Making The Shift From Wishing Kids Are ‘Smart’ To A Belief In Them As Capable Learners
by Coach Julie Hartman
Ready, set, judge? Wait, what? I bet that’s not what you were expecting to read, and I’m guessing your mind may have automatically inserted the word ‘go’ instead’. Because it’s such a common phrase, you probably expected to see the word “go” rather than the word ‘judge’. Great! Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about expectations.
Expectations are an interesting topic. Whether you’re aware of them or not, you’re surrounded by expectations every single day. You have them of yourself and others. You have expectations of how the world should be and how things should go. There’s safety and security in expecting something we can be certain of. For example, daytime always follows night. This is a reassuring and comforting expectation. Each day offers a chance for a fresh start, thank goodness!
“If you can’t quite tell what something is, but from your prior experience you have some expectation of what it ought to be, then you will use that information to guide your judgment.”1
Where expectations start to get a little less certain and a lot trickier is when we throw judgment into the mix. This is where mindful awareness is a valuable tool. Understanding what our expectations are, and being aware of the judgments we are making based on those expectations, can be incredibly telling.
We first must acknowledge that expectations have tremendous power, and can be either motivating or debilitating. For example, have you ever felt the pressure of believing you can’t live up to someone’s expectations of you, no matter how hard you try? I think we can all relate to this. Let’s flip the script. What expectations do you have for yourself, your coworkers, loved ones, and your kids? Expectations and judgments are so closely related and dependent on one another for their survival. If I expect something and it doesn’t meet my expectation, I need to decide what meaning, or judgment, to give the situation or person. Do you see how this can be a slippery slope? Have our expectations led us down a harshly critical path of judgment, or to a place of understanding, compassion, and alternate options?
How Expectations Impact Children
To take it one step further, how much time and energy have we all spent wishing (expecting) something to be different than it is? This can be hard enough to sort out inside of our adult psyches, but what happens when our wishes and expectations placed on our kids don’t match who and what they are? This is another slippery slope that can cause tremendous pain and anxiety for everyone-especially our children. I realize this topic of conversation has numerous implications and can go in many directions. My sole intention here is to introduce thought-provoking, curious inquiry into the mindset. Therefore, for this discussion, we’re going to focus on academic assessment and performance.
Nobody wants to feel or be made to feel like they’re not smart. Period. Such assumptions and judgments made early in life can cause a chain reaction of limiting self-beliefs that have a life-long impact. What if instead, we shifted from wishing we or our kids were ‘smart’(or what we perceive in our heads and conditioning to be “smart”) to always knowing deep down that we are capable learners? We could hold steady respect for each individual’s methods of accessing, engaging, and expressing (learner variability) that works best for them. How impactful could this mindset shift be to lifelong outcomes and happiness?
“All children can learn and thrive. Many people who work with children believe this to be true. But the science of learning and development shows that this idea is more than just a belief. It’s a scientific truth—and, more importantly, it’s a foundation upon which we can design and build learning environments and educational systems so that every young person can achieve their full potential.”2
Are you able to look past traditional models for assessing a child’s performance, i.e. grades and standardized tests, to their inherent ability to learn? Are you willing to embrace the inevitable variability that exists for everyone, including students of all ages? Expectations can lead to belief systems. Internal impressions are greatly influenced by external factors, especially from those closest to us. Do people live up to, or down to, the expectations placed on them? We’re barely able to scratch the surface of how broad these questions can go. But please consider this, if we’re constantly looking for errors, mistakes, and areas for disappointment, how do we expect to think, feel, and behave as a result?
In recent years, the science of how young people learn, develop, grow, and come to master complex skills has advanced substantially. This knowledge is critical for the education of all children, but it is especially powerful in creating educational equity where we have fallen short in the past. We may profess to believe that all children are capable of learning, but our educational practices and policies too often reflect the opposite, including marginalizing those who don’t respond to “traditional” K-12 educational approaches.SoLD Alliance, What We’ve Learned
When it comes to expectations, it’s helpful to follow a simple method for keeping ourselves in check. If we’re honest with ourselves, doing so may help reveal the motivation behind our expectations, judgments, and actions.
- What am I expecting of myself or this person or situation?
- What judgments or assumptions am I making?
- What am I willing to accept about myself and this person or situation?
- Where can I offer encouragement (notice what’s right/correct/good)?
Utilizing this simple four-step process can alleviate the tight grip expectations and judgment might bring. Inquiring questions open the door for alternate points of view and possibilities. We all have the ability to continually learn throughout our entire lives. A strong expectation for possibilities and growth increases inner beliefs, self-empowerment, and the courage to try new things. It’s good to have positive expectations in place for ourselves and others, but there needs to be a balance between what we’re expecting and unconditional support and acceptance for what is. Looking beyond standardized test scores or letter grades to a place of gentle inquiry and curiosity could be the key to unlocking the true potential that lies within everyone. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of what’s possible regardless of the odds.