Excerpt: Susan Engel's 'Red Flags or Red Herrings?: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become'


"Listen, Buddy. I'm helping you get ready to go sledding. But what you're doing really hurts." An experienced mom, Aunt Laura looked him right in the eye. "If you pull my hair one more time, I won't help you put your boots on."

Slight, lovable, goodwilled Hank looked her steadily in the eye and gave a hard yank.

One can easily see how behavior like this alienates grown-ups. Once alienated, they back away from a child, offering less help, less encouragement, less of the very attention that seems to help children make the most of their potential. It is easy to see that teachers would be aggravated by Hank's physical energy. When other children were happily filling in the questions on a worksheet, Hank would be looking out the window at the bird fight happening on a limb of a nearby tree.

Most teachers and many parents worry when a child is obstreperous. The young child who won't sit down when the teacher rings her little bell, who stares off into space when the other children are filling in worksheets, who talks during a group discussion or jumps up and starts fiddling with the thermometer during a meeting can look like trouble. But on its own, unruliness in kindergarten does not predict academic trouble later on. Research shows that all other things being equal, these children are just as successful as other children when it comes to grades in elementary school. However, those kinds of unruliness can lead to trouble if they frustrate teachers enough.

Years ago, in a pivotal demonstration of how this can play out, Harvard social psychologist Robert Rosenthal and his collaborator Eleanor Jacobsen, a schoolteacher, showed how malleable a teacher's view of a child really is. Rosenthal and Jacobsen gave children in a Chicago public school a paper-and-pencil test that is closely correlated with IQ. However, they told the teachers that it was part of a subtle and obscure test of children's thinking. They then mentioned casually that some of the children were real intellectual "bloomers," likely to make substantial intellectual strides in the coming months. Amazingly, those children, who had actually been chosen at random, did make significant intellectual strides.

Intelligence: As Smart As the Day You Were Born

When all of the kids were tested again at the end of the year, the children who had been tagged as "bloomers" had made significant gains on the IQ test. So, lesson number one: when teachers expect children to be smart, for whatever reason, children often become smarter. It's important to note that Rosenthal and Jacobsen spent a great deal of time in those classrooms and could detect no obvious or concrete difference in the way those bloomers were treated. In other words, there was no simple explanation for the phenomenon— teachers didn't give harder work to those kids or spend more time at their desks or even call on them more often. The expectations adults have of a child are, it seems, both enormously\ powerful and somewhat invisible.

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