How to Set High Expectations for Students

Written by Sasha Blakeley

High Expectations Help Students Succeed

Teachers play a huge role in helping students succeed in their learning goals. When teachers create an environment of high expectations, they may worry that students will struggle to measure up, ultimately leading to lower self-confidence. However, research suggests that the opposite is true; when students understand what is expected of them, they are more likely to rise to the challenge. Parents, counselors, school administrators, peers, and other people in a student's life can be a positive influence. Together, this network can establish and maintain high expectations and a high level of support to improve students' school experiences.

Setting High Expectations for Students

Although many people contribute to student success, teachers are often particularly influential because they spend so much time with students. For that reason, educators need to have high expectations for their students. Teachers' high expectations can push students to live up to their full potential, especially when they respect their teachers' guidance and expertise. Low expectations are counterproductive for students who need a boost in confidence, as they may find it harder to believe in themselves. For students who are excelling, low expectations can cause them to stop striving to improve themselves. They may become demotivated and feel apathetic toward their academic success.

Common Expectations Teachers Set

High expectations can take many forms in the classroom and have a profound, lasting impact on behavior; it is not only a question of pushing students to try harder on their assignments. Teachers can set high expectations in all aspects of a classroom environment, including:

Academic Achievements

When aiming to improve academic achievement for students, teachers should cultivate the mindset in their students that there is always room for growth. Learning has no limits, and everyone has the potential to expand their knowledge and strive for greater success. The main thing to avoid when setting academic expectations is making students feel that they can never be good enough. While there is always room for improvement, it is also important to celebrate students' achievements and to acknowledge them when they try hard, whatever the result.

Effort & Engagement

It is often more productive for teachers to focus on goals and effort than on grades and results. Did the student put thought into their work? Did they do better than they did on a previous assignment? Were they clearly invested in their learning, even if they made mistakes? If so, then teachers should communicate to those students that they are on the right track. Effort and engagement are the markers of success to focus on, not completing assignments without mistakes. Ideally, this focus on effort over achievement will lead to students experiencing outstanding academic success resulting from their engagement with their own learning.

Independence & Critical Thinking

When teachers focus on effort and determination instead of talent or achievement, they teach students crucial life skills. Learning how to study, how to self-motivate to complete a task, and how to learn from one's mistakes are all tools students will need to utilize for their entire lives. When teachers have high expectations for students to build these skills, students will be more likely to rise to the occasion, whereas students who are always given too much help may not be motivated to learn. There is a fine line between offering students too much guidance and insisting that they build these difficult skills without sufficient training. Of course, if students are struggling or asking for help, teachers should be there to give it to them.

Classroom Behavior

High expectations can also include behavioral expectations in the classroom. Teachers should require their students to treat one another with respect and compassion; modeling appropriate behavior is an excellent way to start this process. Ensuring that students communicate with each other clearly, that they include and listen to each other during activities, and that they work well together with integrity are also things that teachers can do by setting high expectations. When teachers respect their students' ideas and contributions, students will be more likely to replicate that behavior among their peers.

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Setting High Expectations for Students with Learning Difficulties

There are numerous ways educators can support academic achievement in their classroom, and maintaining high expectations for students' abilities is one of them. This remains true of students who are struggling with a particular subject or who have learning needs that differ from their peers. ''High expectations'' does not mean ''uniform expectations for all students.'' It means encouraging all students to learn, grow, and push themselves to accomplish their own personal best. This strategy comes with an important caveat: Students must still have a supportive, inclusive, and compassionate school environment. They should not be required to put undue pressure on themselves or to feel terrible if they fail to attain the grades they aimed for. Striking the right balance is a process for many teachers; it takes practice and a strong understanding of each student's needs and challenges.

To understand why having high expectations is so valuable, it may be helpful to consider the alternative. For example, if a student struggles with writing, perhaps because of a learning disability, special education teachers might be tempted to be lenient with their work. They might praise the student for writing a sentence when the rest of the class was asked to complete a paragraph. At first glance, this might seem helpful because the student is working to their own ability level and is not being judged for not keeping up with their peers. However, the student may internalize the idea that they are inherently less capable than their peers, and has little impetus to improve. Instead, teachers should aim to provide the student with attainable, yet challenging, goals. Having high expectations is not about holding all students to an identical standard; it is about believing that all students have the potential to improve beyond what they thought they were capable of.

How Environment Impacts High Expectations

For many students, success begins with a positive school environment. When a school is designed around high expectations for students' success, they may find it easier to believe in themselves and to find success. Creating an enriching and welcoming school environment is the responsibility of teachers, administrators, counselors, and all other staff members. A good school environment is safe for all students, allowing them to express themselves without worrying about bullying or discrimination. Of course, it is difficult to guarantee a bully-free environment at the school level, but when the adults in a school take a firm stance on respecting and upholding students' rights, the school environment can be safer for everyone.

Schools that provide high-quality counseling services to support struggling students are also more likely to see high levels of achievement. Ensuring that students have access to nutritious lunches is also crucial, as students who are not well-fed will find it much more difficult to learn effectively and reach their full potential. In addition to these services, schools with high success rates often also work on scheduling varied classes, electives, and extracurricular activities to help students pursue their areas of interest and ultimately succeed. Access to extra material is an excellent form of enrichment. Providing additional academic assistance for students who are struggling in one or more areas is also very important.

