Labelling Children’s Abilities and a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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Secondary schools are under pressure from Ofsted to let children know what grades or levels they are aiming to achieve at GCSE based on Year 6 SAT results or CAT tests taken in Year 7 or 8. They argue that it helps children understand what progression they can make.



So what is the problem with labelling children?

Psychological research shows that when both children and adults are labelled, it can become part of their self-concept and this in turn affects their performance.


Steele (1997) wanted  to see if  negative stereotypes could affect test performance. In one part of their study they selected women and men who had excellent mathematical abilities to complete a maths tests. Half the participants were told that the maths tests would be better suited to males while the other half were told that the tests would be just as hard for both genders. Unsurprisingly, women performed much worse on the maths tests when they were told it was better suited to males. There was very little difference in performance when they were told that the maths tests would be difficult for both genders. This study shows that negative stereotypes and labels can affect performance. In this study, adult women were affected by the stereotypes but imagine how much more children might be affected by labels telling them they are intelligent or not intelligent.


females-and-maths black-professor








In another part of their study, Steele investigated whether self-labelling the ethnicity of the black students would have an effect on their performance i.e. would reminding someone of their ethnicity (being black) before a test reduce their performance? They found that when people were asked to write down that they were Black African American before the test, this reduced their performance on the test. While White Americans performance increased after writing down their race.

In secondary schools, children are constantly reminded about what grade they are aiming for often with a sticker inside the front cover of their books. Unfortunately, if the grade is low, this could reduce their performance on tests.

So far, we have talked about how labels can affect a child’s own self-concept but labels can also affect how teachers and parents respond to children.


Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) carried out an experiment to investigate whether labels could affect the way teachers responded to children.  As part of the experiment, teachers were told that certain students in their class had high IQs and should show good progress in the year ahead. The children were chosen randomly from the class and they did not have any higher IQs than average. At the end of the year, the children who had been labelled as more intelligent, showed greater increases in their IQ on tests than the children in the class not labelled as having a high IQ. Rosenthal said that this was because teachers had higher expectations for the children labelled as more intelligent and that they created a warmer climate for those children. For example, the teachers may have asked higher level questions of the children they thought were more intelligent.

Unfortunately, teachers are only human and they will be affected by labels given to children. Therefore, if children have high target grades/levels at GCSE, they will expect more of those children than those will lower target grades/levels.

Parents can counter the labels their children are given by explaining to them that IQ is not fixed and can change. Children who believe that the brain can grow are far less likely to be affected by labels and stereotypes.

At the end of the day, research shows that IQ can jump during the teenage years significantly. Ramsden and colleagues (2011) found that IQ can change in the teenage years as much as 20 IQ points. This suggests that the labels children are given based on early tests may not reflect the child’s actual IQ anyway.





Developing children’s social skills and empathy

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children playing together

Developing social skills and empathy

Parents can improve their child’s peer relationships by teaching them basic social skills. One study found that children who had more conversations with their parents about friendships were better liked by other children (Laird, Pettit, Mize and Lindsey, 1994).

The following techniques can be used to develop social skills:

1) Teach your child to recognise facial expressions. Use the internet to find images of facial expressions or cut out old pictures from magazines and ask your child what expression the person is showing.

facial expressions 3

2) Ask your child to use people’s names to get their attention but explain to them that they should to wait until the person has finished their conversation with another person before interrupting.

3) Explain to them that sometimes people want things at the same time but it is important to take turns. Next time your child is fighting with another child over a toy, use the opportunity to explain to them that they can take turns. Tell them that they can each have the toy for 2 minutes and ask them to decide who should have the toy next.

4) Organise cooperative activities for children such as a building a space station out of Lego or painting a wall mural on a long roll of paper.

5) Teach your child how to be a good winner and loser in a game. Explain to your child that they should not boast when they win a game or taunt people when they are losing as this can make other people feel bad. They also need to know how to lose gracefully without getting angry or upset. Young children find it very hard to lose a game but if parents give their children rewards for good sportsmanship then this takes the emphasis away from winning or losing the game. One study found that children who were taught about good sportsmanship before their PE classes and whose teachers gave them a score for it, were able to resolve disagreements in lessons more easily than children not taught these skills explicitly (Sharpe et al. 1995).

6) Explain to your child about compromise. Ask your child to consider what they would do if they wanted to go to the swimming pool but their friend wanted to go to the cinema or if they wanted to make a banana cake but their sister wanted to make a chocolate cake. Help your child to think about the different possibilities. Children who are able to negotiate and compromise are more popular with peers (Crick and Grotepeter, 1995).

