The challenge of setting expectations for pupils


Are your expectations of pupils too high? Or non-existent? And how do your pupils feel about them? Child psychologist Karen Sullivan on how to ensure expectations are a positive influence.  

Last week I had the pleasure of watching Lois Walden (an American author, singer/songwriter and teaching artist) run a workshop with 24 GCSE students at George Green’s School in Tower Hamlets.

For 15 years, Lois has travelled America with the Acting Company, teaching teenagers in small towns and inner city schools how to tap into their emotions and understand their world through theatre and literature. I’ll be honest in saying that my own expectations weren’t particularly high. British and American teenagers are fundamentally different in the way that they express emotion and the cultural mix among the students appeared to preclude any “one-size-fits-all” approach.

However, the workshop was immensely moving, rewarding and inspirational.

Next month, SecEd is to publish an in-depth account of the approaches Lois used to draw emotional expression from students. For now, however, I’d like to focus on one small element. Lois walked the room at the outset, a wee scrap of a woman with a huge, zany personality and a most extraordinarily compelling energy, and asked – no demanded – “your story” from each of the students. 

The answers were terse at the outset (“I’m 15 and have seven brothers” or “I’m 15 and I hate school”), but as Lois moved from table to table, the students began to open up, bit-by-bit, until what I could only call outpourings of thoughts and emotions formed their stories. The most interesting thing that I found was the unhappiness of so many of the students – not because they disliked their school or their families or their friends, but the fact that they felt immensely pressured by expectations.

Some students felt deeply disturbed that their families had such high expectations, it would be impossible to meet them; others had very high expectations for themselves, many of which were unrealistic and causing day-to-day stress. Another group of students were confounded by the fact that their families had no expectations whatsoever.

The point is that expectations seemed to feature in almost every student’s “story”, and not ever as a positive feature. 

Expectations are a powerful tool for confidence, self-belief and, ultimately, success, but they need to be realistic and constantly re-evaluated for them to be used effectively.

Parents, teachers and the students themselves have a role to play in setting realistic expectations, and monitoring them. With so much focus on testing and league tables, many schools are in danger of expecting more than the student population can offer, and this inevitably causes unnecessary stress at a point of crucial emotional development. Similarly, parents can hold aspirations that are unachievable and even cruelly so. That doesn’t just go for academic aspirations, either, but prowess in sports, music and other extra-curricular fields that should round out and add fun to a child’s life, not lead to feelings of failure and competition.

Most importantly, however, are the expectations that students themselves have. As educators, we need to encourage them to set goals and expectations for themselves, while remembering that mistakes are not only part of the process of growing up and reaching goals, but essential for self-knowledge.

We need to remind students that the expectations they set must be theirs and not guided or overly influenced by anyone else. Aim high, for sure, but with an agenda that suits the individual.

Lois talked about dreams and the result was 24 sets of shining eyes, belonging to young men and women who suddenly felt and saw their own potential. Let’s look at the whole concept of expectations and try to make them a constructive force.


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