The author examines the subtle impact of expectations, great and small, on a child.
A student falters while answering a question and the teacher nods encouragingly; an instructor frowns as he hands over an exam with an ‘F’. A father yells at his daughter for watching too much TV; a mother does not speak to her son because he skipped tuition. Through such interactions, adults are communicating their expectations regarding a child’s ability, effort and performance. Either overt or covert, children read our messages and decipher their own meanings. As parents and teachers, should we hold high or low expectations of children? Can high expectations backfire? Should we praise or critique our wards? A few classic psychological studies and the penetrating insight of clinicians can help us understand the subtle but deep impact of expectations.
In the 1960s, two psychologists, Rosenthal and Jacobson, administered an IQ test to students at the beginning of the academic year. The psychologists then gave a list of names to the teachers whom they thought were on the “verge of an intellectual spurt.” At the end of the year, the pupils were reassessed and, sure enough, the children whose names were on the list, had made greater gains on academic skills and were reported to be happier by the teacher. At this point, the researchers revealed the purport of their study. The children whose names were on the list were actually no different, in terms of their initial test performance, from those whose names had been excluded. However, the children on the list did end up doing better at the end of the year possibly because the teachers were primed to expect them to do so.
In another study, black and white students at Stanford University were given a difficult verbal test. While all students performed the same test, one set was told that the test was an index of intelligence while the other group believed it was a “non-diagnostic” study. Intriguingly, when students were told it was an intelligence test, black students did worse than the whites. The researchers, Steele and Aronson, named this phenomenon “stereotype threat” where black students underperformed because the term ‘intelligence’ evoked a negative stereotype that blacks are less smart. As a result, they were possibly more anxious and hence did less well.
A subsequent study threw up an even more astounding results. Female Asian American students were given a math test. While Asians are stereotypically perceived in the U.S. to be good at number crunching, females are believed to under-perform in math compared to males. Consequently, when the students were primed to think of their Asian identity before the test, they did better than a control group. In contrast, when students thought about their gender, the control group outperformed them.
These studies highlight how expectations can subconsciously influence performance. Do we then conclude that it is in the best interests of children that we always hold high expectations as pupils did better when either the teacher or they themselves expected to do well? But high expectations can also suppress performance.
Carol Dweck, the renowned Stanford psychologist, finds evidence to buttress this claim. When children were made to think they were ‘smart’ after playing with some puzzles, they tended to give up earlier when confronted with more challenging ones. In contrast, a group led to believe they “tried hard,” embraced the more difficult puzzles and persisted longer. Labelling children ‘smart’ actually hurt their subsequent performance; whereas, praising children for their effort, made them persevere.
Further, what happens when adults, especially parents, perpetually hold the bar too high? Many school teachers complain about unrealistic parental expectations. In order to have a step ahead in the race to college, many parents are dissatisfied with nothing less than straight A’s. In addition, children have to exhibit sterling talent in music, dance or sports. Unreasonable expectations can stifle a developing child’s sense of self. Renowned clinical psychologist, Madeline Levine warns that “when a parent’s love is experienced as conditional on achievement that children are at risk for serious emotional problems.”
So what take-home messages do we glean from these conflicting studies and messages? Similar to other complexities related to raising children, the answers depend on contextual factors. However, the following general principles may be gleaned.
First, we must acknowledge that our expectations influence children’s behaviour even if they are unstated. We communicate our approval or disapprobation through subtle signs like body language and facial expressions that we ourselves may not be aware of. Writer Chris Berdik argues that while teacher expectations may not affect all kids, “they can be major influences, both good and bad” on vulnerable sections of a classroom like poor, minority, new or anxious kids. Second, we should have expectations regarding a child’s effort without focusing on outcomes. Emphasising perseverance instils an important value in them. As Levine aptly writes, “Children need to see that we value their character first, their effort second, and then their grades.”
Further, researchers have found that a stereotype threat can be nullified. For example, if a task is not called a “math test” or if the effects of stereotypes are discussed prior to test taking, females do as well as males. Thus, we should be aware of stereotypes that plague particular groups and make a conscious effort to reduce students’ anxiety and educate them on how stereotypes need not limit a child. Stories of successful role models can inspire students.
Finally, we need to give children space to grow. Monitoring their every action, following up on their every move and keeping tabs 24/7 is likely to thwart their growth. While holding high but reasonable expectations, we need to let children meander and make mistakes so that they set and seek their own summits.