7) Teach your child how to really listen to other people and how to show an interest in other people. Explain to them that they should listen to other people without interrupting them and to try and talk about what the other person is interested in.

8) Get your child to imagine things from a different perspective. Next time they say they are annoyed with a teacher or a friend; ask them to imagine what the other person is thinking. Slaughter and colleagues (2002) suggest that children who are able to recognise other children’s mental states are better liked by peers.

9) Tell your child not to annoy or disrupt other children playing even if they have been told to go way as this will stop the other children wanting to play with them next time. Children are less likely to play with another child if they aggressive or disruptive (Coie, 1990).

10) Explain that people’s thoughts affect their actions. Use scenarios to demonstrate that sometimes people’s thoughts can be wrong. For example, a boy may think his friend doesn’t like him anymore because he does not want to play with him that day but actually his friend just wants to play something different.

11) Whenever your child is unhappy about something, ask them to imagine what other people in similar situations might feel as this is often when empathy is at its greatest. For example, if your child is unhappy about not be chosen for the football team, ask them to imagine what it is like for someone who is not able to play sport at all or who is chosen to play for England but has to sit on the bench the entire season.

12) Ask your child to empathise with others. You can start by asking your child to imagine what the characters on TV or in books might be feeling. If your child talks about a bullying incident at school, ask them to imagine how the different children involved might be feeling.

13) Encourage your child to connect with other children and to look for things they have in common rather than emphasizing differences.

14) Teach your child to say ‘no’ to other children if they don’t like what they are being asked to do and discuss peer pressure with them.

children playing in playground

Parents should be aware that friendships change with age: 2-year-old children tend to play on their own although they will observe and copy adults and other children; 3-year-old children play alongside each other and are beginning to share and take turns; 4- to 5-year-old children can play cooperatively with other children, can play games with rules and can form ‘special’ friendships; 6- to 8-year-old children have better conversational skills and are able to negotiate and empathise with their friends; 9- to 12-year-old children have friends with shared interests and are able to respect the opinions of their friends; teenagers tend to have very close friendships based on shared values and appearance (O’Brien and Bierman, 1988).

‘My 5-year-old daughter says that the other children won’t let her play with them at school’

You can teach your daughter the skills to join a group. Use dolls to role play a situation with her. For example, you can represent your daughter’s friends with two dolls and your daughter can be represented by a third doll. Ask your daughter what kind of games they play at school or suggest that the dolls are pretending to be princesses, a popular theme. You can then say that two girls are playing a game together and really enjoying being princesses when a third girl comes along who is not part of their game. Explain to your daughter that the third girl asks to join the game but the other two girls say ‘No, you can’t play.’ Now talk to your daughter about what the third girl could do at this point. The third girl could either walk away and try and play with some other children or she could say ‘I could be a princess too’ as this is what the two girls are already playing. However, the other two girls might say ‘No, you can’t be a princess’. The third girl then has the option to walk away again but she could offer to add to the game by saying ‘I can be the fairy godmother’ or ‘I can be a wicked queen’. Explain to your daughter that it can be easier to join in with other children by adding something different to their game. However, if the two girls still do not want play with the third girl at this point, then the third girl could try playing with a different group of children. In the next part of the role play, you could get the third girl to start taking things away from the other two girls. Ask your daughter to imagine what the two girls might feel if the third girl starts being annoying and disrupting their play. Explain to your daughter that children who are annoying to other children are generally ignored or disliked. Sometimes children try to argue with other children when they are rejected or demand that the children play a different game. Role-play this scenario with your daughter and ask your daughter to imagine how the other two girls might feel.

Playing with your daughter at home will also develop your daughter’s social skills. Try to allow your daughter to direct the play and be positive about her ideas. Only offer new play ideas if the play becomes repetitive. Your daughter will learn how to positively interact with other children by the way you play with her. Children who adapt to other children’s ideas during play are better liked and your daughter can learn how to get along with others by the way you adapt to her.

There are books that teach social skills such as the ‘Friends’ series by Janine Amos and the ‘Help me be good’ series by Joy Berry, which you can read to your daughter.

‘My 8-year-old son says that one of the girls at his school won’t let him join in with any games in the playground.’

Ask your son to think about why the girl won’t let him join in on the games at school. Try to think about lots of different reasons for her behaviour. Spend time with him working out what his different options are in this situation. You could ask him whether his other friends were playing the game and explain to him that the girl cannot control who he plays with. For example, he could say ‘I am not here to play with you; I’m here to play with my friends, William and Oliver.’ If you think your son is being bullied, then speak to the school about what they can do to deal with the situation.

