My six-year-old daughter brought home her school report on the last day of term. We sat down on the sofa so I could read it to her. It praised every aspect of her work and social development, so when I finished I said how well she'd done and that I particularly valued the comments on how she cared about others. She turned away, buried her face in the cushion and, on the verge of tears, called it "a stupid report". When I asked her what she meant, she choked: "What's the point of telling me I'm good when it's so easy?"
Much of the debate about underachievement addresses the need for teachers and parents to have high expectations and for children to be properly challenged. It is argued that too many primary teachers do not challenge children. Teachers who fear setting the goalposts too far away offer targets that are too easy to reach. But doing well when the challenge is easy is not rewarding.
Children need challenges that are real but achievable. A target set too high is as unhelpful as one set too low. The point of balance at which a child is extended but not discouraged, tempted and not threatened, can be called an "optimal challenge".
Identifying where to put the goalposts is difficult enough; yet this is only one part of the problem. The complex equation of achievement, which includes not only challenge but also encouragement, includes one other vital and sometimes problematic variable - the child. Children's views of what they can achieve may be very different from an adult's. If a child feels the challenge is too hard, despite the adult's confidence, he or she may simply refuse to try.
Many experienced teachers are highly skilled at presenting challenges at the right level for individual children, but they don't all have this gift. Parents are likely to find the process much harder. Apart from having limited experience, they often identify too closely with the child. So where should anyone start?
One good place is to ask the child. Then the child is more likely to see the challenge as manageable and take on the responsibility for meeting it. The High-Scope pre-school programme, with its plan-do-review structure, demonstrates that even younger children can take responsibility for their own learning and that it produces enduring results when they do.
Computer games also use this approach. They offer different levels of challenge and players choose the level which matches their anticipated ability. The player controls the degree of challenge faced. They can try competing at a higher level but there is no public loss of face or wasted investment if they cannot manage it. They can return to a lower level and a more comfortable challenge. In computer games, both the level of difficulty and the skills required increase very gradually. Improvement can take place step-by-step, and the player receives instant and measurable feedback.
Equally important, every player is allowed to enjoy a sense of competence and achievement before moving to a higher level: the player decides when the achievement palls, and when a further challenge is needed.
We know that success breeds success, so a child's self-belief can change over time. Children with low self-belief will take longer to reach a target because they have to manage their learning in smaller steps. Over time, as their confidence is fed by success, they will be able to stride forward more quickly.
It is crucial to provide pre-school children with high-quality social and early learning experiences which help to engender feelings of well-being and competence. These are the foundations of self-belief and create the right psychological and emotional base for effective learning and successful motivation in later childhood. Parents and policy-makers who are tempted to register the very young with professionals prepared to instil the 3Rs as early as possible should resist it. Children's sense of their own competence early on is not linked solely or even primarily to skills but instead to self-esteem and self-belief. They are not the same, though, of course, in time they influence each other. It may even be counter-productive to focus on academic skills too early. The time spent away from home, asking a child for more than she can comfortably deliver, and introducing ideas of success and failure before she has had the chance to explore, develop and know herself, could combine to undermine self-esteem and limit the all-important experience of mastery.
Children undoubtedly need academic skills as well as strong self-belief. Schools must ensure that children can access the widening curriculum by the age of seven or eight. Those without the essential passports to leaming will find it hard to keep extending the goals they reach for. Not only will they expect less of themselves, because they feel a failure by comparison; but also, as the achievers make progress at an increasing rate, the gap between them will grow exponentially. No wonder they fall further and further behind and become increasingly switched off from learning.
Underachievement is most effectively reduced by combining greater efforts to improve a child's ability to read and write with at least an equal push to build a child's self-belief and experience of achievement and success through: developing confidence in ideas, preferences, and feelings; giving opportunities to find and exploit something the child is good at; and above all sharing in the pleasure at successes which the child must be allowed to feel.
* Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer's book Motivating Your Child, will be published next year by Mandarin) Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer