WASHINGTON, January 26, 2014 – One thing teachers learn early on in their careers is that children will do everything in their power to live up to expectations. This holds true with the so-called good students as well as, and in some cases especially among, the more trying students. This is actually true of almost everyone, but the idea is more intensely illustrated in the school setting than perhaps anywhere else.
What is so incredible about this idea is that by simply adjusting your own expectations of someone, you can help to alter their whole way of being, their entire behavioral pattern – and also their total experience in any given setting (in this case, school). Taking a so-called bad kid, and letting him know that you expect nothing but greatness out of him, sets a precedent wherein the child is permitted to change his behavior, to make better choices and take on a new identity. It’s such a simple psyche-out, but it works!
Little Timmy starts every school year with a chip on his shoulder because he already knows that his reputation has preceded him and that his teacher knows he’s the bad kid. But what a surprise when the teacher not only doesn’t let on that she knows all about him and his bad ways, but she even gives him extra responsibilities – has him take notes to the front office, or lets him clean off the board, or trusts him to go to the restroom with just a hall pass instead of an escort! Surely, she must be a new teacher, he thinks, and tests her by acting out. Instead of reacting the way he expects, the teacher shows genuine shock and disappointment in his behavior. She addresses it like she would any other student, lets him know she is ready to move past it, and expects him to be the great young man she already knows he is from now on. Slowly, that’s just what Little Timmy becomes.
The above story is an over-simplification of the idea that people largely define themselves by the way others define them. It is also, as any teacher will tell you, never quite that easy. However, events do follow that basic path, and people do modify their actions to fit others’ expectations. All teachers know this, good teachers use it, and the very best teachers love to get that bad kid, because they know by the end of the year, that bad kid will be their shining star. What a powerful tool it is to have, to know that you can help a child become their very best person by shining the light of new expectations upon them, and allowing them to see themselves in the reflection of that light, perhaps for the very first time.
This is not a message to teachers, however. This is a message for all of us. We are all surrounded by people who, just like school children, largely define themselves by the way others see them. We have such incredible power to help mold people’s self-worth, identity, and even actions through our expectations of one another. Why not use that power to be a blessing to those around us? Why not adjust our expectations toward the positive, with the goal of helping everyone be their very best? Will it work all the time with everyone? No, certainly not – but it takes so little energy and will that it’s certainly worth it even if it only helps some. You may even find that once you begin to cut others a break and expect the good from them, that you have begun to do the same for yourself. That alone makes the exercise worthwhile.