Applied empathy, or the Pygmalion effect as a positive lever

Read for inspiration! Our collaborator recalls what the Pygmalion effect is and explains how she uses it as a positive lever in her relationship with her students and in her classroom management in general.

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I expect a lot from my students both academically and behaviorally. Even in a pandemic, even if they are regular in a public school. In fact, I have high expectations of them mainly because I believe that in these uncertain times they really need them. 

Theoretical foundations

For those unfamiliar with the Pygmalion effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968), it is the fact that the teacher's beliefs about the ability of his students have a direct influence on their results. In a broader context, but above all in relation to behavior and not academic success, Howard Becker (1963) establishes the same link between behavioral expectations of signifiers and their behavior. This is the theory of labeling (labeling theory). More than 50 years separate us from the development of these theories, and since the studies only confirm these links. Notably the fact that teachers' expectations are often self-fulfilling prophecies. So, if students have high expectations, both behaviorally and academically, they will perform better and be more obedient than students of teachers who expect them to perform less well or behave less well. But how do these expectations affect students? The difference is visible in the comments made to them, in the way of dealing with unforeseen events, in the subjects covered, in the explanations given, in short, in all the daily actions of teaching.

Management of learning and behavior

I believe that each student does their best to actively participate in their learning. This belief is imbued in me and colors all my interventions. For example, if a student is absent, my first question when he returns is whether he is now better. This reaction is the same if a student is not at the task. Every time I give the benefit of the doubt, I ask him if there is something wrong, if he needs help. Thus, by my questions, I show that if he does not do it, it is surely due to an external factor. Most of the time, after an intervention of this type, the student takes action. Obviously, this method does not solve everything. It is often the rowdy students who need me to believe in them the most. So, regardless of the student, my first intervention is always positive, I presume their good intentions. 

Once my expectations have been demonstrated by my initial intervention, if that is not enough to solve the problem, I move on with others. However, in my opinion this approach pays off in the long run! This attitude is also present in other facets of my work. For example, I do not penalize a second time a student who arrives late because he will suffer the consequences foreseen by the school. I greet him with respect and, if possible, ask him if all is well on his side. 

A student discussing something else or speaking when they should be in silence? I go to see him and ask him if I can help him. Often, these small interventions will solve several difficulties such as the lack of material, questions of comprehension or another problematic situation experienced by the student. Obviously, some will have no valid reason and other interventions will be necessary, and I will do them. But I will have let them know that I expect them to work, every class. 

The teacher-student relationship 

Keep in mind John Gottman's magical 5: 1 ratio that has, over time, proven its validity in the classroom. This ratio indicates that in order to maintain a healthy relationship, there should be at least 5 positive interactions for every negative intervention. If this ratio decreases, the quality of the relationship will be affected. A positive relationship in turn has an impact on all spheres of teaching, both on behavior, learning, success and results. 

Effect on the teacher 

Some will say it is empathy, others it is the use of evidence, all are right. Besides the beneficial effects on the students, this approach is also beneficial for the teacher. We know that discipline is part of everyday life. Except that if every behavioral intervention is negative, it can take a heavy toll on the shoulders. This is why all my disciplinary interventions begin with a positive interaction where I care about my student and offer him help. 

At the end of the day, I feel like I've helped a lot more than berated. This feeling and this feeling of having made a difference is after all one of the reasons that pushed me to teach. 


  • Rosenthal R. and Jacobson LF, (1968). Teacher Expectation for the Disadvantaged, Scientific American, 218 (4). 
  • Howard S. Becker, (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, New York, The Free Press of Glencoe. 

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About the Author

Mrs Prof
Mrs Prof
She holds a bachelor's degree in education and is currently a candidate for a master's degree in education. She is involved with various organizations in order to equip teachers and improve the various facets of teaching and learning in Quebec.

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