You Can Do It

How to Boost Your Child's Achievement in School


By Michael E. Bernard, PhD

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From the founder of You Can Do It! Education, a program for promoting student social-emotional wellbeing and achievement that is being used in thousands of schools, a guide to supporting struggling students.

California State University professor and educational psychologist Michael Bernard shows parents how to help their children succeed in school to the very best of their abilities. You Can Do It! reveals the various types of underachieving students, tells how to prevent problems before they start, explains which parenting techniques work and which don't, as well as what attitudes and motivational skills children need to learn.




"Useful.… An extremely valuable resource for parents. The content is clearly communicated, and the information will help parents.… This book 'cuts to the core.' "

—Ann Vernon, Ph.D., professor and coordinator of counseling, University of Northern Iowa, and director, Midwest Center for Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy

"Parents and educators are today focusing on the necessity of a value-based education.… The You Can Do It! program is an excellent vehicle particularly for achieving such positive outcomes for students."

—Pat Lynch, executive director, New Zealand Catholic Education

"Filled with practical information.… I strongly recommend You Can Do It! Education."

—Gilbert Losier, Ministry of Education, New Brunswick, Canada

"Goes straight to the heart of parents' concerns.… Empowering and very heartening at a time when so many of them feel overwhelmed:"

—Marie R. Joyce, Ph.D., associate professor, head of social sciences, Department of Psychology, Australia Catholic University

"An excellent guide.… I strongly recommend this book.… I have personally used many of these ideas with my own children."

—Raymond DiGiuseppe, Ph.D., professor of psychology, St. John's University, director of the Graduate Program in School Psychology

"YOU CAN DO IT! is an unusually effective program for young people who want to do well in school, in their social relations, and in other important aspects of their life.… I highly recommend it!"

—Albert Ellis, Ph.D.

"YOU CAN DO IT! presents an alternative to parents yelling at their children and counselors reviewing failure warnings.… Dr. Bernard's creative approach is an essential purchase."

—Stephen G. Weinrach, Ph.D., professor of counseling and human relations, Villanova University

"This is one of those rare books that is filled with timely, valuable, and common-sense approaches to what is sometimes a very difficult job in the modern world. Bernard provides all of us who are engaged in the school and child improvement business with many practical tips on how to work better as parents and with parents—tips that will pay off, no doubt, in students who achieve more at higher levels."

—Carl A. Cohn, superintendent of schools, Long Beach Unified School District

"Dr. Michael Bernard's thinking and his program are eminently sensible and based on sound principles of child development and psychology."

The London Times


Copyright © 1997 by Michael E. Bernard

All rights reserved.

Warner Books, Inc.

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our web site at

First eBook Edition: November 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-56974-3

To the memory of my father-in-law, Danilo Rebula,
whom we all miss very much.


This book would not have been possible without the contributions of the following people:

Colleen Kapklein, my editor at Warner Books, for her support of the book.

Roger Roberts, the extremely talented illustrator responsible for all the drawings in this book.

The many professionals whose names appear in the References at the back of this book and who have written about children and parents and about the importance of school-home partnerships.

Albert Ellis, founder of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, for his inspirational theory and for identifying many of the Habits of the Mind that block achievement.

Marie Joyce, colleague and long-time friend, for our many hours of discussion concerning best practices in parenting.

Terry O'Connell and Harry Tyler, of the Australian Scholarships Group, for their support of You Can Do It! Education in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

Debbie Taylor, who as Program Director of You Can Do It! Education in Australia has spent many years in helping me promote my message to parents, teachers, and students.

Alan Merrie, for his efforts in helping to set up the You Can Do It! Education organization in Australia and New Zealand.

Paul and Martha Hindle, for their help in supporting the dissemination of You Can Do It! Education material and training programs throughout Canada.

Alexandra Bernard, who provides me with so much sunshine, laughter, and love.

Jonathon Bernard, for his love, fun, and sense of humor.

And Patricia Bernard, who in so many ways provided not only invaluable professional advice during the writing of this book, including its final editing but, in addition, unwavering love and support of myself and our family.


Parents Make the Difference

This book is written for the parents of children of all ages, and it contains a very simple message that I convey with many words and pictures. The message is this: Parents make a tremendous difference to their children's achievement. This book is all about knowing what you need to know about parenting, about your child's needs, and about educational achievement in order for you to do the things that make the difference.

If you have a child who has fallen off the academic tracks, or if you want your child to excel at school, what you do makes a big difference. This point needs to be stated repeatedly because sometimes, especially when our children reach adolescence, it feels as though we are not very important. This perception is wrong. Throughout your child's educational career, what you do and do not do has a big impact on the extent to which your child realizes his potential in school and in other extracurricular activities.

