The Pygmalion Effect was discovered in the 1960s. I had read about this a long time go and thought it was pretty cool. It wasn’t until recently when watching Instagram Reels , I realized JUST HOW MUCH that research has had an impact on how I do things, how I approach kids, how I approach parents, my whole outlook on life!
When I speak to parents lately that there’s a lot of determinism going around.
Lots of conversations are starting out with:
“They’ve ALWAYS been this way.”
“Yeah we’ve tried everything but I think they’re just a difficult personality.”
My personal favourite is when they twist my constant chant of “kids do well if they can” and turn it into “I know that kids do well if they can, so I guess my kid just isn’t capable of doing anything right.”
It is still unclear if this is a reaction from the pandemic easing off and old expectations coming back or if it is an indication of parental burnout that we’re all experiencing after a year of constant contact with our kids. However, many parents seem to be raising this concern.
What is the Pygmalion Effect and why is it relevant in 2021? When the research was done in the 60s?
The Pygmalion effect was researched in 1964-1965 by a guy named Dr. Robert Rosenthal. He was a psychology professor at Harvard and he wanted to study the effect of expectations.
He contacted an elementary school principal who he’d been corresponding with and had an interest in his work, and he proposed using their school as the testing ground for his study. He designed this IQ test, and he presented it to the staff at the school and told them that it would indicate which students in their classes were what he called “bloomers.”
Bloomers were kids who scored high and he told the teachers that scoring high on the test indicated they were “capable of great things.” These were the kids that would go on to be doctors, lawyers, astronauts, make scientific discoveries, etc. Then he said he’d be back in a year to see how the bloomers had gotten on.
It’s important to note that the parents and students didn’t know that they were being tested, and the teachers didn’t know what the scores were, they simply knew which students had been labelled as “bloomers.”
After One Year
A year goes by and Dr. Rosenthal comes back to see what has gone on at the school and the results come in the teachers are all raving about this test because it turns out that ALL the students who were labelled bloomers had done amazingly well in math, science, english, phys ed… EVERY subject.
The kids who actually made the most gains where in grade 1, that was the lowest they tested. Dr. Rosenthal reveals that the test was fake.
The “bloomer” kids were chosen at random. They improved so much because the teachers were more patient with them, they spent more time with them. They nurtured them more because they BELIEVED that they were more capable of meeting their expectations than the average kids.
Now there was a lot of controversy around this study, but by time it was thoroughly peer reviewed pretty much all the naysayers had fallen away and now it’s considered one of those groundbreaking studies of modern psychology.
What does this mean for us as parents of young kids?
First: Youngest kids make the biggest gains.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to why that was but the most compelling argument is that the younger the child, the more plastic their brain, the more impact nurturing has on them.
Children in grade 1 don’t have any preconceived notions of whether they are good or bad at a subject especially back then when kindergarten was totally play centred.
They don’t have any inherent resistance to school or expectations of their intelligence.
School is new!
It makes sense that those children who received extra nurturing that early on would make the biggest gains because they weren’t fighting against any existing biases and their brain was most open to that nurturing.
In other words: the earlier you nurture your child’s strengths and remediate their weaknesses, the faster and more impact that effort will have.
This isn’t just applicable to parenting ask any parent who has a child with a diagnosis of any kind and they’ll tell you that it’s hammered into them how IMPORTANT early intervention is.
There’s tonnes of evidence that when it comes to intervention which is just a fancy word for intentionally nurturing weak skills… the BETTER!
Second: The children were chosen at random!
The other takeaway of note is that these kids were chosen at random.
They didn’t just pick the kids who ACTUALLY scored highest on the IQ test. In case you’ve never heard my opinion on IQ tests, IQ tests are really just stress tests. They don’t objectively measure how smart you are, they measure how much knowledge you can regurgitate under duress.
Kids can keep a cool head under pressure.
They aren’t objective or accurate measures of intelligence. Had they simply chosen the kids who did best on the IQ test, it could be argued that they chose children who already had the ability to stay well regulated and therefore by giving them extra support and nurturing they would naturally outpace their peers academically.
They didn’t, they chose the “bloomers” at random.
Which means inevitably there was kids in the bloomer group who had behavioural challenges, who weren’t very good at self-regulating, and who had weak skills.
If there’s any teachers watching, those kids sprung to mind immediately didn’t they? Especially at the grade 1 level.
The takeaway here is that it doesn’t matter where your kid is NOW or what they’re struggling with NOW.
If you believe, truly believe, that your child is capable of learning and improving… then they will.
Third: Teachers didn’t know the kids’ scores and they were’t directed to nurture these kids more.
They did it simply because they BELIEVED that their efforts would be rewarded.
