The Pygmalion effect – how our young people live up (or down) to our expectations

Alan White New

Alan White

In 1964 Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal was given permission to administer a new IQ test to a group of Elementary school students. After administering the test, a group of children were highlighted to the teacher as having great potential to academically flourish over the next year. Sure enough over the following academic year these students made massive improvements in test scores.

At the end of the year the teacher was informed that, Rosenthal had only administered a standard IQ test and the students who were singled out as having potential, were merely picked at random. In fact it was the increased expectations of these students from their teacher that had had an effect on their performance. This became known as the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect.

Young people quickly pick up on our unspoken expectations of them. I can see it every day in my own classroom. Students who are expected to do well often do and students who have picked up the message that they may not do well also live up to that expectation. We tend to label students very quickly. Often by the time they have reached secondary school, students have a “reputation”. An A student, a hard worker, or a lazy student or a trouble maker.

Somewhere along the line young people have been pigeonholed into a certain category of achievement and they begin to believe this themselves. Nobody has probably ever told the child that they have limited expectations of them, but they have subconsciously picked up on these expectations and internalised them deep within themselves. Too often I encounter young people who are defeated before they begin and are obviously bored and disillusioned every day of their lives in school as they don’t ever experience success and achievement, as well as the thrill and confidence these bring with them.

Many of us have experienced what it’s like to feel useless, either in school or in a workplace. To say it’s an unpleasant experience to have to spend most of your days somewhere where you feel unappreciated and undervalued is an understatement. This is happening to young people every day, where getting through the school day is an exercise in doing the bare minimum, clock watching and avoidance. Not a pleasant experience for anyone and one that can have a detrimental effect on mental well-being.

Our expectations of our young people become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe in them, they tend to meet this expectations and of course the opposite is also true. As parents and educators, or anyone who works with young people we must be careful of buying into the “labels” that are placed upon them. Most of us can remember that one adult who believed in us, some of us were lucky and had many people believe in us and this belief was what helped us reach where we are today.

Others are not so lucky and never experience the self confidence that having people believe in them brings. In one of my earlier blogs I wrote about perception and how “your perception of me is a reflection of you”. However it is also true that, “your belief in me is reflected in me”.

For many of us, it’s hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t believe in their child, and I’m not suggesting that anyone would for the most part. However it’s important to remember that young people pick up of even the most subtle hints of doubt, especially during their self-conscious teenage years. Young people pick up on our hidden assumptions so for anyone who either has children work with them or both. It is important to be aware of the subtle messages they are receiving through our expectations either high or low.

We all have different skills and natural abilities, but I strongly believe that all of us can overcome barriers to achievement through self-belief. This self-belief however needs to be reinforced through others belief in us and this will help our young people to persevere through adversity and flourish. This will in turn help build what I will be speaking about in my next blog, Resilience!

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