Many parents today still have the belief that it is the school's responsibility to educate their children, not their own. However, as we enter the twenty-first century, it is becoming recognized that the education of children is enhanced when there is a partnership between school and home. This book is about how parents can maximize their contribution to the education of their children.

In helping your child to be successful, it is good to begin relatively early in life. Laying the foundations with good parenting practice is a good insurance policy that can be cashed in when problems arise.

In working with many parents and children over the past twenty years, in reading the work of other parenting experts, and in my own experience parenting my two children, I have discovered some key ideas I believe you need to know in order to be able to encourage your children to achieve. I present these ideas in some detail throughout this book.

For example, you will want to keep an eye on your child's effort at schoolwork. Without a doubt, the more you can do to encourage your child to spend time studying and doing homework, the greater will be his achievement. Early on in my own professional career, I came to understand that in order to achieve in different areas of schoolwork, children need to be able to do work that they find boring, difficult, and frustrating. In this book, I refer to this capability as High Frustration Tolerance. I discuss why your child might not be putting in optimum effort on his schoolwork, and I provide you with many ways to motivate and encourage your child to do work he or she doesn't feel like doing (chapters 4, 7, and 13).

This book combines understanding with good practice. In order for you to optimize your child's achievement, you will need to be aware of different signs that your child might be underachieving at school (chapter 1).

One of the most interesting things I discovered from my own research is that achieving children think in ways that are different from children who underachieve. I acquaint you with ways to evaluate your child's Habits of the Mind (chapter 6), and I discuss ways in which you can directly influence your child's patterns of thinking (chapter 7). By teaching your child Habits of the Mind, you lay the foundations for achievement and emotional well-being.

You need to be guided by your child's unique characteristics in deciding how to go about encouraging his or her achievement. I present up-to-date information on how different personality traits influence achievement (chapter 9), and I describe how children's brains operate (chapter 10). I discuss how your child's developing interests need to be taken into account in planning educational and leisure-time experiences (chapter 8). I provide you with many new ways to look at your child, which will help you to be more precise in the way you go about helping your child.

Teaching today is no picnic. It is much more difficult to be an effective teacher today than it was years ago. I believe it is important for you to know something about good teachers and to know how you can recognize teachers who will maximize your child's success at school (chapter 5).

I also spend several chapters discussing what we have learned about how different styles of parenting influence children's motivation and achievement (chapters 3 and 4). This will help you to take a good look at your own parenting methods. I discuss the five key parenting practices that contribute to children's achievement: calmness, affection, firmness, involvement in education, and using motivational methods. I devote chapters to techniques that will help you manage your child's homework (chapter 11) and will help you get him to do schoolwork he doesn't feel like doing (chapter 13). A chapter on tutoring describes additional methods you can use to boost your child's achievement (chapter 12).

If you have a child who at this very moment is causing you significant concern about schoolwork, you can find solutions that you can use immediately (chapter 2). You might also like to turn to the last section of the chapter dealing with best practices in parenting (chapter 4) for a summary of some ideas of how you can boost your child's achievement.

The ideas in this book come from my extensive reading in the area and more than twenty years of experience in working with children and their parents. During this time I have founded You Can Do It! Education, an approach to parenting and teaching children that is designed to help all children achieve to the best of their ability. Currently, You Can Do It! Education materials (books, videotape, and audiocassette learning programs), which I designed for students, teachers, and parents, are being used in the United States, Canada, and England as well as in over 40 percent of high schools in Australia and New Zealand. (For a listing of available material, see the References and the Additional Resources sections of this book.)

The evidence is accumulating from studies that have examined the effectiveness of You Can Do It! Education: By changing the way we teach, parent, and motivate children, we can dramatically influence their enthusiasm and effort in school and help them to achieve to the best of their ability.

I have elected to use the word "child" to refer to school-age children enrolled in kindergarten through final year of secondary school. I also have tried to balance my use of the pronouns "he" and "she" in describing children who are either underachieving or who could excel even further in schoolwork.

I encourage you not to sit back and wait for achievement to happen, or to hope that any current problems will mysteriously disappear with the passage of time. Achievement is too important in your child's life for you to be only a spectator.

It is never too late to help a child who has a problem. You will be able to locate solutions in this book to help restore your child's motivation and hope.

If you take away at least one idea from this book that will help you help your child achieve in school and in life outside school, I will have been well rewarded. There is nothing more special for me than knowing I have had a positive influence on the achievement and happiness of children.

—Michael E. Bernard

Chapter I


All children are born to achieve. All have unique talents and extraordinary potential. All children have brains with tremendous capacities for achievement; the sky is their limit. And all children begin life with an unbridled enthusiasm for learning. I know that under the right circumstances, all will achieve. I am a strong believer that home and school and the community have the ability to discover the circumstances that will unleash the potential of each individual child. I know that with the will, we can provide the way.

