The best description I ever heard of the word "lazy" is "people who are
not motivated in ways you want them to be." This same description could also be
given to the word "underachievement," one of the most overused and misapplied
terms used in our field.
Reams of articles and books have been written on the "problem" of
underachievement and its resolution but, with one notable exception - Joanne
Rand Whitmore's Giftedness, Conflict, and Underachievement, now, sadly, out of
print - most of the remaining work on this topic is vapid, void of either
substance or respect, and filled with techniques to coerce "underachieving"
students into performing at levels that cause adults to smile. While pretending
to have the best interests of underachievers at heart, authors on this topic do
their best to zap out of these often creative children the very essence of what
has kept them alive, intellectually speaking: their nonconformity and their
refusal to accept mediocrity in their education.
Why am I so against the idea of underachievement and the subsequent plans given
to ameliorate it? First, because much of the research is based on an erroneous
(or at least suspect) assumption: the presumption of guilt. If a teacher or
national expert so much as hints at the possibility that a particular student is
an underachiever, then that's as far as it goes - he's labeled. No counterclaims
or trials - nothing. Just a sentence. Next, a
whole army of strategies is employed, most involving contracts, verbal
agreements and subsequent losses of privileges to the offending underachiever
for promises unkept. "Solutions" surround the underachieving student, becoming
the educational equivalent of white blood cells amassing around an open sore to
prevent infection. "Catch it quick," we're told. "Keep underachievement from
Solace is offered the underachieving student via suggestions for change:
"You're a smart kid if only you'd apply yourself."
"I don't care if the homework is boring, an assignment is an assignment!"
"If you'd argue less about your work and just plain do it, you wouldn't be
having these problems."
These statements and others like them, tell the student that his or her opinion
doesn't matter or that his or her perceptions are inaccurate. Now, not only is
the student guilty of academic neglect, he (it is mostly "he's" who are labeled
as underachievers) is often told that change is up to him - his responsibility,
his burden. So much for education being a positive partnership involving school,
home, and students!
Another reason I protest the term underachievement and its application to
children is that no two people really define the term the same way, nor do they
document when underachievement turns that magical corner, transforming it into
"achievement." is it an improvement in grades that prompt us to pronounce the
child cured? If so, which grades are high enough? Or, is it a shift in attitude
that causes us to claim victory? And is this a attitude a general mood shift
swing or just related to academic affairs?
That's the funny thing about underachievement - it has no statute of
limitations. Once applied, the label is seldom revoked.
I would suggest another look, a different look, at this so-called
underachievement syndrome. First, I would suggest that we treat individuals who
are not doing as well as their aptitude indicates they can as just that -
individuals. We need to ask these able students if they can pinpoint any reasons
for their disinterest in or distrust of school.
Perhaps there are specific forces operating against a child's own best
self-interests which are prompting his negative responses. If so, could it be
that the situation, not the child, is what should change?
Secondly, can we locate areas of intense interests, or as George Betts calls
(them), the "passions," that even the most dyed-in-the-wool "underachiever"
That passion could be anything from rock climbing to rock music, but, whatever
it is, that passion must be acknowledged and nurtured. If it is taken away as a
"consequence" (i.e., punishment), then we are kicking a child who is already
down. How immature; how hurtful.
Third, have we ever considered the effect the label of "underachiever" has on
the child who wears it? It implies nothing but negatives - bad student, lazy
kid, lost potential - which are all pretty heavy burdens to bear when you
already know that you've been disappointing people whom you had grown to like,
love, or respect, at least to a degree.
Underachievement is an adult term used to describe a set of troublesome child
behaviors that don't match some preconceived notions of how high a gifted child
is supposed to perform. Underachievement is a hurtful and disrespectful term
that is defined differently by every person who uses it.
Underachievement is a myth, existing in the eye of the beholder who deems it to
There is no argument that some very capable children are not performing as well
in school tasks as they could. It is equally true that some individual schools
and teachers provide little intellectual sustenance for gifted students. Still,
to label any of the parties to this problem as "underachiever" does little more
than to asign blame to some unwitting victim, usually the child.
Before we can alter any behaviors in children about whom we are concerned we
must first change two things: our vocabulary and our attitudes about this
misnomer labeled "underachievement." Only then will students gain both the inner
desires and strength to perform well in school.
This article is reprinted with permission of Prufrock Press, Inc. http://www.prufrock.com/.
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