The power of empathy leading the way

Impact of positive and negative expectations on the development of children

by Corinna Schmied, psychologist and remedial teacher, and Dipl paed lic phil Renate Caesar

Teachers, parents or other people in the children’s environment often approach the child with certain assumptions, theories or beliefs. Every expectation, whether conscious or unconscious, has implications for the child’s further development, and may bear fruit either in the negative or in the positive way. Therein lie both a great responsibility and at the same time a great opportunity.

The “space, into which young people may develop”

Anyone dealing with children and young people knows from his own experience and from the encounter with others that educators often approach the child with certain subjectively influenced assumptions – based on various impressions, observations and encounters – and rashly form an image of the personality and the performance capability of a child, his weaknesses and his strengths. Often, this process happens unknowingly. Joachim Bauer, psychotherapist and professor of medicine, deals with this problem in his book “Lob der Schule” (In praise of school)1 and with his remarks he refers to the great responsibility that is on the educator when he deals with young people: “By his vision and ideas about the child‘s development potential the teacher opens up the space for adolescents into which they may develop.” (p. 85) “The way they are perceived by their parents and teachers allows the children and young people to understand not only who they are, but also who they might be; that means they perceive where their potential and possibilities for development lie.” (pp. 26) “That is why children and young people seek to disclose – in the image that parents and teachers have formed about them – what they are (or could be), what they might be capable of, where their potentials and opportunities for development lie.

This seeking process takes place unconsciously within a child and a young person, and yet it is one of the most important processes when it comes to education in general. The way we provide adolescents with information about themselves through our speech and behavior, we create a ‘corridor’ pointing to the future in which – to a certain degree – the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy can develop.”(p. 132)

Here, Bauer talks about a phenomenon that social psychology drew attention to, decades ago.

“Pygmalion in the classroom” – a short excursion into the history of psychology

Already fifty years ago, psychological research dealt with the problem of expectations and their effects. Robert Rosenthal had then found and systematically studied the so-called observer-expectancy effect, later known as Rosenthal Effect. Rosenthal had discovered that scientific observers unconsciously convey their own hypothesis regarding the course of the experiment on the test person through verbal and nonverbal signals, i.e. they express their expectations which are perceptible to the test persons. These expectations lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. The test persons behave indeed as expected – an assumption, a prejudice, a prediction, a rumor or expectation can therefore become itself the cause for it to actually happen and come true.

The classic experiment by Robert Rosenthal (1965)2, which became famous under the name of “Pygmalion in the classroom”, was groundbreaking. Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson had then conducted an experiment at two American elementary schools to examine the impact of teachers’ expectations on their students. In their experiment they were able to prove that the assumptions of teachers significantly influence the performance of their students: 45 percent (in the context of the experiment chosen arbitrarily, that is, randomly) of the students, who – vis à vis the teachers – had been predicted a positive intellectual development were actually flourishing during the year and had been able to increase their IQ and their school grades, some of them even essentially. Positive expectations of the teacher affect the child under certain conditions (these were well-defined in many subsequent studies) in such a way that the expectations are confirmed in the sense of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is, however, problematic for the development of children, if we approach them with negative expectations, since in the reverse case expectations show their effect, as well.

Negative expectations and problematic diagnoses in school

Teachers often experience that parents, often unconsciously, transfer impressions from their own history on their child. Statements of mothers like the following, “I was dyslexic myself, I know what I’m talking about”, can often be heard by teachers in everyday school life. This mother quite naturally assumes that her daughter is a so-called dyslexic because she had been burdened with this diagnosis as a child. She charges her child with her own insecurity about whether spelling can really be mastered. Even before her daughter went to school, she had expected her to have problems with spelling later on. Her daughter felt this insecurity from the beginning – the lack of confidence of her mother and her negative expectations had the effect that already in the first grade the girl displayed a strong insecurity in writing, and the fear of failure accompanied all her studying. Today she says, “I’m just dyslexic”, which means as much as, “I cannot help having problems spelling, because I have an illness or because my head does not work properly. I cannot learn, it’s the way it is, I’m just different.”

If parents doubt the academic abilities of their child, they transfer their doubts on their child, and throughout his whole life, to carry this burden will be hard on him: insecurity, discouragement, lack of belief in his own capability to learn and in himself will accompany his entire life. Conversely parents can “give wings” to their child if they believe in his or her potential for development, and when they let their child feel the pleasure they have in him and in his small steps of learning.

Even teachers sometimes have a glib idea of their students or pass the kid on to the next teacher thoughtlessly labeling him: “She is at the limits of her capacity”, “he just does not have any more potential”, “it does not make sense, she will simply not overcome her insufficient achievements”, “she just cannot do mental arithmetic”, “his brother was the same”, “he is really just weak”, “you will have to relieve her, she’ll never cope with this objective”, etc. How fast do these statements fix a prejudice, set an expectation which deprives the child of the opportunity for change, because due to false negative presuppositions we demand too little of him or her and have too little confidence in her capabilities, because we do not focus on the small development steps carefully enough and might not even notice them, because we do not believe in his development. Such a child is quickly driven into the “special education” corner.

Today, the problem of false expectations has become even more serious due to the frivolous and inflationary dealing with psychiatric, biologistic diagnoses such as ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), autism, Asperger’s syndrome, learning disorders, special giftedness, dyscalculia, dyslexia, mutism, mild mental deficiency, learning disability and others. ADHD is often diagnosed with children who are easy to distract, forgetful and inattentive or partly hyperactive and impulsive, while the diagnosis can be devastating for the further development of the child. “I am suffering from ADHD, you know ...”, children respond today if you demand more order in their school material or if you ask for the forgotten homework, “... I just can’t help it”.