Unfortunately, many students today are not achieving the results and success in school of which they are capable. Casting our eye into the urban and rural classrooms in the Western world, when we visit the schools of New York City; Davenport, Iowa; suburban Toronto, Canada; Birmingham, England; Paris, France; Melbourne, Australia; and Auckland, New Zealand, we see many students who have lost the motivation to succeed they had when they first arrived at school. Despite the best efforts of teachers, we see frustration, lack of interest, hopelessness, resistance, and boredom written on the faces of too many of our children.

Within a very brief period of our lifetime, as a result of the rapid changes in the family structure, the acceleration of technology, reduced employment opportunities, increased economic disadvantage, immigration, and other social, cultural, and political forces, we see that some very significant changes in our children call for changes in teaching and parenting that will help them not only to achieve to their capabilities, but also to enjoy sound emotional health and interpersonal adjustment.

One fact that is not widely recognized is that in education, there has been an incredible explosion of the knowledge base: what we know and what we expect children to learn. It has been estimated that the knowledge base of biology has expanded 60 to 80 percent over the past half century, yet the time for instruction in biology remains the same. I believe that many schools today, because of the increasing sophistication of the curriculum, are demanding more and more of children at an earlier and earlier age.


Large numbers of children today arrive at school unprepared to cope with the pressures of the curriculum and unprepared to cope with the pressures of growing up. In addition, the emotional and learning needs of children are far greater and more complex than ever before. As a consequence, underachievement may well be on its way to becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Underachievement is a condition that knows no economic or cultural boundaries. Children from all socioeconomic strata and cultural backgrounds are failing to develop their potential. While it is true that economic disadvantage, limited proficiency in English, and cultural diversity place children at great risk for poor achievement in school, there is also a sizable proportion of children who, while not at risk due to poverty or language and cultural background, are not performing as well as they could.

Some children are very public in their underachievement. They rarely do homework, hang out with peers who show little interest in school, cut classes, have many absences from school, are a handful and a half to manage in class, fail many classes, and drop out of school. Other underachieving students are far less easy to observe. They easily blend in with other students. They bring their schoolbags to school, appear to listen in class, have fairly good attendance records, make some attempt to do their homework (frequently under pressure and conflict with their parents), and for the most part get passing grades. However, these quiet underachievers, the children who find it easier, more comfortable, and safer to set the high-jump bar low than to excel by setting it at a challenging height, occupy many seats in today's classrooms.

Update: What Is Educational Underachievement?

Educational underachievement means that your child's performance at school as seen in grades or test results is lower than what you would predict from your child's age, ability, and potential. Said another way, underachievement is a large discrepancy between what your child is capable of doing in school and what he is actually achieving.

Determining your child's scholastic capacities and potential in order to estimate the extent of her underperformance at school is not straightforward. Unless your child has received a test of scholastic aptitude resulting in a score comparing your child with other children of your child's age, your own observations, along with school reports, will form the basis for determining the extent to which your child is performing at a level inconsistent with his ability.

Children have different scholastic capacities to do schoolwork. Some are extraordinarily gifted in their capacities for the verbal and/or mathematical reasoning that make school learning a much easier experience than it is for children who have average scholastic abilities. Children with potential well above average are said to underachieve when their school grades and achievement test results fall in the average range. Children who receive grades of B and C when they are capable of getting As are considered to be underachievers. For other children who have average scholastic abilities, grades of B and C do not represent underachievement.

So in thinking about your child's achievement, you should consider his or her potential for academic learning. If your son or daughter is working hard and getting good but not outstanding results, your child is not underachieving.

Grades Don't Tell the Full Story

A good starting point for determining whether your child is underachieving is your child's grades, as commonly recorded in report cards. Generally speaking, there is cause for concern when low grades are combined with a high estimate of your child's scholastic capabilities.

Class grades are only one indication of your child's achievement. Another is her performance on local, state, or nationally standardized tests of achievement. For example, every year all students enrolled in Hillsborough County in Tampa, Florida, are administered the Stanford Achievement Test, a commercial test that evaluates student achievement in reading, math, and other school subjects. Throughout the country, some students take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, while other students take the California Achievement Test. On these tests, your child's level of knowledge and skills acquired in different curriculum areas is compared with that of a large group of students from many different schools. It is quite possible that whereas your child's achievement as reflected in class grades is below the average for her own class, her performance on standardized tests of achievement may be above average for her grade level. She may also have a higher achievement test score than students in her class whose class grades are higher than hers.

