In 1963, research psychologist Robert Rosenthal wanted to know how our expectations affected our reality. In one of his earliest studies, Rosenthal brought in experimenters to his lab and had them take rats out of two separate cages – one labeled “smart” and the other labeled “dumb.” They were told that the smart rats had been bred for maze-racing, while the others had been tested as less capable. They had one week to prepare their rats for a maze race.
The “smart” rats outperformed the “dumb” rats by a landslide. It was then that Rosenthal revealed the all the rats, regardless of what cage they came from, were the same, average kind of rat. They had been randomly labeled as smart and dumb.
So how come there was such a huge gap between the smart winners and the dumb losers? Simple – it was what was expected of them.
When participants thought their rat was smart, they handled them more gently, spoke to them more kindly, and encouraged them more often. The opposite was true of the dumb rats. There is research that connects the way rats are handled with how quickly they can perform complex tasks. The same is true of people.
I think the expectations we hold for students in our schools are really low. I’ve read through countless student codes of conducts and have found that, almost without exception, many of the rules, guidelines, and expectations for students in our schools are NEGATIVE. Don’t do this, you can’t say this, don’t wear these types of clothes, no ____, no _____, and definitely no ____.
What if, in addition to the basic “rules” of school, we held our students to POSITIVE expectations? What if, in contrast to all the things we discipline for, we hold students accountable to specific, positive actions? Not just reframing rules into positive language - but actually providing structured character consistency in your building. I’ve created a list of my own – feel free to take it or brainstorm one for your school or classroom!
THE 10 CLIMANDMENTS TO BUILD A BETTER SCHOOL CLIMATE
- You shall give one genuine compliment per day. The best compliments are specific – requiring active listening and thoughtful observation. “You look nice today” is not nearly as good as “Those blue converse make your eyes pop like a can of Pringles.”
- You shall learn one new person’s name each day. Names are powerful – when we take time to learn and remember someone’s name, it gives them value and reminds us of their humanity.
- You shall thank one staff member per day for their work. They do not get paid enough to put up with your shenanigans – they do their work because they believe in you. Believe in them back.
- You shall hold the door open for people and thank those that hold it open for you. During cold months, you shalt not let in too many breezes. Use your noggin.
- You shall attend one event each month that is totally unrelated to your friend group and interests. You might be the next chess grandmaster and not even know you like it yet.
- On Mondays, you shall write down one thing you are grateful for. I know it’s a Monday and the last thing you want to do is feel happy, but practicing thankfulness makes us healthier, more positive people.
- On Tuesdays, you shall pick up one piece of trash that isn’t yours. Pick up your own trash, too – custodians aren’t your maids.
- On Wednesdays, you shall ask one person in your life how you can help them. Your mom may need help with the dishes. Your teacher may need help cleaning up the class. Your coach may need help passing out flyers. Your dog may need help going for a walk.
- On Thursdays, you shall write a thank you note to someone in your life. Not a tweet. Not a text. Not an email. A handwritten note that you drop in the mail or deliver in person. Carrier pigeons are allowed if you have one trained.
- On Fridays, you shall hug, handshake, high five, or hand hug one person who looks like they need it. Please don’t do this without their consent – that won’t make their day, that will make you creepy.
Houston Kraft is the co-founder of CharacterStrong. He is a professional speaker and kindness advocate who has spoken at over 600 events internationally. Student Body President in High School, Class President at Bowdoin College, Leadership Camp Staff for 14 years in Washington - he is a lifelong learner of character, culture, kindness, and leadership. He was featured in 2019 on BBQ Lays Potato Chips and his mom's lasting life lesson is "Hug like you mean it."