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What high--and low--expectations can do to children

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  September 20, 2012 08:10 AM

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I heard the most fascinating story on NPR the other day. 

It was a story about how teacher expectations affect how they teach. They talked about a study done back in 1964 by a Harvard researcher named Robert Rosenthal in an elementary school in San Francisco. Rosenthal took a regular old IQ test and put a different cover on it; he called it the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition (stick the Harvard name on anything and people look at it differently). He told the teachers that it was a test that could show when kids were about to have a dramatic increase in their IQ.

All the kids took the test. Then Rosenthal picked some kids at random and told the teachers: these are the ones who are going to have an increase in their IQ.

Know what happened? They did. For real.

Rosenthal studied the kids and teachers closely for two years. He found that if teachers thought the kid was going to succeed, they helped them do so. They gave them more time, more feedback and more approval--all of which helped those kids learn and do better than others.

It's just human nature. We make judgments about people all the time, often--even usually--without realizing it. And those judgments can have power--and unintended consequences.

This is why I had a parenting panic moment when I found out that the middle school had decided to track kids into regular and advanced classes as they entered sixth grade. They told us this at the end of the fifth grade year--a year during which my then fifth grade daughter had done some serious slacking. I hadn't worried about it--I figured we had time--but suddenly it turned out that we didn't.

It's not that I wanted Natasha to be in advanced classes for bragging rights or resume-building. It's just that I knew from experience as a pediatrician and as a mom that she'd be pushed and learn more in an advanced class--simply because, as Rosenthal found, the teachers would expect more of her.

Ultimately, for Natasha it's not so crucial--because she has me and my husband to advocate for her and encourage her. But for so many kids, this stuff really is crucial. A teacher's expectations can make or break a life. 

Think about how this concept might play out for kids at "failing" schools, the ones with poor test scores. What is it like when the expectations for everyone are low? Or how it plays out for a rambunctious child who gets labeled as a troublemaker, or a really quiet one who gets labeled as unintelligent when she's actually just painfully shy? I've watched this stuff happen with so many of my patients. After a while, unless we've got tremendous self-confidence or someone in our corner, we start to believe what people think about us.

I don't have any great answers or ideas. But when I heard this story, I wanted to write about it. I figure if I make a couple of people stop and think, and maybe change what they do, it might make all the difference in the life of some kids.

Here's hoping.                                
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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