The Pandemic Population: When High Expectations Backfire

For a long time, psychologists have observed that children can improve their performance to match adult expectations. It has been noted and proven that a classroom led by a teacher with high expectations outperform other classrooms of students of similar intelligence.  As a result, parents have good intentions when placing high expectations on their children.  Parents want their children to have opportunities that will build a foundation for success in life.

However, we know that people can either live up to or live down from the expectations placed by those around them- and even have an unhealthy response to these expectations. Elmore discovered that among those of Generation Z high school students, they listed parental expectations as the second greatest source of stress; many also listed various levels of anxiety.

How do we balance high expectations for improvement without causing extreme stress and anxiety?  A study coordinated by Yaeger with multiple universities such as Stanford, Yale, Columbia, etc. found one particular teacher feedback that yielded the greatest improvement in scores: “I am giving these comments because I have high expectations of you, and I know you can reach them.”  Yaeger concluded that when high expectations are matched with a belief in the individual, it may have the greatest impact on student performance.  

As a parent, if we want to children to respond to our expectations in a healthy manner, the following are a few rules that Elmore lists:

  1. Expectations should be matched with your child’s potential.
  2. Expectations should come from healthy parental motives.
  3. Expectations should be combined with believing the child can accomplish it.
  4. Expectations and belief are delivered in a relationship.

How do these rules play out in real life situations?  Elmore makes further suggestions:

  1.  Spend one-on-one time with your child to build a relationship. Does your child know that you care deeply about them and their mental health?  
  2. Identify your child’s strengths. Spend time and observe your child. Perform a self-check periodically to ensure that you are not projecting your own dreams and wishes onto your child.
  3. Combine affirmation and belief in your child’s natural strengths.
  4. Be specific at the beginning. Point out specific situations where you have seen your child rise to your expectations successfully.
  5. Help your child to imagine their own future. Once expectations have been met and your child’s confidence is strong, then discuss a vision for what they can do with their strengths and talents.

An excellent coach is one who can identify the natural abilities of an athlete, guide the athlete to develop those abilities, and then place the athlete in the best position where the athlete is most likely to succeed.

Every parent can be an excellent coach for their child. Remember to balance high expectations with real strengths and enduring belief.