Children will do what their teachers do, rather than what they say, new research from the US shows.
When teachers’ words and deeds conflict, children will always follow actions over instructions, academics at Boston University have found.
“Adults may provide conflicting verbal and behavioural information,” the academics write in a paper presented this month at the American Educational Research Association conference in Chicago. “For example, parents may state the importance of not snacking before meals, but then snack before meals anyway.”
The academics therefore set a task for 84 four- and five-year-olds. The children were given a sticker by a researcher and told that, if they could resist touching the sticker while she was out of the room, they would receive two stickers when she returned. If they could not wait, they should ring a bell, and the researcher would return immediately. In this case, however, she would give them only one sticker.
The researcher then modelled the experiment for the children. For some, she said that she would wait in order to receive the second sticker, and then went on to complete the task successfully. For others, she said that she would wait, but then rang the bell to finish the task early.
With other children, she explicitly stated that she would not wait to finish the task. With some, she did exactly as she said; with others, she instead went on to complete the task.
The researcher used a variety of strategies, such as singing a song, to distract herself during the waiting period.
The academics found that there was a strong correlation between the researcher’s successful completion of the task – regardless of whether or not she had said that she would complete it – and the children’s ability to do the same.
Three-quarters (76 per cent) of the children who had watched the researcher successfully complete the task went on to complete it themselves. This figure was the same whether or not the researcher had previously stated that she intended to complete the task.
By contrast, only 57 per cent of those who had heard the researcher announce her intention to complete the task, but subsequently watched her fail, went on to complete it themselves. The completion rate among children who had heard the researcher say that she would not finish the task, and then watched her fail, was 52 per cent.
The children were then asked to repeat the task, using toys instead of stickers. Only those children who had observed the researcher complete the original task were able to finish this task successfully.
The academics suggest that children are constantly reappraising what they hear in the light of what they actually observe. Only those strategies that lead to a positive outcome are retained as useful.
“After viewing the successful or unsuccessful outcome, children implicitly decided whether or not to place the strategies in memory,” they write.