Organizing all these elements of a school environment takes a lot of people, effort, and funding. Not all schools will have access to the resources to turn this ideal into a reality. Institutions that have more limited resources can still take steps to create a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for students, even if they focus on just one of these areas instead of all of them. Change can be slow, and sometimes it has to happen at the policy level rather than at the individual school level. Teachers who find that they are struggling to motivate students or help them succeed may find that the overall school environment is a contributing factor.

At Home Influence on Success

When it comes to setting high expectations for students, the teachers and school staff are not the only relevant factors. Students' families and community are also a primary component in students' ability to succeed and thrive in an educational environment. When students bring their report cards home, they are often directly communicating their ability to live up to familial expectations. In some cases, student success can also depend on their engagement with the local community. Extracurricular activities can be a valuable way for students to boost their self-confidence, make friends, and believe in their own ability to succeed.

How Family Members Can Help Students Succeed

Parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members all communicate their expectations to students regularly. Parents might encourage their children to do their best, might push their children to get high grades, or might take a more hands-off approach. Just as teachers can set high expectations in a way that helps students succeed or in a way that makes students feel discouraged, familial expectations can be positive or negative. When families react poorly to a report card that does not live up to expectations, they may make it more difficult for students to believe in their abilities, particularly if those students are struggling or already feel that they are trying hard. On the flip side, family members who take no interest in student success may undermine teachers' attempts to set high expectations for their students because those expectations are dropped as soon as students leave the classroom. Striking the right balance is key. There are a variety of things that family members can do to help students succeed, including:

Provide Encouragement

Parents and guardians can help students succeed by encouraging them and showing them that they can overcome obstacles. When students hear from both parents and teachers that they have what it takes to succeed, they are more likely to believe it. When providing this encouragement, it is a good idea for parents to emphasize that trying hard and being engaged are more important than the grades that students receive. That way, students will still know that there are high expectations for them, but those expectations will be less tied to a particular grade that may not always be achievable.

Share Expectations

It is also essential for families to believe in students' abilities and to communicate that belief clearly. When students feel that those around them are confident that they can succeed, those achievements may feel easier to grasp. Families can do this by being straightforward in their expectations, discouraging absenteeism and other less positive behaviors for students, and encouraging students to study at home. They should try to avoid telling or showing students that they do not think that they can succeed or that they have low expectations for students' academic achievement. Children and teenagers respond to the environment that they are in, and parents and other family members who consistently affirm their abilities will ultimately be more helpful than parents who do not think that their children can accomplish their goals.

Get Involved

Getting involved in students' lives is crucial for family members who want to help their students succeed. That could mean assisting with homework when needed, keeping lines of communication with teachers open, and having a good understanding of an individual student's needs, strengths, and abilities. When possible, it is a great idea for parents to provide their children with extra learning opportunities at home. Books on their favorite subjects, trips to local museums, and conversations about areas of interest can enrich students' education and help facilitate greater long-term success.

Community Involvement in Student Success

Adult volunteers, community organizers, and even businesses can make a difference when it comes to student success in schools. In practical terms, students build their success through after-school activities, volunteer opportunities, work experience, scholarships, and other forms of community engagement. Students sometimes find that all of their focus goes toward school, with little time left over for other experiences. Fostering these experiences is an excellent way to improve students' abilities to better understand themselves and to see dimensions of success beyond the academic.

Community members can make a big difference in student success. Those who work directly with children and teenagers in after-school programs can show their students that they believe in them and can help them foster both academic and non-academic talents. They can help students improve their social skills and confidence, making school an easier and more positive experience. Local businesses can hire high school students for part-time work, teaching them indispensable life skills and giving them the opportunity for greater financial independence. Voters can also make a difference in student success by voting in local elections. Bills to allocate school funding can be hugely influential in changing how students experience each school day. Student success should not be exclusively the responsibility of teachers; it should be a community effort to which everyone can contribute.

Student Responsibility

In many ways, students can take responsibility for their success in school. Some of the ways that students can help themselves have a more productive school experience include:

  • Taking initiative
  • Asking for help
  • Pursuing interests

One of the best ways for students to succeed is to take initiative when it comes to educational success. Aiming to produce high-quality work, improving time management skills, and studying for tests are all important. Students who have the drive to improve are more likely to see high levels of success in their school lives. Asking for help from teachers, classmates, or family members is also crucial. Everybody needs help sometimes, and learning when and how to ask for it is an essential life skill that will lead to longer-term success outside of school. Deliberately taking time to pursue one's interests and advance in various facets of life is a final way that students can set themselves up for success in school. Finding areas to improve in and exploring new learning opportunities fosters a love of learning, boosts confidence, and ultimately leads students to become successful lifelong learners.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do teachers set high expectations?

    Teachers can set high expectations for students by believing in their abilities and modeling appropriate behavior. They should avoid telling students, either implicitly or explicitly, that there are limits to what they can achieve.

  • What does it mean to have high expectations?

    Having high expectations means believing that all students can succeed. It does not mean assuming that all students will be able to earn high grades on every assignment; high expectations look different for everybody.

  • Why is it important to hold high expectations?

    Holding high expectations is a great way to help students succeed. When teachers expect great things from students, those students are more likely to rise to the challenge.