Centra Articles

School Problems and Vocational Under-Achievement - An Overview

By: Gail Silverstein, PhD

School problems and/ or vocational underachievement in otherwise reasonably well-functioning people are usually caused by one or more of the following:


  • May have problems paying attention, focusing, or concentrating or be easily distracted in certain situations – may have no trouble watching TV, playing video games or engaging in other high-interest activities for hours – the difficulty is not in paying attention – the difficulty is in regulating attention
  • May have problems getting homework done, forget assignments, be disorganized, lose things, fail to follow through on things he/ she has promised or intended to do, may often be late or have other problems with time-management
  • May need to move around a lot, feel restless, be noisy, talk excessively, blurt things out, interrupt, have trouble waiting his/ her turn
  • May make careless mistakes, may not pay enough attention to details

Reading Problems

  • When younger, may have trouble with decoding, fluency, and/ or comprehension
  • When older, may read slowly, dislike or avoid reading, find reading tiring or effortful, or may avoid or have trouble with writing – reading comprehension may be fine at this point

Nonverbal Learning Disability

  • May have academic problems with math, reading comprehension, and/ or writing especially in middle school or later, but have good verbal and reading skills
  • May “lose the forest for the trees”, have trouble integrating information or making inferences, and with seeing the big picture or main idea, may have trouble figuring out what is important and what is not important, may have trouble generalizing from one situation to another, similar, situation
  • May have trouble understanding social situations, have few friends, may be seen as naïve, may be a target for teasing and bullying, may take things over-literally, may have trouble with transitions and dealing with new situations or unexpected changes in plans
  • May be initially misdiagnosed as having ADD/ ADHD

Emotional Factors

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Problems adjusting to a new grade, school, job, or situation
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Personality issues or other emotional problems

Situational Factors

  • One or more aspects of the class, school, or job may not match his/ her strengths/ weaknesses
  • Problems or changes within the family or other interpersonal problems
  • Problems dealing with moves, divorce, deaths of loved ones, alcohol or drug abuse by a parent, bullying by a peer, etc.
  • Being or having been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused

Medical Problems

Sensory or Motor Problems

Most people do not show every symptom of a problem. Symptoms may not be present all of the time or in all situations. Problems may be due to a combination of factors. It is important to get a sense of how much control the person has over the problem in order to know how to help. Neuropsychological testing can sort out which of these factors are contributing to the problem and how significant each factor is, as well as provide guidance as to what to do about it all.

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