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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Parental Expectations: Proven to be Uniquely Powerful for Student Success

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” - Michelangelo

For over half a century, social scientists have understood the immense influence that the expectations of important mentors like teachers can have on students. So influential in fact, that teacher expectations actually influence academic performance.

Expectations influence results

In the 1960’s, Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal teamed with elementary school principal, Lenore Jacobson to study how the biased expectations of teachers, both positively and negativity, shaped the academic performance of students.

Rosenthal and Jacobson found that by telling teachers that certain students were identified as high-achievers based on an IQ test - despite students being selected at random – actually led those pupils to out-perform others by the end of the school year.

Called the ‘Rosenthal effect’, the teacher’s expectation of the student’s potential created a self-fulfilling scenario – despite no actual IQ differences at the outset. They surmised that the teacher’s mood, attitude, difference in attention paid, time spent, feedback given and encouragement were different for children they believed had greater potential.

They also found that these same children’s academic performance continued to benefit over the following few years. Bottomline: if the teacher expected more from a student, the greater the academic gains.

The power of these expectations for children extends beyond the classroom and begins, like most everything in our lives – in the home. If you think a teacher’s expectations have power, try those by the earliest and most fundamental teachers of all: parents.

Positive or negative, parental expectations are powerful guides of children’s behavior.

How many of us have adjusted our life expectations, desires and goals to what our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters could or couldn’t do, did or didn’t do…told us was not possible?” - Iyanla Vanzant

Parental expectations most powerful

As parents-turned-teachers, understanding the pivotal role that our expectations play in our children’s academic performance can help immensely as we navigate the world of remote learning.

Research has found [Marzano, 2000] that a full third of student performance in school is already predicted by the home environment – much more than the quality of the school - or even the quality of the teacher.

William Jeynes of the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) analyzed multiple studies on how parents influence student performance.

He uncovered what types of parental involvement are moving the needle when supporting academic achievement, as well as common things that parents do that prove ineffective in our efforts to support children’s learning.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work

In 2010, Beesley & Anthorp analyzed various learning methods and found that more time spent on homework didn’t affect academic performance. Neither did the “tell-us-what-you-learned-at-school” end-of-day check-ins.

Instead, it was reflective, critical-thinking activities and practicing key skills that proved effective.

A dozen studies have indicated that all the compliance-based parental monitoring, checking and nagging about schoolwork - increasingly common these days – is not only unwelcomed, it’s ineffective (Patall, Cooper & Robinson, 2008). It may get something on the paper but that’s it.

Turns out, parents’ attendance and involvement in school activities also doesn’t translate into stronger academic achievement (Jeynes, 2007). Neither does how closely a parent monitors a child’s downtime.

Ultimately, kids are going to have to own their own success or failure - and sooner then we think.

Micro-managing maybe getting in the way of that pass-off. Research shows that it’s not contributing to the success of kids. Likely just resentment and possible years of therapy instead.

Let’s give ourselves and our kids a break. We’re running ourselves ragged and it’s not even helping the end goal. All that found time can be rerouted in ways proven more effective in supporting student achievement.

The most effective thing parents can do

Dozens of studies confirm it.

The most effective parental behavior to support a child’s academic achievement: high parental expectations. More specifically, the communication of those high expectations.

Fan & Chen (2001) analyzed over 30 studies and Jeynes (2007) studied over 50, on the subject. Over and over, they found that a parent’s regular communication with their children of high academic goals and standards was the most effective of all parental behaviors when it came to student success.

The most effective parental behavior. It was twice as effective as parenting style. Twice!

There it is.

Subtle works. A hammer does not.

These studies also found that how parents communicated high expectations was also important.

It was not parental demands and commands about grades and school that lead to student achievement. Instead, studies point to subtle, daily advocacy and modeling at home of hard work, sacrifice and the value of an education.

Ron Suskind in his book, A Hope in the Unseen (1998), gives a powerful example of how parents can powerfully, yet subtly, work high expectations into daily life. He tells the story of single-mom, Barbara Jennings, struggling to raise her son in a tough Washington D.C. neighborhood.

Today, her son Cedric, has earned two master’s degrees, one earned from the university that was emblazoned on the sweatshirt his mom struggled to buy him and which was a prized possession when he was a kid: HARVARD.

Expectations of others become our own

In that shirt, Cedric Jenning’s mother set an understated yet mighty expectation.

However, for success in primary, secondary, college and beyond, the parents’ high expectations will need to transfer and become the student’s own high expectations for themselves. Achievement requires the development of their own internal desire to do the work and persist in order to succeed.

That cannot be forced. It must be gently and routinely encouraged and inspired.

Cedric Jennings embraced and took ownership of his mother’s high expectations for his future. That set the tone for the action and hard work required of him to achieve their shared dreams.

Behind every young child who believes in himself is a parent who believed first.” – Matthew L. Jacobson


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