The Pygmalion Effect: Affecting Adolescent Pregnancy?

If you are an educator, instructor, or trainer of any variety- you know that student… We have all had “that” student, and are well aware of how they will behave. Close your eyes and envision yourself interacting with this student.


Take a moment and ponder this: What type of student came to mind? What kind of behavior did you envision? How did the student appear? Most importantly, how did you see yourself interacting with that student? In short, what I’m asking you to assess is: How did you interpret the word “that” when envisioning a student? “That,” in this context, could have held any number of meanings. For the people that envisioned a student that they considered  difficult to work with, high-maintenance, or just “low-achieving,” this blog’s for you.  Click here for more information on characteristics of low-achieving students versus characteristics of high-achieving students.

Black and white photo of young boy wearing dunce hat standing in front of chalk board that says "I will be good" written over and over

The Pygmalion Effect takes its name from a story in Greek Mythology. A sculptor from Cyprus carved a beautiful ivory statue of a woman, (who Aphrodite would later give life to), with which he fell in love. The story reveals that the sculptor’s expectation of his work reflected the outcome of his work. The Pygmalion Effect, or Rosenthol Effect, reflects a similar idea. The Pygmalion Effect asserts that the better we expect our student’s to perform, the more highly they perform. Conversely, we have the Golem Effect: Low expectations of our students’ performance result in a lesser performance.

Pygmalion with his statue

Pygmalion with his statue

Conceptually, the heart of this addresses the theory of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Self-fulfilling prophecy could be most easily understood as a prediction that, directly, or indirectly, causes itself to come to fruition due to positive feedback between belief and behavior.  Sociologist Robert Merton is coined with creating the term “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.  The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error.  For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.  -Robert K Merton

Philosophies and definitions aside, what does this mean for our students? It means that we need to evaluate our expectations, and teach up. The more we expect from students, the more we will get from our students. Conversely, our expectation as educators are reflected in our behavior, and have an impact on the way the student’s achieve in our classroom. Consider this study: Thomas Good (1981) conducted a study on teacher’s expectations of low-achieving students in the classroom. This study found that teacher’s influenced their student’s poor performance through the educator’s actions. The following excerpt is taken from Estes, Mintz and Gunter (2009) and specifies what actions the educators utilized that influenced the low-achieving student’s performances:  

  • By seating low-achieving student farther away from the teacher than other students
  • By paying less attention to low-achieving students than other students
  • By calling on low-achieving student less frequently than other students to answer questions
  • By giving low-achieving students less time to answer questions when they are called on than other students
  • By not providing cues or asking follow-up questions to help low-achieving students answer questions
  • By criticizing low-achieving students more frequently than other students for incorrect answers
  • By giving low-achieving students less praise than other student for correct or marginal responses
  • By giving low-achieving students less feedback and less detail in the feedback they are given than other students
  • By interrupting the performance of low-achieving students more often than that of the high-achieving students
  • By demanding less effort and less work from low-acheiving students than from high-achieving students

Implications for Sex Educators

Some people educate for the love of learning- just to watch the spark come alive in their student’s eye when the student has finally understood.  Some people educate to stay connected to their area of interest. Others may educate simply out of necessity. But, let us not forget, no matter what our purpose for teaching is, we have a responsibility to our students as educators.

I don’t hear quite as much about teen pregnancy as I used to, but I know it’s still a problem. Fifty-six out of every 1,000 births in Pennsylvania last year were the result of a teen pregnancy.  Demographics from the Department of Education in California, as of May 2008, had California  ranked top in adolescent pregnancy in the United States. What do their statistics and demographics suggest?

Adolescents who become mothers tend to exhibit poorer psychological functioning, lower levels of educational attainment and high school completion, more single parenthood, and less stable employment than those with similar background who postpone childbirth. (Constantine, N., & Nevarez, C., 2003, p. 2)

I’m not suggesting that we can change the world by being effective teachers. Or, perhaps I am… It’s just a much slower sort of change. My take away point from this blog is that if we, as educators, are to change just one variable in these student’s lives, such as student’s desire to go from a low-achieving students, to a high achieving students, perhaps teen pregnancy would go down. If each teacher chose just a few low-achieving students to reach out to every year, perhaps those student’s futures wouldn’t be riddled with employment instability. Perhaps they wouldn’t continue to perpetuate the cycle:

Children of parents with low educational attainment, occupation, and income are more likely to have sex at an early age, not use contraception consistently, and become pregnant or cause a pregnancy. (Berglas, N., Brindis, C., & Cohen, J., 2008, p. 17)

There is a cycle with teen pregnancy, and every cycle requires a point of intervention. Here is one area where we can really make a difference to our student’s in our field, if we only take the time to reach the student’s who really need the help. We have a dual responsibility to low-achieving students. It isn’t only information from sex-educators that they are lacking, it is also the concern that can only be shown in investing the extra effort.


Berglas, N., Brindis, C., & Cohen, J., (2003). Adolescent pregnancy and child-bearing in California. California State Library Foundation.  PDF

Constantine, N., & Nevarez, C. (2008). No time for complacency: teen births in California. Public Health Institute

Estes, T., Mintz, S. & Gunter, M. (2011). Instruction: A models approach (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

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