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82 DECEMBER 2005
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Achievement behaviour

Michael Niss

Achievement behaviour is an important part of a child's development that leads to a child learning to be effective and developing a sense of mastery over his environment. Through achievement one develops a positive self-esteem, feeling of acceptance, adequacy and self worth. There are many factors that affect a child's motivation and achievement behaviour. The key players are parents, school and friends.

Early Experience
Achievement motivated behaviour develops early in childhood. Early experiences have a tremendous impact on a child's later achievement behaviour. Therefore early experiences may inhibit or facilitate achievement when the child reaches school going age. Psychologists generally agree that early experience and mastery of tasks effect achievement motivation. Self-esteem similarly commences development early in life and becomes more set as the child matures. Youngsters brings with them to pre-adolescence and adolescence a fairly framed self-concept and achievement motivation. In the early years, achievement is mainly through sensory-motor activities. The behaviour is mainly concrete and specific in nature. As the child develops his behaviour becomes more complex and abstract. During this stage mastery of tasks requires concentration and more frequent attempts are needed to achieve tasks. The sense of defeat and inability to accomplish tasks on hand are a sure way to learn defeat, but perhaps the more lasting message is the feelings that accompany the failure.

Not only is the child's personal perception important, but also the reaction to experiences from others around him. A child learns from the responses he gets from parents, teachers and peers. How he is doing and, in fact, the expectations of these significant others, can also affect his achievement motivation. When explaining this to parents I use the example of a plant that we water in the hope that it grows flowers. Similarly one should expect that a child will bear the fruits of their attempts. There can be nothing more demoralising for a youngster to feel that a parent or peer doesn’t think that he is able to master a task.

Parents, teachers and significant others
A 16 year old boy referred by his school, for underachieving told me in therapy that he remembers from a young age that no one ever expected him to achieve. He was allowed to do what ever he wanted to, and what ever he did, didn’t matter to anyone. On further examination of his circumstances he reported that he was always told that he was average. This message was passed on by his parents and teachers. He later said that he wished that how he did at school mattered to someone.

Parents and parent surrogates are the most significant individuals determining the self-esteem and achievement motivation of the child. Research is showing that a child's perception of himself is tied up with the messages he receives from parents and teachers. Achievement behaviour is fostered through interaction with the child, so that the child learns that he can master tasks. Parents need to give children the message of positive regard and belief.

A wonderful card received from a nine-year-old boy at termination of therapy read as follows: “Thanks for believing in me even when I was unbelievable.” This humorous card drives home the importance of positive regard. The boy started to improve his behaviour in many areas, especially at school. Never has questioning a child as to why he has not brought home good grades, achieved anything. This kind of question only isolates the child and makes him feel worse, as the truth is, he does not know.

This feature: Niss, M. (1999). Achievement behaviour. Readings in Child and Youth Care for South African students: 2. Cape Town: NACCW, pp.95-96

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