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Using the Pygmalion Effect To Your Advantage

The Pygmalion Effect

In a famous study by psychologist Robert Rosenthall, primary school teachers were told that certain students in their class had been identified as intellectually gifted, however they were classed as ‘late bloomers’ who were not yet actively demonstrating the full effects of the giftedness they had been assessed as having.

The researchers found that as a result of this thought being planted in their mind, the teachers began showing slight positive differences in the way they treated those children. Interestingly, this lead to the students perception of themselves becoming more positive as well. As a result, those specific students started behaving in accordance with those beliefs, and began performing above the level of the other children in the class.

The catch was of course, that those children had not been identified as gifted at all. Their teacher was simply told that they were.

This study was famous for showing how the expectations of a student’s teachers affect the students’ performance, and is known as the Pygmalion effect. The opposite of the Pygmalion effect is known as the Golem effect, where student’s performance is impaired when their teachers hold negative expectations about them.

The bottom line is that for a young learner to become good at something, part of them has to believe that they are good at that thing, and that part will be heavily influenced by the way their role models perceive them. This is why it is so important for us as agents of change to not just plant positive seeds in the mind of our students, but to plant positive seeds in the minds of their parents and even their teachers to make the Pygmalion effect work to our advantage.

Positive Expectations vs High Expectations

Whilst the term positive expectations and high expectations can be used interchangeably, it is important to differentiate them.

Think of positive expectations as the ability to see the ‘glass is half full’ in every situation. That is, any negative effects are allowed to blur into the background, whilst positive outcomes are pulled strongly into the foreground and focused on most sharply.

High expectations on the other hand will only be effective if they are high enough to push the student beyond their comfort zone, but low enough to be realistically reachable. If the high expectations become unrealistic, then they essentially set the student up to fail, resulting in various negative consequences.

The Link Between Performance and Self Esteem.

If your student’s parents want a tutor, it is safe to assume that they want their child to do better at school. If the parent feels dissatisfied with their child’s performance (or their own ability to improve their child’s performance as is often the case) then there is a good chance that their dissatisfaction will be affecting the child’s self esteem, and their self-esteem will be affecting their performance.
Whilst it may sound strange, if all you did was walk into the home, click your fingers, put the parent into a trance and hypnotised them into believing that their child was doing fantastically, then that alone would have a drastic impact. When the parents starts to believe in the students strengths, those beliefs will overflow unconsciously onto the student, which will raise their self esteem, therefore cutting the demotivating chain holding them back.

Whilst we don’t expect you to learn hypnotic induction techniques, hopefully by now you can see how important it is to positively impact the parent’s perception of their child’s scholastic strengths, to indirectly impact the child’s perception of their own strengths.

How Can Your Impact A Parents Perception?

You might now start to see why it is so important to spend at least a couple of minutes giving verbal feedback about the students progress to the parents at the end of each lesson, especially if it involves praising their progress to the parents in front of the child.

In order for your words of praise to have the right impact however it is crucial that you have established yourself as a expert authority figure by showing certainty as well as establishing a strong, trusting rapport. Showing certainty without rapport may make you come across as arrogant whilst having rapport without authority might mean that the parents, whilst liking you, may not ‘look up to you’ or follow your lead.

Once you have both an authoritative presence as well as rapport, you gain the power to alter someone’s perception. If you establish both these psychological factors whilst directing the parents focus heavily towards the students strengths, progress and autonomy, you will quickly see remarkable changes occur faster than you had every imagined possible.

Writing To The Teacher

If you are working as a home tutor, a powerful strategy is to keen in touch with your students teachers at school. Whilst writing to the teacher both helps to keep you up to date with what the student is doing in class (assuming they right back) and helps promote your image to the parents as their own personal advocate, it also serves another purpose. It allows you the opportunity to plant positive seeds of thought into the teachers mind as well about the student’s progress, thus allowing the Pygmalion effect to work on both parents and teachers.

If the teacher starts to notice the student being more active in class, showing signs of initiative or even just a generally brighter attitude, then this is likely to favourably affect the way the teacher treats the student, even if unconsciously. If the teacher does notice this more (which they are more likely to do if you plant positive seeds of thought into their minds) and they mention these observations to the parents, it will only further give more momentum to the entire positive process. Thus the pygmalion effect works best if it affects parents and teachers at the same time.

For more information about how to use the most powerful psychological effects when acting as an agent of change for your students, see the Top of the Class Tutoring website.

Despite all teachers considering themselves objective, the reality is that the way a teacher perceives their student will affect the way the student perceives themselves. To avoid students falling into the Golem effect trap, it is therefore important that teachers view their students in the most positive light in order to make the Pygmalion effect work to their advantage.

By Stuart J Adams