When I was in college, we learned about the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy in my educational psychology courses. Studies show that, most often, students live up to whatever expectations have been matched with them.
This child – my ThingThree, my first-born son – is a poster-child for the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy.
He started at a small, private school half-way through first grade. By the end of his first week there, he had been told he was behind the other students and that he would have to work hard to catch up in reading.
During that school year and the next, the ideas that he couldn’t read, that he was slower than everyone else, that he was behind, that he should be held back, that he would fail if promoted — all of those thoughts were imposed upon him at school. Often the help he received made him miss out on other classroom work, work that had to be made up, which perpetuated the idea that he was never able to catch up with the rest of his classmates.
By the end of second grade, he declared he was not made for school. He would drop out and travel the world.
The next year I homeschooled him. I learned everything I could about teaching reading. I learned everything I could about kinesthetic learning. And I taught him reading and math and grammar and social studies and science.
But mostly, I worked my tail off to rebuild my broken little boy. Every day, I told him he was smart. Every day, I told him he was becoming a good reader. Every day, I pointed out his successes. Whereas at school, the focus had been on his weaknesses; at home, we highlighted his strengths.
It was sort of like this
Academically, we have seen great improvements in the past couple of years. His reading fluency has increased by several grade levels. Emotionally, we also have seen major improvements. His anxiety has decreased — he doesn’t bite his fingernails; he doesn’t pick at his skin nearly as much as he used to; he doesn’t hoard food and trash in his bedroom like he was doing.
Now he is in a public school here in our new location. He began in January, which made me a little nervous since that scenario had been such a disaster back when he was in first grade. But this time, the whole self-fulfilling prophecy has been working in the opposite direction.
His classmates and teacher commented right away on how smart he is in math. He has always been strong in math, but I think his math skills have improved even more in the past couple months.
His teacher and the reading specialist have told him what a great reader he is — that he is so fluent, he needs to slow down a little! He is beginning to believe them. And his reading continues to improve.
But most notably, he has always loved to draw but this love has gone to a whole new level now. Within the first couple weeks at this new school, his classmates noticed something he was drawing during free time. One boy exclaimed how great it was, and the other students clamored to see. They declared my son an artist, the best artist in the class!
His classmates began requesting drawings, commissioning him to draw specific things. And my son obliged. After all, he is an artist now.
He has been bringing home Big Nate comic books and Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and meticulously copying, by freehand, scenes onto paper. Now that he is mastering the concept of comic drawings, he is ready to start creating his own characters.
Years ago, his teachers said he was slow, a poor reader, behind everyone else. And, for a while, he believed them.
Now, his teachers tell him he is a fluent reader and great at math. His classmates tell him he is a rockstar artist. And he believes them.
Seriously, this kid might be the next great comic strip artist! At least, I’m telling him he can be if he wants.
What messages are we giving the children in our lives? What labels are we putting on them? Because they believe us. And they’ll live up to whatever we expect of them.