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How to Change Your Expectations for Students

An interesting NPR story excavates some psychological research from the 1960s showing that teachers' expectations for students can have a profound effect on their intellectual development. Why? In a nutshell, because teachers interact differently with the kids they expect to do better:

As [Harvard Professor Robert] Rosenthal did more research, he found that expectations affect teachers' moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more.

The NPR story proceeds to look at what teachers can do to modify their beliefs about students—by, for example, avoiding or undoing fixed judgments—so as to have a more positive impact. It may be more complicated than you think. University of Virginia teaching expert Robert Pianta says that just trying to be more reflective about how you form your expectations for students may not be enough. According to his research, what's needed is a more intensive form of behavioral-modification training in which educators can get direct feedback on the ways they interact with students in the classroom.

"It's far more powerful to work from the outside in than from the inside out if you want to change expectations," Pianta notes.

Pianta's research appears to echo—or add perspective on—a recent study out of the University of Illinois suggesting that teachers may need more training on managing their emotions in order to respond effectively to students. That study also found that teachers who had developed more "accepting beliefs" regarding their students' emotional needs tended to be better equipped to handle disciplinary issues.

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