Expectations and Assumptions

Today we’re going to talk about three psychological effects that can significantly affect the way students are treated and evaluated in school.  See if you recognize any of them.

First, let’s look at the Matthew Effect.  This phenomenon was named by Robert Merton, a sociologist, for a verse from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25: For to everyone who has shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.  Merton found that well-known, well-regarded scientists got more credit than lesser-known scientists for the same work.

When Keith Stanovich applied the Matthew Effect to education, he found that children who learn to read quickly and easily enjoy long-term academic success, while those who struggle with reading in the primary grades are unlikely to catch up and end up with long-term, global academic problems.

Why does this happen?  Children who don’t read well in the primary grades are still “learning to read” when their classmates are already “reading to learn”.  Reading affects everything, so struggling readers have a smaller vocabulary and a compromised knowledge base.  The gap gets wider and wider and academic deficits become more and more global.  In other words, academically speaking, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer!

There are several things that parents can do to help and support their children.

-Focus on phonemic awareness in the preschool years.  Phonemic awareness is the understanding that words are made up of sounds, and those sounds can identified and manipulated.  When parents read Dr. Seuss books and nursery rhymes to their children, they are working on phonemic awareness.

-Read to children every day!  Point out rhyming words, words that start with the same sound, words that end with the same sound.  Not letters – sounds!  Talk about the book.  Pay attention to vocabulary and word meanings.

-If your child is a struggling reader, make sure that he is getting reading interventions at school.  And then make doubly sure that you are supporting vocabulary and knowledge acquisition at home!

-Continue to develop and support your child’s strengths rather than over-focusing on weaknesses.

Next, let’s take a look at the Halo Effect.  The Halo Effect was first pointed out by psychologist Edward Thorndike.  It refers to the human tendency to observe one positive aspect of a person and then base lots of unfounded positive assumptions on that observation.  For example, we’ve all seen how physically attractive people get a leg up in almost all aspects of life – even those that have nothing to do with good looks.

In education, the halo effect increases the chances that well-behaved “teacher pleasers” will also be seen as smarter, more motivated, more accomplished, and more engaged in school.  For example, a “teacher pleaser” is much more likely to be referred to a gifted and talented program than a brilliant student who is also a pain in the neck in the classroom.  Teacher ratings, recommendations, and grades are subject to the halo effect.  And in our current climate of teacher evaluation, an enthusiastic, compliant teacher can easily get higher ratings from a principal in all aspects of job performance than an excellent but more assertive teacher.

If you have a child who is challenging at school, behaviorally or academically, he may be subject to the halo effect.  If your child is a square peg in a round hole, she will probably run up against the halo effect.  What’s a parent to do?

-Regularly and consistently point out your child’s gifts and strengths to teachers and school administrators.  Keep meetings positive and focused on problem-solving, not criticism.

-Practice gratitude!  If you have a difficult child, thank and support those who are tolerant and understanding, and who go the extra mile for your child.  Gratitude is a powerful motivator.

-Challenge assumptions.  Don’t allow unfounded assumptions to affect your child’s future.  Ask to see the grading rubric.  Ask to see the criteria for referral to the gifted program.  Ask to review your child’s cumulative folder.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Pygmalion Effect.  The Pygmalion Effect was described by Roger Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson.  They found that if teachers were led to expect better academic performance from certain children, then those children did indeed perform better academically.  In other words, high teacher expectations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The Pygmalion Effect has also been applied to gender stereotyping and racial stereotyping in school.  For example, if a teacher believes that boys will be higher achievers in math, it is more likely that will indeed be true.

We have to be careful here, though.  Sometimes teacher expectations are based on data and professional experience, and outcomes that are in line with teacher expectations can simply be an indication that the teacher made accurate predictions.  Correlation is not causation!

What can parents do to make sure that teacher expectations are accurate and positive for their children?

-Communicate regularly with teachers to gain an understanding of what their expectations are for your child and what the basis is for those expectations.

-If expectations are based on stereotypes or assumptions, use data to refute them.  Previous report cards, test results, teacher notes and observations – all these provide data.

-Ask that your children be challenged, whatever their level of functioning at school.

All human beings use stereotypes and assumptions in day to day life, and teachers are no exception.  Either are parents!  Just be aware of the assumptions you make about school personnel, and make sure to correct any false assumptions they make about your children.

Alice Wellborn is the author of the recently released book, The Savvy Parent’s Guide to Public School. Click Here to purchase!  This practical guide helps parents navigate the frustrating world of public education.  Designed to empower parents to work effectively with teachers and school administrators, the book provides parents with the information and tools they need to become strong partners in their child’s school community.

Alice Wellborn, M.A. has been a licensed school psychologist for over 35 years (and the mother of three sons for almost 30 years!)  She received the NC School Psychology Association Presidential Award of Honor in 2002 for her advocacy on behalf of children.  Alice is the education specialist at FlyLady, and a bi-monthly columnist at her local newspaper on topics related to public school.  Her weekly blog is featured at both flylady.net and schoolsavvyparents.com. Alice’s Facebook page, No More Parents Left Behind, features questions and comments about education and parenting.  Alice believes that strong parent/teacher partnerships are a vital part of effective public education.

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