Great Expectations: The impact of teacher expectations on children’s learning by @jeneall

A boy in my Reception class quite quickly became known amongst the teachers as ‘that boy,’ the boy ‘who doesn’t listen,’ or even worse the boy ‘who can’t listen.’

Granted his behaviour and listening skills were a little tricky at times. Teaching numeracy with frequent interludes about what aliens might eat for their breakfast or how broccoli looks like ‘small trees’ was not always the most helpful.  But ‘that boy,’ was wonderfully animated and imaginative and had a fantastic sense of humour.

Fulfilling expectations

Dismissing talk from the other teachers I immediately got to work with ‘that boy.’ A few tweaks to his behaviour plan later, following a fantastic few weeks of listening, I awarded him the ‘star of the week’ certificate for ‘super listening skills.’ On announcing this, in whole school assembly, ‘that boy’ wasn’t listening. When he finally acknowledged his name he was in utter disbelief and I had to coax him to the celebration bench at the front of the hall.

I felt extremely disheartened -‘that boy,’ had done exactly what all the other teachers had expected of him. He was shocked that he had been chosen, he had not endeared himself to the teachers, known for his ramblings and interruptions, they had low expectations of him. He knew this.  At that moment I considered the power of expectations and felt that we had let ‘that boy’ down.

Teachers responsibility

In my very short time in teaching, I have witnessed the power of expectations and that quite often, as teachers, we get these wrong. In this instance, we had expected him to apply good listening skills in an assembly that lasted half an hour, where teacher talk time was far longer than that suggested for an ‘outstanding’ lesson. High expectations indeed. The content was un-engaging and irrelevant to him, there were no behaviour strategies applied, there was no challenge and certainly no hook or creativity.  Of course, he (and I some weeks) found it difficult to listen.

We should have altered our expectations and anticipated more from him in the classroom (with a little support from a personalised behaviour plan) and seen that it was our responsibility, as teachers, to amend the format of the current assembly. Not just for this one boy but so it was suitable for all learners.

Our expectations had contradicted themselves, when we needed to expect more from ‘that boy’ in the classroom, on a daily basis we had failed and labelled him so quickly. When we expected too much, in assembly, he had fulfilled our own low and damaging expectations. This was just not fair.  ‘In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.’ Charles Dickens.  

Expectations of myself

In terms of the expectations I have for myself, as a teacher, this experience will stay with me. I will always remind myself to expect the most, not just from the children I teach but from myself. It is up to me to ensure that the children in my class have every chance to succeed, it is up to me to ensure that I motivate, inspire and engage and it is up to me to make sure that my expectations are realistic and take into account the individual needs of each child.  I pride myself on how well I know the children in my class but with this comes the inevitable – expectations.  Having expectations is human nature, they come easy yet can have such a lasting impact. This is why, I will always remind myself to expect the most from every child in my class, to be conscious of my human assumptions.

Removing barriers to learning

Boys like ‘that boy’ all too often face negative stereotyping and often, low expectations can serve as a barrier to learning. Brown reminds us of this expressing that ‘while learning about the world around them children pick up both positive and negative attitudes and behaviour’ (Brown 2007:11 in Tayler & Price 2016:4).

Making progress  

With support and the expectation that he would, ‘that boy’ made fantastic progress in Reception and is now much more skilled (with a little help sometimes) at listening. He has, at last, endeared himself to the teachers as ‘that boy’ the boy who tells the most fantastic and animated stories. Great Expectations indeed.



TAYLER, K. PRICE, D. 2016. Gender Diversity and Inclusion in Early Years Education, New York: Routledge. (Click here to view on Amazon UK).

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About Jenny 1 Article
An EYFS Teacher with experience of managing children's and young people's projects in the Charity and corporate sectors.

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