Help your Child Reach Their Academic Potential – but what does this actually mean?

What is Academic Potential?

In very simple terms, it is the highest level that could be achieved if a student utilised all of their ability. In other words, it is the brain’s capacity to achieve, also known as cognitive ability. It is the capacity to reason and apply rules i.e to use logical, rational, and analytic thought. This is probably more commonly known as intelligence.

How do we define and identify Academic Potential? (Cognitive Ability)

In education, we use various standardised tests to measure cognitive ability and potential. ( link to what a standardised test means)  These tests determine what a student is capable of achieving. This is not always the same as their current performance in school.

When testing academic potential, we generally look at ability in the following areas:

Verbal Reasoning – the ability to express ideas and reason through words.  This is essential to subjects with a high language content e.g English and History. 

Non-verbal Reasoning – problem-solving using pictures and diagrams. These skills are important in a wide range of school subjects, including Maths and Science. 

Spatial Reasoning – the capacity to think and draw conclusions in three dimensions. This is required for many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.

Quantitative Reasoning – the ability to use numerical skills to solve problems. This is required for Science, Maths, Economics etc

If we suspect that a child has a learning difficulty, the person assessing (usually an Educational Psychologist) would also include the following for a more in-depth analysis of cognitive ability and potential:

Working Memory- ‘the management, manipulation and transformation of information from short and long term memory to complete a task. E.g remembering travel directions and arriving at your destination.

Crystallised  Intelligence- the knowledge acquired in everyday life either through education or experience. Think general knowledge that we learn from everyday interactions.

Processing speed– the time it takes a person to do a mental task. It is related to the speed in which a person can understand and react to the information they receive, whether it be visual (letters and numbers), auditory (language), or movement.

Visualspatial intelligence– a person’s ability to perceive, analyze, and understand visual information in the world around them.

Auditory processing- what happens when your brain recognizes and interprets the sounds around you. 

To know if your child is currently meeting their potential you should contact the school to establish what assessments they use to establish cognitive capacity. Many schools use CAT 4 testing or similar, see links below:



Why do we need to know about Academic Potential?

This is the starting point for parents-if you are aware and understand your child’s academic potential you will know what they are capable of achieving. This is a crucial piece of information that parents often don’t possess. They must be equipped with this data to know for sure if their child is underachieving in school. 

Questions to ask yourself

Is my child achieving at a level equal to their cognitive ability or is there a gap that requires further analysis? Before planning support for your child, you must have all of this relevant information at hand.

What to do if there is a gap between your child’s potential and what they are currently achieving in school.

If there is a gap between the student’s ability and their attainment, it is usually a sign that the student will require some support to get them to the level of achievement that they are capable of. This might mean that they will come under the charge of the learning support or special needs department in the school. (LINK to what is SEN

It is at this point that schools or parents should employ a specialist, namely an educational psychologist, (LINK to what does an EP do?) or another suitably qualified person to determine why the student is not achieving and offer solutions to support the student to progress and reach their potential.

To support the student to reach their potential in examinations, they may be entitled to what is known as ‘exam concessions’, ‘alternative accommodations’ or ‘inclusive arrangements’. (All these terms have the same meaning but different countries and exam boards use different labels). (LINK to what are exam concessions) This support is to ensure that the student is not being held back from achieving what we know they are capable of. We wouldn’t deny a student their diabetes medication at exam times would we, so why deny a student with dyslexia the use of a word processor? It’s all about ensuring a level playing field so that no one is disadvantaged through no fault of their own.

What circumstance might hold a student back from reaching their academic potential?

  1. A special educational need/learning difficulty
  2. Stress / Illness (including mental health issues)
  3. Emotional wellbeing e.g identity, attachment issues, being adopted, lack of confidence, poor self-image, or self-esteem.
  4. Home environment issues e.g. a recent divorce, living between 2 sets of parents, parents with addiction issues.
  5. Lack of appropriate educational resources- poorly resourced school 
  6. Peer pressure- friends who don’t value education 

This list is not exhaustive. 

For any of the above, the school or local authority should be able to offer parents advice and support for their child to overcome these barriers. Schools should implement a support plan that must be regularly monitored and reviewed and parents should be invited to become active participants in this process.





link for standardized tests:


link for educational psychologist role


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Parent Checklist for SEN

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