How to Prevent or Reverse Underachievement

Underachievement, simply stated, is the discrepancy between potential and performance.  All of us experience this phenomenon from time to time and observe it in our children and students. Some causes are clinical issues, such as depression, perfectionism, family dynamics, or situational crises. These require professional counseling. Other causes of underachievement are curriculum-based issues, such as lack of challenge, overuse of extrinsic rewards, or a mismatch between instruction and a student’s Learning Mindset.

What are Learning Mindsets? They are four unique approaches to perceiving, processing, and producing based on personality type theory. Learning Mindsets are inherent, but influenced by environment, constant throughout our lives but developmental over time. We use all four, but not with equal effectiveness. Our Learning Mindset affects our motivation: which goals move us; our engagement: where we choose to focus our attention, and our achievement: what aptitudes we develop to a high degree.  The good news is that classroom and home environments can be structured to support the four mindsets once they are recognized, appreciated and understood.

Here are snapshots of the Play, Practice, Problem Solving, and Personal Growth Learning Mindsets.  Do you recognize your own?  Your child’s? A student in your class?

Learning is PLAY: Learners with the PLAY Mindset are usually easy-going and resourceful. They like to be appreciated for their game-playing style.  PLAY Learners thrive in action-oriented careers.

  • ENGAGED by: Hands-on experiences, fun, flexibility, and teamwork.
  • MOTIVATED by: Healthy competition; material rewards and prizes.
  • NATURAL TALENTS: Mastery of facts and technical skills (as long as the work seems like play).
  • PLAY MINDSET MISMATCH: Long periods of sitting still, reading and writing.

Learning is PRACTICE: Learners with the PRACTICE mindset are usually successful students. They are designed for school, and schools are designed and run by them. The PRACTICE learner succeeds in fields that use their practical orientation and organizational skills, including education, business, law, and medicine.

  • ENGAGED by: Practical applications, structure, predictability, clear expectations, fairness, and respect. Lack of organization causes anxiety.
  • MOTIVATED by: Consistency, politeness, and punctuality. They like to be appreciated for their hard work.
  • NATURAL TALENTS: Organization, “facts and figures,” practical applications: “Practice makes perfect.”
  • PRACTICE MINDSET MISMATCH: Abstract theories and “let’s imagine” open-ended or unstructured tasks; Moving on without time to practice and perfect.

Learning is PROBLEM SOLVING. Learners with the PROBLEM SOLVING mindset like to be recognized for their competence, intelligence, creativity, and analytical ability.  PROBLEM SOLVING learners are often found in higher education and careers that require advanced degrees.

  • ENGAGED by: Finding the right (logical) answer or solution to a problem.
  • MOTIVATED by: Learning for its own sake, challenge, and intellectually competitive environments.
  • NATURAL TALENTS: The logical analysis of cause and effect relationships.
  • PROBLEM SOLVING MINDSET MISMATCH: Lack of challenge, incompetence (in self or others); they will question and challenge authority if they believe they are right.

Learning is PERSONAL GROWTH. Learners with this mindset are creative, insightful, and sensitive. Education is a journey of self-discovery and meaning-making. PERSONAL GROWTH learners excel in any field that requires the understanding of human behavior, including the arts, psychology, religion, education.

  • ENGAGED by: Opportunities for self-expression and exploring personal values, a nurturing environment.
  • MOTIVATED by: Learning for its own sake, but need to feel recognized and appreciated by teachers/parents.
  • NATURAL TALENTS: Language, interpretation of symbols, creative and intellectual pursuits.
  • PERSONAL GROWTH MINDSET MISMATCH: Conflict, competition, rigid, rote learning, impersonal environment.

How can parents and teachers apply Learning Mindsets to prevent or reverse underachievement?

 Parents, recognize and accept the reality that your child’s unique mindset may differ from your own and siblings.  It’s frustrating and useless to engage in a “Pygmalion project” in which you attempt to re-create your child in your ideal image. Look to nurture their natural mindset talents.  When they are motivated and engaged, you can begin to encourage the development of coping skills necessary to support their success.

Teachers, this isn’t one of those new gimmicks that is here one year and gone the next. You already have a myriad of teaching strategies in your repertoire.  Apply your understanding of the Four Learning Mindsets to proactively plan a balance of Play, Practice, Problem Solving, and Personal Growth activities into your weekly lessons.  In this way, everyone can experience a MINDSET MATCH to motivate, engage, and develop talent.

For more information about the Four Learning Mindsets, contact