‘My 11-year-old son is having problems making friends at his new school.’

Encourage your son to get involved in extra-curricular group activities at the school such as drama, sport, music or chess. Being involved in organised activities outside the classroom, allows more time for him to get to know other children who have similar interests. Explain to your son that joining established groups can be difficult even for adults. Buy a book on social skills and body language and teach him how to join a group successfully. For example, amongst adults, a new member to a group is usually expected to listen more than they speak.

Suggested Links:

The importance of family meals

Teaching children to be financially savvy

Hothousing and competitive parenting

How to deal with tantrums

Choosing a nursery



Talking to children about the EU Referendum

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My friend told me today that her son had been called a racist at school because he’d told his school friends that his father had voted leave in the EU referendum. Unbelievably, this is at a primary school. Perhaps we should be happy that primary school children are getting political but it is also worrying that children are expressing intolerant views to those who express a different opinion to what they believe.


At another local primary school, the mums have been arguing heatedly on Facebook about the EU referendum to the extent that it has got into a slanging match. In some ways it’s great that people are so involved in political debate but if it gets out of hand, children pick up on it. We all know children will repeat what their parents say.

It isn’t always easy to express strong feelings in a respectful way and that’s probably why they say you should never talk about politics with friends. However, when we talk about politics in front of our children, we should try to be respectful. If we are nasty about people that don’t share our views then children will think they can be like that too. Children need to learn to voice their differences of opinion in a pleasant way without being hurtful.

The EU referendum has sparked passionate differences of opinion and there has been a lot of scaremongering. Our children need to be reassured that whatever problems arise that they can be handled.

It is a good idea to talk about what different people think in a balanced way so that it doesn’t cause divisions.

Top tips for political discussion

  1. Be respectful
  2. Present a balanced view
  3. Encourage your children to do some research
  4. Talk about the importance of voting
  5. Be positive and reassuring


The Importance of Family Meals

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Most people say that they would love to eat together as a family every day but because of working hours it is not possible. We all have to deal with reality and if even one parent gets home from work late, it can be difficult to eat together.

family mealtime

I have also heard parents with young children say that although they know family meals are important that they just want to be able to eat dinner in peace without the constant demands of their children requesting things.

One way parents can compensate is for the family to eat together at weekends. It may also be possible to start having meals together during the week once the children are older as they eat later. Research shows that eating family meals with teenagers improves their wellbeing and decreases their risk of drug abuse, sexual intercourse and involvement in violent behaiours. For example, Eisenberg and colleagues (2004) showed that teenagers who frequently ate with their family, smoked less, drank less, had better grades at school and fewer symptoms of depression.

Once parents understand the significance of family meals, it becomes more of a priority. Eating meals together, can influence children to eat more fruit and vegetables. They are also less likely to drink fizzy soft drinks (Gillman et al., 2000).

If you don’t have a dinner table in your house, try not to give into the temptation of eating dinner in front of the television. Having the television on during meals can lead children to eat fewer fruit and vegetables and more snack foods (Patrick and Nicklas, 2003).

Parents can use mealtimes to catch up on their children’s day and to talk about what is happening in their lives. Family meals also allow parents to teach their children good communication skills and eating habits.

Five Guidelines for Family Mealtimes:


1) Be a good role model for your child by eating more fruit and vegetables.

2) Eat the same food as your child at mealtimes and have frequent meals together.

3) Do not watch TV at mealtimes.

4) Do not force your child to finish their meals if they are not hungry and give age-appropriate portions.


5) Give your child positive attention at mealtimes. Discuss your child’s day.



How can parents improve children’s behaviour?

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Do you want to improve your relationship with your child? One way is parent-child interaction therapy. There are two parts to the therapy. The first part is improving parent-child relationships through play and the second part is learning how to use commands effectively to improve behaviour.

parent and child playing

So how can parents adapt this for use at home? You can start by telling your child that they are going to have 30 minutes or an hour to play whatever they want with you. It is important to let your child take the lead rather than choosing the activities yourself. For example, try not to say ‘Let’s play with the trains next.’ Don’t direct your child and don’t ask too many questions such as ‘which animal is this?’ Instead, listen carefully to your child and reflect back what they say. For example, if your child says ‘I like to play with spiderman’, you can say ‘Spiderman is fun’. You can also copy your child’s play. For example, if your child is putting furniture in their doll’s house, you might say ‘I am putting furniture in the doll’s house, just like you.’ This teaches your child how to interact with other children and that you approve of their play. It is important for you to be enthusiastic so that your child feels you enjoy playing with them. Try to praise your child during the play time and avoid criticism. Only stop the play time if they become aggressive or destructive. Try to ignore other misbehaviours such as playing roughly or whining.


