Assume nothing but expect everything

spark* News

We talked in February’s spark* News about assuming nothing. That is, never assume a child knows what you’re talking about and never assume he/she can do something until you’ve tried it out.

Photo by Michael Mims on Unsplash

But this doesn’t mean to keep your expectations low. They need to be high. High expectations may mean frustrating the child at times but a little frustration helps to advance learning. Stretch children’s learning and keep stretching –  a little bit at a time. Never stop because of some presumed level of ability or notion of fixed unchangeable ability (see my article on Your view of intelligence for more information).

Back in the 1960s an experiment was done to see whether teachers treated children differently based on their assumptions about the children’s abilities – the so-called Pygmalion Effect (watch the video below for more information). Researchers found that when teachers viewed children as ‘more intelligent’ they treated them differently and the children rose to meet the expectations.
Watch this description of the Pygmalion Effect discovered by Rosenthal and Jacobson and the four key factors they found

Sadly, this hasn’t changed. A recent study (1) found that approaches used with children labeled ‘low-attaining’ (low achieving) may actually increase dependence on adults and limit independent learning. Teachers tend to have lower expectations of these students which means the children get a watered down curriculum and fewer chances to become self-regulated and self-reliant. The same applies to teaching assistants who, as we discussed in the January spark* News, spend 86% of every day within three feet of their target child – not much room for independent learning there!

We know this happens with teachers and teaching assistants and it’s likely that these expectations and behaviors also apply to many other people who work and live with children with autism and other special learning needs.

What needs to change?

Four main factors were identified in the 1960’s study of the Pygmalion Effect, and now five decades later, they still apply to helping to advance learning in children. They include

  1. Climate – providing a warm, engaging environment for students, where they are accepted and encouraged to think – relationships with the students matter; rid yourself of the notion of ‘fixed abilities’ (see the article Your view of intelligence below).
  2. Input – give the students richer and more interesting content, don’t water things down; I (Heather) watched a class in London where students with autism were learning (and loving) Shakespeare!  
  3. Response opportunities – give each student a chance and sufficient time to respond; support and scaffold (2) their responses to enrich and shape them.
  4. Feedback – give lots of praise but differentiate your feedback – “that was a good try” is also encouraging.

Above all, give children many opportunities to try things on their own. Most children with autism need time to think about and respond to learning. Don’t hurry them. Respect their need to process information thoroughly and carefully.   


(2) scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance. Like physical scaffolding, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility over the learning process to the student (The Glossary of Education Reform