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Why high expectations are good for you

Last updated: 10 February, 2010

There are simple techniques like the Pygmalion Effect, which teachers and parents could use to enhance children’s self-esteem and productivity, writes Ravindranath Nayak

Most parents are aware that a teacher’s expectations of a child often become self-fulfilling prophecies: If a teacher believes a child is slow, the child will come to believe that too, and will indeed learn slowly.

The lucky child who strikes a teacher as bright also internalises the teacher’s expectation and will rise to fulfil it. 

This is the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy, also known as the Pygmalion Effect. The essence of this prophecy is that people’s expectations determine their behaviour and performance.


The process starts with the development of expectations about a target person. These expectations are communicated, more or less consciously, to the target person. The target person notices and internalises these expectations and starts to behave as expected.

Pygmalion has a fascinating history.  He was a sculptor. According to Greek mythology, he created a statue of a beautiful woman. He prayed to the gods that the statue be transformed into a real woman. His wish was granted. And, from this mythical story came what is commonly known as the Pygmalion Effect, which states: People can be shaped by others, according to how they are treated.
 
What does research say?

The Pygmalion Effect plays itself out between teacher and student in the classroom; manager and subordinate in an organisation; and parent and child at home.

The performance of the target (student, employee or child) usually tends to adjust itself to the expectations of the powerful other (teacher, manager, parent).

The Pygmalion Effect is all about the complicated relationship between expectations and performance.

It suggests that the expectations of a teacher, parent or manager, even if they be off the mark, would still influence the behaviour of the student, child or employee.

The idea is that the way in which one person treats another can — for better or for worse —  transform one’s motivation, self-esteem and self-confidence.

Researchers in education and social psychology have found that a teacher’s perceptions continue to predict student achievement for up to seven years.

The Pygmalion Effect works best with people who have not met. The longer the two parties had been in contact prior to the experiment, the weaker the performance improvement, say researchers. 

Think positive

Self-fulfilling prophecies work in two ways: Not only do teachers (managers) form expectations of students (subordinates), but students (subordinates) form expectations of teachers (managers) too.

When sales persons are treated by their managers as super achievers, they try to live up to their image and do what they think super achievers are expected to do.

But when those with poor productivity are told, by word or gesture, that they have “little chance” of success, this negative expectation also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in lower productivity.

People are motivated when they believe that their behaviour will lead to desired rewards.

This explains how expectations, whether correct or not, affect the outcome of a situation.

As positive expectations are the foundation for creating a lively classroom or a happy, secure home, teachers and parents can create this by using the following techniques:

a) Recognise that every child has the potential to improve performance.
b) Enhance confidence in the child by setting high performance goals.
c) Provide constructive feedback when necessary.
d) Steer clear of personal prejudices.
e) Be sensitive to your non-verbal communication as well as your words.

Watch what you say

One of the ways to communicate high expectations is to reframe certain commonly used expressions. Some simple examples are: ‘I know you can do it’ instead of ‘I hope you can do it’.

The idea is not to advocate the manipulation of others by conveying deceptive cues. Rather, it is to attempt to bring out the best in others by treating them in a positive manner.

If teachers are unskilled, they leave scars on the psyche of young people, cut deeply into their self-esteem and distort their image of themselves as human beings. But if they are skillful and sensitive, they will ensure that their students are confident, secure and happy individuals with a sense of self-worth.

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