Div. 7 award winners

Early Career Research Grant winner: Cecilia Cheung, PhD

A summary of Cecilia Cheung's research, “Where is the Pygmalion? The Role of Parents' Expectation in Children's Learning.”

By Cecilia Cheung

A plethora of research indicates that parents play a key role in children's educational success (for a recent review, see Grolnick, Friendly, & Bellas, 2009). Much attention, hence, has been devoted to understanding what parents do (i.e., their practices) that makes a difference in children's school experience. However, less is known with regard to how parents think (i.e., their cognition) and how that can shape children's learning. Building on prior theory and research on teachers' expectation (i.e., the classic Pygmalion effect), the proposed research will tackle two important questions in the domain of parental cognition. First, extending prior research on teachers' expectation (see Rosenthal, 1994), the proposed research will examine the effects of parents' expectation on children's learning. Second, the proposed research will investigate a potential mechanism that underlies the role of parents' expectation in children's achievement.

Two studies will be conducted to address the questions outlined. In the first study, the effects of induced expectation will be examined. Parents will be induced to hold distinct levels of expectation about their children's performance in the laboratory setting. We will examine the quality of parents' involvement and children's performance as a consequence of their expectation. In the second study, parents' naturally occurring expectation about children's achievement in school will be examined in a one-year longitudinal study. Parents and children will be asked to complete surveys at three time points over the course of one year. The surveys will assess parents' expectation, their involvement in children's learning as well as children's adjustment in school.

Study 1: Induced Expectation

Families with children attending 6th through 7th grades will be included in the study. Dyads will be invited to visit the laboratory and will be randomly assigned into the high expectation, low expectation and control groups. In all groups, children will first complete a pretest, which assesses their performance on a novel cognitive task. In the high expectation group, parents will receive information privately about children's pretest score, which will be presented as highly favorable, regardless of children's actual performance. In the low expectation group, which is identical to the high expectation group otherwise, parents will be told that their children's performance is beyond the normed average. In the control condition, parents will be given an opportunity to read a magazine and will not be presented with any information about their children's performance.

After parents received information about their children's performance, or no information, for that matter, children will join their parents to work on additional problems. At this time, the interaction between parents and children will be videotaped. The quality of parents' involvement — specifically on the parenting dimensions of control and autonomy-support — will be coded. Before leaving the laboratory, parents and children will be debriefed fully, such that they understand the information they received about their child's performance is in no way reflective of their child's ability.

Study 2: Naturally Occurring Expectation

Parents and children will be recruited to participate in a one-year longitudinal study focusing on the role of parents' naturally occurring expectation in children's school academic performance. Children in 6 th through 7 th grades and their parents will be included in the study. At the beginning of the academic year in the fall semester (wave 1), children and parents will receive a survey (delivered online or through postal mail) about parents' expectation, their involvement in children's learning and children's school adjustment. Children and parents will complete the survey again at the end of the fall semester (wave 2) and one last time at the end of the spring semester (wave 3). Children's engagement in school and the value they place on school also will be assessed. School grades in four core subjects (i.e., language arts, math, social studies and science) will be obtained from official school records.

Anticipated Findings

It is expected that children will show highest performance when their parents are induced to hold a positive view about their academic prowess. Furthermore, the quantity and quality of parents' involvement are anticipated to underlie the effects of parental expectation on children's achievement. Specifically, we predict that parents are more likely to become constructively involved in their children's learning (e.g., provide verbal and nonverbal affirmation to enhance children's confidence) when they expect their children to succeed academically.

Significance of the Research

The proposed research is anticipated to yield important insights on whether parents' expectation can influence children's academic achievement. While research has documented the power of teachers' expectation in children's learning trajectories and outcomes, the proposed research will fill a major gap in the socialization literature on parents' cognition. Furthermore, the proposed research represents one of the first efforts in testing a possible mechanism underlying expectation and children's achievement. As such, the proposed research will complement the broader literature on the Pygmalion effect. If parents' expectation about children's achievement can indeed make a difference in children's academic performance, education programs may be devised to help parents understand the role of their expectation in children's learning.


Grolnick, W.S., Friendly, R., & Bellas, V. (2009). Parenting and children's motivation at school. In K. Wentzel and A. Wigfield (Eds.), Handbook of motivation at school. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Rosenthal, R. (1994). Interpersonal expectancy effects: A 30-year perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3, 176–179.