Once you have started playing with your child in this child-led way, you can start changing the way you give commands to them. Use direct commands with your child, rather than indirect. For example, you could say ‘please, put the lego in the box’ rather than ‘let’s tidy up.’ Tell your child what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do. For example, you can say ‘Please, sit here’ rather than ‘stop jumping on the sofa.’ Only give one instruction at a time and be specific. However, always give commands in a polite and respectful way and avoid shouting orders at them. Your child may try to delay obeying your commands by asking ‘why?’ but is better to save explanations until after they have obeyed your instruction (Bell and Eyberg, 2002).

Related Links:

The importance of family meals

How to deal with tantrums

Choosing a nursery

Does mindfulness work with children and teenagers?

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Research shows that mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) can relieve stress, anxiety and depression in children (Saltzman and Goldin, 2008).

mindfulness teenagers 4

So how well does mindfulness work with healthy children and teenagers?

One study found that teenagers who had participated in a mindfulness training programme reported feeling more positive than a comparative group of teenagers who had not (Schonert-Reichel and Lawlor, 2010) . Wall (2005) taught 11-13 year olds over a 5-week period a combination of mindfulness techniques (sitting meditation and mindful eating) and Tai Chi. The children reported feeling calmer, less reactive, more relaxed and having better sleep. Another study followed 137 girls at a secondary school following a school-based mindfulness programme over six sessions. They found that the girls showed reductions in self-reported negative feelings, tiredness, aches and pains, and they were more likely to have feelings of calmness, relaxation, and self-acceptance.(Broderick and Metz, 2009).

Research also suggests that mindfulness training can improve attention and memory. When students practice mindfulness, they learn to focus, sustain and shift their attention, which has obvious benefits in terms of school work (Napoli et al, 2005; Zylowska et al. 2008).

So what does a good mindfulness programme for older children and teenagers involve?

A good mindfulness programme will teach the following:

-To recognise the signs and symptoms of stress.
-To understand the link between their thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.
-To be able to accept their emotions and thoughts without judgement.
-To be able to regulate their emotions.
-To be mindful when carrying out everyday tasks.
-To be mindful when interacting with others.


Related links:

Mindfulness techniques for children and teenagers

Children’s mental health

Teaching Children To Be Financially Savvy


pocket moeny

I was at the park the other day with my 6-year-old son. It was a sunny day and a perfect day for an icecream. My son asked me for an icecream but I hadn’t brought any money with me so I said no. A kind father of another child overheard my conversation and offered to buy the icecream for him. I refused his offer, not least because he was a stranger, and told him that I wanted my son to learn that he can’t always have what he wants. The man said, ‘Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong.’ Part of me agreed with him.

icecream van

I think it is important for my son to learn that he can’t have everything he wants all the time. Being able to delay gratification and having self-control has been found to have positive outcomes for children in terms of performance at school and relationships. Recently, I went to a village fete and I decided to give my son an allowance of £5 to spend on food, drinks and games. I told him that any money he had left over, he could save towards a Minecraft toy that he really wants. When we got to the fete, he was quite careful about what he spent his money on. He did buy a drink, some popcorn and played two games but he decided that he would save £3 of his money towards his toy. I felt that he had learned a lesson about not spending money frivolously.

On the other hand, I want my son to understand the value of money without him be overly worried about it. Sometimes, as parents we might avoid buying something for our children by saying that we can’t afford it. This can give children the impression that we don’t have enough money or we don’t have control over our finances. Children need to understand that there is a difference between things that we want and need. For example, if a child wants a new Minecraft toy for £100 but they already have a lot of Minecraft toys, you might talk to them about how long it would take to save that amount of money if they were working as a shop assistant with other bills to pay. As a parent, we can say to our children ‘I don’t choose to spend my money on things that we don’t need unless it’s a special occasion.’

Research suggests that the more open we are about our finances, the more financially savvy our children will be. Many parents shy away from talking about their family income or debt with their children as they don’t want this information to be shared with others. However, communicating with our children about these topics can be useful in the long-term. Perhaps once we feel our children are old enough to keep these details private, we should talk about them. What do you think?

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