So while your child can appear to be an underachiever when his class grades are used as a measure of achievement, when other measures of achievement are employed, he might appear to be an achiever. Children who do not like doing homework, but who still have learned the material taught in class, get penalized in their grades for their lack of application on homework.

What this all means is that you need to gather as much information as possible on your child's actual achievement rather than just relying on school grades. If your child's grades are low but performance on achievement tests is high, there is less cause for concern.

Is Your Child Underachieving? The Telltale Signs

For many different reasons, some of which I will discuss shortly, many children today set minimum goals for their schoolwork. They set the high-jump bar too low. They have figured out that by setting low goals, with minimum effort they can clear the bar and achieve their goals. By setting the bar a lot higher and by putting in a lot more effort to achieve their goals, they would receive better results.

A smaller number of children underachieve because their expectations for their school results are unrealistic; they set the high-jump bar too high. Under these circumstances, children come to realize that they will rarely achieve their goals, and, as a consequence, they stop trying. Children who have unrealistically high expectations may or may not have parents who have excessive expectations. Some children who are perfectionistic by nature appear to decide on their own, with very little parental prodding, that they must do things perfectly.

One of the most common signs of underachievement is the failure of a child to put in enough time and effort on his schoolwork. Research conducted at universities by many different scholars reveals the following: When students are actively engaged in academic activities at which they achieve accuracy or success at an 80 percent rate or higher, their level of achievement tends to be more consistent with their abilities. In other words, if your child is spending sufficient time engaged in schoolwork in which he is achieving lots of success, he will be an achiever. If your child is spending too much time socializing, is involved in too many extracurricular activities, is being assigned material that is too difficult (or easy), or is not spending enough time in class actively studying her academic subjects, she will likely be an underachiever.


  • performs much better on a test of scholastic ability than in school
  • performs well at one time and then does poorly at another
  • performs well in some subjects at school, such as English, but not in other related subjects, such as history
  • occasionally reveals in what he says or does good academic or creative ability relative to his usual performance
  • reveals poor self-image, chronic feelings of inferiority, and helplessness
  • fears mistakes and failure
  • rebels against limits, especially having to do homework
  • manages time poorly
  • sets goals that are too high or too low

Further, what I have learned from working with countless children of all ages is simply this: For children to be successful, they must do work they find difficult and frustrating. It's not just effort and time on a task that's important. The effort must be put toward the things that a student finds tough if his level of achievement is to improve. I learned about the importance of High Frustration Tolerance many years ago from a boy named Andrew.

The Cutting Edge of Underachievement: Low Frustration Tolerance

Andrew came to me as a result of underachievement in math. His scholastic aptitude test results indicated that he wasn't reaching his potential, and his mother and teachers doubted whether Andrew would graduate from ninth grade.

In our first session, Andrew and I worked on his organizational skills. We cleaned out his locker and discovered several month-old, half-eaten sandwiches. We organized his notebook into sections wrote our lists of items Andrew needed to bring to and from school daily to be better prepared for homework and class work. Within two weeks, Andrew was approaching his schoolwork in a more organized manner.

On the Monday following our first meeting, Andrew came to me with a glum look on his face; he had scored only 60 out of 100 points on his biweekly math quiz. We both knew he could do better.

This called for immediate and dramatic action. I assigned Andrew the task of increasing his effort on his math homework 20 percent over the next two weeks.

When I suggested this, Andrew replied, "Won't work. Tried that with Miss Smith last year."

"Andrew, this year it will work. In fact, I'll make you a bet. If your grade on your next math quiz doesn't go up after you put in twenty percent more effort, I will pay you two dollars; if it does go up, you pay me two dollars."

"Okay. I hate to take your money, but you've got a bet."


On Sale
Nov 29, 2009
Page Count
384 pages

Michael E. Bernard, PhD

About the Author

Professor Michael E. Bernard, PhD is an international consultant to universities, business, not-for-profit organisations, educational authorities and governments. He is the Founder of You Can Do It! Education, a program for promoting student social-emotional wellbeing and achievement that is being used in thousands of schools in Australia and overseas. He received his doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and appointed as Reader and Coordinator of the Master of Educational Psychology Program at the University of Melbourne.

Michael has worked closely with children of all ages and their families while counselling at one of Melbourne’s leading private schools. He was the first sports psychologist of the Collingwood Football Club.

Michael is a co-founder of the Australian Institute for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and is the author of many books on REBT. For eight years, he was the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy.

Over the past decade, Michael has focused on the design and conduct of high performance and resilience professional development programs. He is the author of over 50 books, 20 book chapters, and 30 journal articles in areas associated with peak performance, resilience, parenting, mental health and school improvement.

Learn more about this author