Robin Booth
Robin Booth

Who’s an ‘under’ or ‘over’ achiever?

I think it’s really important to begin by saying that we create categories and labels as part of the way our brain functions. This allows us to process information.

Judging, evaluating and categorising are some of the ways we process information around us. So what’s really important is not the concept of “not labelling” but being aware of the risks of labelling and possible pitfalls. In other words it’s not important that we judge, but the actions we take on the basis of our judgement.

Taking away the concept of “labelling” means we no longer have a way to sort and categorise information. We then pretend we’re not labelling (because it seems as if people believe “labelling” is wrong) when in fact we do. So perhaps what’s more important than telling parents not to label is to support them in the actions they take in spite of the labelling.

What’s important when it comes to the word “underachievement” is to define what that term means. And to then understand what the word means in the greater context of children and education. “Underachieving” implies children should be achieving a certain norm at a certain age or time and they’re currently not. And more importantly that if you are not achieving these norms then there’s the belief that something is “wrong”.

This concept of “wrong” perhaps does more damage than the label of “underachiever”. It gives a sense that if the child is “behind” at a given point in time then they will always be behind and we therefore have to intervene to support the child’s development. It also works on the premise that the child wants to achieve some goal but can’t and this now demands adult intervention.

In my definition an underachiever is someone who is not personally motivated and driven to explore and apply themselves to some project or task. If you apply the same assessment criteria to a child who is passionate about something they would not be rated as an achiever. So then we should also not be surprised if a child is an underachiever if they themselves have not been involved in agreeing to the goals that need to be achieved in the first place.

Achievement should only be personally rated against what a child or learner has set for themselves and the degree to which they rated themselves against those expectations ahead of that goal.