The “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 19 August 2010 published a brief note on the problem of false theories, on whose background educators, psychologists and doctors ascribe their observations: “Many wrong ADHD diagnoses” was the title. The reader learns that, according to a study, about one million children living in the US have wrongfully been diagnosed with ADHD, usually at the request of educators (with all the consequences for the child!). It was found that in kindergarten children who are the youngest in their year, 60 percent are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD – in school children twice as often – than in the oldest children in their class. This means that it is simply the appropriate emotional immaturity of the younger children due to their age and their level of development which the educators observed as abnormalities – and not, as was interpreted on the basis of false assumptions, an ADHD symptom! Each kindergarten teacher here knows that it makes a real difference if a child is a few months older or younger when considering a child’s level of development.

Even in our schools, we find similar processes. Many teachers today conclude with amazing certainty that the child “is suffering from ADHD” when their pupils show behavioral problems. If we approach a child with an unwarranted assumption every day, we run the risk of actually making this child a real problem case.

“Lack of courage means underdevelopment”

The individual psychologist Alfred Adler, who taught in the first third of the last century and whose pedagogical principles, even if they have almost been forgotten, are still valid today, was known for his unshakeable belief in each child’s capacity for development. He recommended the educators that the best support for the development of the child was the “confidence in his own strength”. “Later in life courageous children will not expect their fate to be effected by outside forces but will effect a change in their fortunes from inner strength.” (p. 72)3

The newspaper “Chicago Tribune” summed up a lecture given by Adler under the title “Inspiring courage creates success” with the following words: “Children need optimism. Give the child the idea that it is good and capable to do much more, and in nine cases out of ten this will actually come true. Impress upon the child the conviction that he does everything wrong, that other children are superior to him and that his small errors are huge failures, and this is exactly the way to sow the seeds in him to be exactly that – a failure. [...] Only courage is able to develop all the potential skills and talents of the child: lack of courage means underdevelopment.” (p. 224)

Teachers can help parents to become aware of these coherences and among colleagues they are able to draw their attention on problematic assumptions and expectations of their students. They can themselves look at their daily work with children and young people attentively and honestly and make sure to handle their own interpretations wisely and carefully. Thus they can remove many stones, sometimes even rocks out of the students’ way.

Knowledge of each child’s viability and openness for change

If we start teaching a child and we are convinced of this child’s ability to learn, the child can feel the trust of the teacher and begins to study more boldly. One child needs more, the other less support, one child is a little faster, the other slower. It is important to always have an open door and a clear objective in mind, towards which we want to lead the child. Behind this door the next open door is waiting the passing of which requires some more learning steps. The doors should never be closed; we should not lose sight of the objective, because after each learning step another is possible! These learning steps can be smaller or larger, depending on what we expect of the child. One should be careful and attentively perceive each of the child’s steps, in order not to let it come to nothing; because with the teacher’s knowledge of each step the child feels that there is a little more ground to stand on and he rises another bit above himself. The teacher’s optimism, his patience, perseverance and confidence and his joy in the child and in his learning steps always pay off.

So you can always experience something amazing, surprising, pleasing, touching: students who are considered slow learners, insecure, nervous, with problematic diagnoses that promise them rather dark future, start contributing to the activities in the classroom, they ask questions, they suddenly dare to solve a math task in front of the class, they expose themselves despite the risk that their answer could be wrong, they find friends among their peers and begin to behave among colleagues in a more natural, self-confident way, find their place there, start to be interested in studying, in issues that affect our world, they read and work driven by the concern for the cause and with a goal in mind; they even succeed in being integrated in regular classes in secondary school, may even go to grammar school (gymnasium), or enter an apprenticeship that they will perform excellently and thus work in a profession that will be a pleasure of a lifetime for them.

A teacher can set the course for the lives of the children who pass through his hands. Seeking, detecting and realizing their inherent potential he can lead children on the straight and direct path, away from detours and digressions that will cost them energy, disappointments, years and joy in life and often lead a human being sin some “thicket” or dead end. “Mr M. has taught me arithmetic; since I have started studying with him, I can count”, says a child in grade four who had always thought “I cannot do arithmetic”. Or “Mr T. has made me great”, says a former beginner who now attends secondary school, several years later, “he has made a man out of me”. “Fortunately, you have demanded something from him from the very beginning and believed in him, or he would never have made it to secondary school”, a mother says years later. “I would never have imagined having so many friends as I do now. I hope that we will never separate”, says a former shy and lonely third-grader, who had always been considered a loner. “He helped me to find my way”, says a student about his teacher. A mother reported about her child, who had great difficulty when starting school. “He has just changed into secondary school, he now knows himself that it is important to study and that he does it for himself”.

Every child has the right to his own development and the full development of his inner potential. We should not interfere and stifle his skills with our own doubts and false assumptions and expectations!

Teachers as “second chance”

By the path outlined above teachers provide students with the chance to go their way without the ballast of doubt and lack of trust from the side of their role models and the persons they relate to indeed, they are given leeway for their own development: “Through the relationship to their teachers, children and young people often get to know a new and different way to see the world and their lives and to face challenges. In this respect teachers can be a ‘second chance’. Teachers should be aware of the responsibility that grows out of this.” (Joachim Bauer: “Lob der Schule”, p. 137)     •

1          Joachim Bauer. Lob der Schule. Perspektiven für Schüler, Lehrer und Eltern, 2007

2          cf. Frey, Dieter und Greif, Siegfried (Eds.) Sozialpsychologie. Ein Handbuch in Schlüsselbegriffen, 1983 And

3          Edward Hoffman. Alfred Adler. Ein Leben für die Individualpsychologie, 1997


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