Dealing with the Stereotype of Underachievement
James Delisle, Ph.D.
From Prufrock Press, November/December 1994 issue

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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 trails (I think the author meant 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 spreading!"

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!

Standardizing Definitions

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" enjoys?

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.

Assigning Labels

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 be there.

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.