (I will achieve), followed by an actual expenditure of effort. Theoretically,
the effort will result in learning and a mark or grade commensurate with
the effort put forth. Of course, the level of learning will be modified
by his/her cognitive abilities, and the actual grade earned will be dependent
on the grading practices of the school or teacher (e.g., mastery vs. normative).
In most achievement models, increased learning and improved grades are
seen as the ultimate desired outcomes. However, in the Counseling Underachievers
model, they are seen as enabling goals which lead to empowerment and strengthened
resilience. Although it is not illustrated in the chart above, empowerment
and strengthened resilience are also seen as both ultimate and enabling
goals by feeding back into the input variables through increased academic
ability, changed family/peer expectations, improved self concept, etc.
This feedback loop demonstrates how the achievement process can recycle
itself to lead to continued, or even greater, achievement in the future.
SUGGESTED STRATEGY FOR USING THE COUNSELING UNDERACHIEVERS MODEL
As part of the school counselor's efforts to implement a developmental
guidance approach that addresses the needs of all students, he/she should
review each student's academic progress on a regular basis. To follow up
with students for whom underachievement is identified as a significant
problem, the following strategy is suggested.
1) Through a combination of individual, group, and/or family counseling
as well as consultation with teachers, explore the extent to which each
input variable presented in the Counseling Underachievers model is an asset
or a barrier to the student's academic achievement.
2) Make a written list of the variables and, in collaboration with the
student, rate each one on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being a barrier and
5 being an asset.
3) Again in collaboration with the student, for each "1" brainstorm
ways that the barrier might be addressed and for each "5" brainstorm ways
that the student might capitalize on his/her asset.
4) Focusing on one barrier and one asset at a time, prepare a written
action plan including specific activities which the student will undertake,
a timeline for their completion, and a follow-up session with the counselor
to review progress.
5) Continue focusing on other barriers and assets with appropriate rewards
given at mutually agreed upon levels of success.
Student underachievement is a complex problem that defies a "one size
fits all" solution. Although past research has extensively explored the
and documented links between personal and social variables and levels of
achievement, there is a strong need for research that tests and validates
comprehensive models of interventions that attempt to address the underachievement
problem. Until such scientifically based evidence is produced, however,
counselors, teachers, and parents can take steps to help underachievers
overcome their barriers to achievement by implementing the strategies presented
here and in the many resources currently available in online and/or print
Atkinson, J. W. (1964). An introduction to motivation. Princeton, NJ:
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral
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Benard, Bonnie. (1995). Fostering resilience in children. ERIC Digest.
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(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 386 327)
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Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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reference. Available online at www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/reference.html.
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Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. (Eds.). (2002). Development of achievement
motivation. San Diego: Academic Press.