Research on underachievement at Palestinian schools

Unstable political situation in Palestine has affected all groups of population including the most vulnerable group – children. Underachievement has always been a problem in Palestinian schools but lately the situation has become unmanageable. There is a risk of further consequences for the society given the growing rates of drop outs. What contributes to the problem and how to solve it? This is the topic of PhD dissertation of Safwat Y. Diab at the Department of Special Needs Education.

PhD candidate Safwat Y. Diab

Photo: Safwat Y. Diab

According to Diab, academic underachievement is a well studied phenomenon in the Western countries but not in the less developed countries like Palestine. Meanwhile between 2002 and 2005 the growth of underachievement has constituted about 30%.

What are the causes of underachievement?

In his dissertation Diab compares sixth-grade underachievers and high achievers who possess the same IQ to identify the factors that contribute to bad grades at school. He then classifies them into three categories:

  • Personal factors, such as self esteem, motivation, self-regulation, cognitive strategy, mental health, and coping strategies
  • Home factors, such as socioeconomic status, specific and general parenting, siblings relations and parents’ mental health
  • School factors, such as teaching practices and peer relations
  • Cross-system factors, such as traumatic events and major life events

The study showed that on the personal level the underachievers are characterized by having low self-esteem, motivation, self-regulation and cognitive strategy use, use of avoidant coping strategies as well as higher levels of mental health problems.

On the family level, they belong to families with lower income, where parents have lower education and are more psychologically controlling and discouraging. The families are also characterized by higher levels of sibling rivalry.

At school the underachievers are lonely and experience discouraging behavior from the teachers. On the cross-system level, they were exposed to high major life events and traumatic events targeting their families.

- These factors interact with each other and disturb child’s behavioral and cognitive engagement in the academic learning process leading to his/her academic achievement below his/her potential, says the scholar.

After applying multivariate statistical methods Safwat Y. Diab was able to draw the most significant factors that contribute to academic underachievement. The research work concluded that low self esteem, high hyperactivity/inattention and low use of cognitive strategies are the strongest factors which predict academic underachievement when it comes to personal characteristics.

The most important external factors are low parental education, high parental psychological control, high parental scholastic discouragement, high levels of sibling rivalry, and loneliness in peer relations. It was rather surprising that exposure to major life events and traumatic experiences were not decisive. It can mean that the problem of underachievement can be prevented and treated at the most basic level: at home and schools, while the political situation stays somewhat difficult.

Early detection and prevention at schools

Safwat Y. Diab is concerned with the situation in Palestine and suggests measures to stop the spreading of underachievement problem.
- Taking into account the multidimensional character of the problem, schools, parents and counselors should be involved, says Diab. Collaborative teaching with two teachers in a classroom, one of which has special qualifications, can make the learning process more effective. In addition, schools could organize peer cooperation, integrating students from different levels of academic achievement.

- In this situation it is essential to introduce counseling services at schools to deal with children’s mental health problems, underlines the scholar. It is important that schools and parents cooperate and take this problem seriously. The International Child Development Program (ICDP) in Palestine could prove to be useful when dealing with the quality of parent-child interaction and communication, and thereby support the development of child’s abilities.

Safwat's dissertation defense is scheduled for 11th of February. After it he plans to organize workshops at schools and send the results of his study both to international organizations (UNRWA) and Palestinian National authorities. We hope that his concerns will be heard and wish him good luck!

By Zhanna Saidenova
Published Jan. 11, 2011 9:31 AM - Last modified Jan. 11, 2011 9:33 AM