College & Workforce Readiness

Parental Expectations That Are Too High Can Harm Students, Study Says

By Catherine Gewertz — November 18, 2015 1 min read
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Parents can undermine their children’s performance in middle and high school if they set their academic expectations too high.

That’s the conclusion of a new study. It finds that while high but realistic expectations can help students perform well, unrealistically high expectations can harm their performance.

Those findings were published this week by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Kou Murayama, who focuses on motivation and cognition as an associate professor of psychology at the University of Reading, in England, studied 3,530 German students in grades 5 to 10, and their parents, between 2002 and 2007. He and his team examined the results of annual math tests given to students. They also looked at a questionnaire portion of the tests, in which parents specified the grades they hoped their children would earn, and the grades they thought their children could reasonably earn.

While high parental aspirations led to increased academic achievement, that occurred only when parents’ expectations were realistic, the researchers found. When their aspirations exceeded what their children could reasonably achieve, the adolescents’ achievement declined, they found.

Murayama and his team backed up the results of the German study by examining data from 12,000 students in the United States and their parents. They saw the same patterns.

The theme of getting parents—and teachers—to raise their expectations for students pervades many education reform conversations. And it’s well known that high expectations can help children aspire to, and achieve, better results. But Murayama’s study raises the question of how high is too high when it comes to expectations of student performance.

“This study suggests that the focus of ... educational programs should not be on blindly increasing parental aspiration but on giving parents the information they need to develop realistic expectations,” the APA said in a statement released with the study.

“Although parental aspiration is an important vehicle through which children’s academic potential can be realized, excessive parental aspiration can be poisonous,” Murayama wrote in the conclusion of his report.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.