You Get What You Expect

For two years Robert was included in the first grade class with typical peers.  When he was six and/or seven years old once a week he went with his teacher from private school to the  public school in Southboro to participate in English class.  It must have been an exciting year for him as the children, under their teacher’s guidance, treated him as if he were one of them. So he felt this way.  They admired the fact that he could read although he couldn’t talk. So he was motivated to read more. He learned to follow the group and was motivated to imitate other children’s action. He did what was expected of him.  This  teacher retired before I could thank her not only for a wonderful treatment of my son but also for her ability to influence other children to accept someone so different from them.  I still have a class newspaper where she and a few of her students wrote simply and beautifully about what they had learned from Robert’s visits.

Following year, Robert participated in the  art class at the same school. Probably with some assistance, he made a few beautiful art projects.

One day, the teacher from private school mentioned that Robert could color.  I hardly believed her because in the past, Robert had so much trouble  staying within lines that I gave up on teaching him coloring completely.  To my surprise, however, Robert could color.  He could color very well. He had, so-called,  an eye for details. Staying within contours of the picture was not a problem.   The smaller the details the more precisely Robert colored them.  Since “coloring”  was not a goal in his IEP I didn’t know when exactly Robert mastered that skill.  I didn’t know how he learned it.  Did his teacher helped him?  How many times?  Did he just observe other students busy with their coloring and follow their lead? It was probably a mixture of the urge to be like other students and the assistance from his teacher that resulted in such precise coloring.  I was just very happy that Robert learned something  useful.  From that time on I could give him a page to color knowing that he could do it independently  without me sitting next to him. Time for him to mature.  Time for me to relax.

I also sort of felt proud of Robert.  He was behaving so …”typically”.

Or so I thought.

A few years later, Robert started to participate in after school program for children with special needs.  Twice a week I drove him there at 3PM and picked him at 5:30PM.   A few responsible adults worked there with many young volunteers from high school and nearby college.  On some days before the pick up time,  the children were given crayons and coloring pages with very simple drawing so they could relax  while doing this easy activity.  The pictures were spread on a table when I came to pick up Robert.  Robert didn’t color one picture, he colored 3 or 4 of them. But his coloring was reduced to hasty scribbling of  big circles all across the pages  without any consideration for  contours of the pictures.  I was flabbergasted.  I couldn’t understand  what was happening.  He could color so well!   What was the problem?  Did the shapes were too big and/or  too simple? Was he  bored?  Was he unable to focus?  Did he took a cue of how  he was supposed to color from a picture colored in similar way by one of his friends? But where were his counselors?  Shouldn’t they provide some support, instruction, guidance?  They probably would if they believed that Robert could do a better job.  But they didn’t expect anything better than those circles, so Robert did what they expected.

The same situation repeated itself many times in different circumstances.

All summer long Robert played in the swimming pool of his camp and not even once he swam across the pool.  His counselors didn’t know that he could swim 30 laps in 30 minutes.  They didn’t expect him to swim, so Robert adjusted his behavior to their expectations and didn’t swim.

At the skating ring, young and wonderful volunteers wouldn’t let Robert skate on his own despite my asking them to let him go.  They were afraid. They didn’t believe Robert could skate.  So they held him by both hands.  As soon as Robert grabbed  their hands he hung on them (he was little, they were big)  and passively let them lead him.  He did what they expected to the fault.  In the end, his young teacher took him to the same ring and  in five minutes Robert was skating on his own.He didn’t suddenly learn to skate. The teacher knew what Robert was capable off and Robert performed to match this teacher’s expectations.

Unfortunately, many  people who meet my son don’t know what to expect.   Robert won’t tell them.  Moreover, he is so attuned to what they expect that he will not do anything to change their perception or exceed their expectations.

There were times when I had to prove that Robert can do something before the school agreed to build on that skill and take it further.

There were times when I didn’t expect Robert to learn, to know , to understand.  So it took him much longer to learn, to know to understand.

As a parent I was sometimes treated with suspicion as a person who expect her child to learn much more than he was capable of learning. The truth is that I too was infected with a plague of low expectations and my son paid the price.

Leave a comment


  1. Maja Hrabowska

     /  April 29, 2012

    Very interesting comment about child behavior. Although it could be risque to permit child to swim/skate while you are not sure he may do it.

  2. marysia

     /  April 30, 2012

    It is a good point, but the pool was relatively shallow. Robert should just be encouraged to exercise and swim instead of staying in one place. As for the skatining, I told the volunteers that Robert is able to skate on his own. They just didn’t believe me. No, I don’t blame them. I understood their position, except that it was not beneficial to Robert.

  3. Erin

     /  May 2, 2012

    Very true! I find that often with kids of all abilities they will give you what you expect. It’s a good reminder to continuously push/encourage kids to reach their full potential. I see so many parents lower their expectations at the first signs of distress. It does require some perseverance on the parent/teachers’ part to tollerate resistance and work through it.


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