Fort Worth, Texas,
12:19 PM

Can saying your child's smart, make him smart?

Are you raising a 'spurter?'


Part of the 'masters in parenting series' from TheDocSmitty.

Does what you think about your children change the way they turn out? How about the way children’s teachers think about them? Could you be unknowingly setting your children up for failure by the way that you think and talk about them? It is difficult to find studies that directly address this question, but there is some interesting, related research.

In 1968, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson set out to show that teachers' expectations of students could change how they performed. The thing I love about this study is how it was designed and carried out so beautifully. 

First, they went into a school and performed IQ testing on all the students. They called the test, "The Harvard Test of Inflicted Acquisition." The brilliant thing is that they told ("lied to") the teachers that the test not only assessed IQ, but could also predict which students were ready to make rapid, above average gains over the next year, regardless of their current performance (they called these students “spurters").

The teachers were then told which students were designated as spurters (these students were randomly selected and had nothing to do with their test scores). Thus, the only real difference between the spurters and their classmates was their teacher believed that certain kids were ready to make rapid intellectual gains over the next year.

So, what happened?

The average increase in IQ for the “spurters” was 12 points while the average increase for everyone else was 8 points. In addition, about half of the spurter in first and second grades had an increase of over 20 points. Even more striking were the teachers’ subjective assessments where the spurters showed significantly higher reading grades, scores for intellectual curiosity, behavior and likelihood of future success!

There are lots of possible explanations for these results, but the most commonly held (and likely) belief is that the teachers’ ideas that the child was a spurter changed the way they interacted with and taught that student. Perhaps they were a little more patient when they didn’t understand because they knew they were on the cusp of a big breakthrough. Or, maybe they challenged the student a little more thinking that they should be able to do more. Can you think of any other ways their behavior might have been changed?

This effect of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the teacher’s positive expectations of the students actually improved their outcomes has come to be called the Pygmalion effect. Pygmalion was a character of Ovid who sculpted a statue of a woman that was so realistic that he fell in love with it (this is ridiculously simplified and changed to a rated G version, you can read the full version on the Wikipedia page if you like). The alternative to the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect whereby negative expectations of others can actually lower their chance of success.

The study isn’t perfect and with studies like this, you can’t make the data fit any situation. However, I do think that there are some pearls of wisdom we can take and apply to our own kids.

1) Avoid the golem effect - I commonly hear parents saying statements like, “He’s soooo bad” about their kids. They usually say them in a joking manner and most are careful not to say them in front of their kids, but not always. And, according to the golem effect, it doesn’t really matter. Continually thinking and speaking about your child in a negative way could change the way that you interact with them and even what you expect from them in a harmful way.

2) Strive for the Pygmalion effect –Speak well of your children and their abilities in front of them and when they aren’t around. Hearing your positive words will not only have a positive impact on them, but can also change your parenting ability with them in a good way. Challenge your kids with something a little harder than you think they can do. Of course you don’t want to make it so hard that it’s overwhelming. That just leads to frustration for everyone. But don’t let them stay at the same level for weeks and weeks without pushing them to do more.

3) Convince others that your child is a spurter - Believe it or not, teachers pass along messages about their students through the years.  This is especially true in the younger ages when warning other teachers about potential problem students ... Not all teachers do this (sorry to my great teacher friends out there). Imagine what this does to these students when a teacher has a negative expectation of a student to begin the year. 

So, what do we do about this? Think about these two scenarios…

A) Child who struggles with math (or any other subject): Spend some time over the summer working with your child in their trouble spots. Get them some tutoring or work with them and get them up to or a little above grade level. Then, have a conversation with their new teacher that goes something like this: “Billy has really struggled with math in the past but we’ve been working on it all summer. He has really come a long way.  We did x, y and z and his tutor says that he has really been progressing very quickly especially over the past few weeks.  We are convinced that this is the year he will really get math and it might even become one of his best subjects.”

B) Child who struggles with behavior and being in trouble: Pick 1 or 2 problem behaviors that your child has developed. Some examples might be: impulse control, talking out of turn, talking back or any other number of things. Work hard to improve those specific behaviors. Don’t try to fix everything all at once … it probably won’t work. If you need to, enlist some help from a private counselor or the school counselor, figure out a few simple strategies that help the child out.  Then have this discussion with his teacher: “We all know that Billy has struggled with (x) in the past.  But, we’ve been working hard on it and have come up with a few things that really help him to control (x).  He has shown such great progress and we really feel that this is a breakthrough year for him.”

So, help your child become a “spurter” and help them improve by having positive expectations for them.

About the author

Justin Smith, M.D., is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Lewisville . He attended University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School and did his pediatric training at Baylor College of Medicine. He joins Cook Children's after practicing in his hometown of Abilene for four years. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his 3 young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.

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