The children they were nurturing were more capable of great things. They weren’t told to give them more attention, to support their academic learning more. They just did it because they’d been told that these kids were special and had the potential to be world-changers.
However, these kids were random! They ALL made HUGE improvements over the year and were blowing the kids who the teachers had been told were average out of the water…
But there was nothing special about them! T
hey were just random kids!
Which means EVERY child has the potential to make massive improvements.
What makes the difference isn’t their potential or anything innate to their nature. It’s the confidence the adults around them have in their abilities!
If you truly believe your child has the ability to meet your expectations, they will because you’re going to support them in meeting those expectations. If you don’t, they won’t.
I saw this a lot when I was doing early intervention. I quickly got a reputation for taking on “difficult kids” who had stalled out and getting them progressing again.
One agency I worked for colour-coded kids’ files with bingo dabbers.
Red meant the kids were the most difficult and complex kids who weren’t progressing at all. Then it went down the rainbow to purple which meant they were easy to work with and made progress quickly. I got several kids off of red and down into green or even blue!
I remember talking to my boss one evening and she handed me over a red-coded case file and she said “You’ve got your work cut out for you with this one. I suggest …” and then someone walked into the room and demanded her attention immediately so she kind of trailed off and then excused herself and said “good luck.”
I was like “WAIT! What do you suggest?!” but she was gone. I just took my case file and put it in my bag. I never read the case file before going to meet a new client because I didn’t want to have other’s perceptions of this kid cloud mine.
I wanted to meet them with fresh eyes and have no expectations of them, even though that was somewhat impossible with a big red dot on their file. It wasn’t until after I’d met him that I read that he’d severely injured several other Developmental Specialists. He was known for biting till he broke skin. He’d slammed several people’s hands in doors intentionally. His instinct was to throw fists, and that didn’t really jive with the kid I’d met!
Yes, he had a temper and was quick to anger, but on the whole he’d coped with a total stranger inserting herself into his afternoon rather well I thought. Low and behold, 6 months later he wasn’t just on green, his case manager was discussing moving him off services all together.
My boss pulled me aside after the program review meeting where that option had been put on the table and said “WHAT have you done with this kid? He hasn’t made any progress in 2 years and within six months his case manager is recommending graduation from services?!”
I’m embarassed to say I didn’t really have an answer for her because I didn’t feel I was doing anything special! When he did graduate off services several months later his mother gave me a card, and in it she wrote that she’d asked him how Lana had helped him and his response was that “Lana knew I could do it.”
That’s it. I just didn’t assume he was beyond all hope. I believed he could succeed, so I treated him like he had the potential to succeed, and then he did.
Simple, right? But not easy.
It’s not easy to believe a child is doing the best they can when they’re refusing to do something you’ve seen them successfully accomplish 42 thousand times before.
It’s not easy to believe a child is capable of learning when every attempt to teach them ends in tears. It’s not easy to believe a child is capable when they’re often looking you straight in the eye while they defy you.
Those teachers could have been giving those kids the exact same level of nurturing without being told that they’re special but they did it without even realizing it simply because someone in authority told them it was possible, told them it wasn’t wasted energy.
This is why I teach behaviour modification from a place of understanding early child development.
I’ll tell you that one of the most common reactions I get from clients when they start identifying and helping their kids cope with their stressors is.
I can’t believe how quickly things have improve! I can’t believe how fast we’re seeing changes!
NOTHING’S CHANGED other than the parent’s understanding of the science and that science has given them the belief that their child is capable of doing better.
Their child has the potential to learn to self-regulate, they have the potential to improve their skills. They begin nurturing those things in their child. The great thing about it is that confirmation bias exists.
If you believe your child is capable of something, and then you support them in achieving that thing!
YOUR brain goes “HA! I knew they had it in them all along!” and then we begin to see more and more gains because with each success we confirm to ourselves that they have the potential for more.
If you’ve been secretly thinking that maybe this is just your child.
Maybe this is just how they roll and this is the best you can ever hope for from them, let’s talk! Chances are if you just educate yourself a wee bit, your perspective will change, and when your perspective changes.
Your perception of what’s possible changes.
When your perception of what’s possible changes.. change happens.
We have the ability to help our children reach their highest potential.
They can’t do it alone though, they need our help.
If you’re ready to learn something new, I strongly suggest that you carve an hour out of your day and come sit in on my free workshop: How to Raise Well-Behaved Kids Without Yelling, Shaming, or Time-outs.
In this workshop, I go into some common mistakes parents are making that are actually causing your child to misbehave MORE, usually because they make us perceive that our child is not doing the best they can. I explain the entire framework I use with my ParentAbility members, some of the science behind it, and how it can help you get out of this rut, solve these problems, and truly believe that your child is capable of more.