Why low expectations are so damaging in human services and education

Posted: 01/08/2023

One of my first jobs, several years ago, was working as a tutor in an after-school program for Aboriginal children. They were a bright, lively, engaged group of young people and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them find their way in the world.

I do, however, distinctly remember a conversation I had with an eleven-year-old girl about her future – it’s a conversation that has stayed with me ever since and is one that I reflect on often.

We were talking about what the group were interested in and what they thought they might like to do after they finished school. This young person said that she wanted to be a doctor.

While I remember saying all the right things—that’s an exciting and rewarding path, you would be great in that role—it’s what I was thinking that I remember most.

Part of me was thinking about what a huge task it would be for her to get there. She lived in a regional area and went to a school that wasn’t strong on academics. While her family were incredibly supporting and encouraging, they had low literacy and she wasn’t yet able to read. She was smart and motivated but I worried that this might not be enough.

I’d also recently run two workshops in very different schools – the young person’s local school and an elite private girl’s school in the city.  The difference in resources was enormous. At the young person’s school, the teachers told me they had to fight to get adequate supplies of pens and paper for my workshop. At the other school (in the mid-1990s) all the girls came equipped with the latest top-of-the-range laptops loaded with the most up-to-date software.

In my mind, when she said she wanted to be a doctor, all I could see was the enormous barrier of privilege she was up against – she would be competing with people with huge resources, vast social connections and networks, and that was just to get to the starting line. Then she had to find a way to achieve the high scores she would need to get into university and get access to the resources she would need to move to the city to study, pay her fees and cover her living expenses.

I now wonder, even though I said the right things, did I put her off in some way, based on my own limiting beliefs about what was achievable?

What is the impact of having low expectations?

The reality is, if we are supporting people who are already facing a range of challenges and barriers in their lives, and we have low expectations of what is possible, they will probably also have low expectations of themselves too. And it isn’t just about what we say, it’s also about what we believe, as we are likely to communicate our beliefs to people in small and subtle ways, undermining their belief in themselves.

Parliamentarian, disability advocate and leader of the Dignity Party, Kelly Vincent, describes how the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ is a significant contributing factor in the chronic under-employment of people with disabilities. Talking about barriers to employment, she notes that:

Some…are physical – ramps, adjustable desks, screen readers and accessible toilets – everyday, practical kind of things…However, the bigger issue, and the one that can’t be seen, is the attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face from potential employers and workmates.

She describes these barriers, saying, ‘When it comes to employment it seems that there exists this culture of low expectation’.

Teacher and education administrator, Paul Wilson, describes how low expectations sometimes play out in schools:

…when teachers have low expectations for some students, especially those who had a history of academic struggle, behavior issues, living in poverty or are transient, those students are often ostracized and separated into small groups based on perceived ability…The students in groups of perceived lower ability are often exposed to a less rigorous curriculum or intervention support. These low expectations can continue to plague classrooms and students for years, especially if the classroom is populated with students that may have performed poorly on standardized testing.

Often we don’t consciously try to impose our low expectations and limiting beliefs on people—in fact, most people would hate the idea they are doing this. However, it happens every day, especially to people from marginalised groups or from groups that, as a society, we tend to underestimate. These low expectations can be built into our culture, social structures, processes and institutions.

It is not just our limiting beliefs about others that can be an issue

As human service practitioners and educators, we can be limited by our own experiences and beliefs about what people are capable of achieving, but we can also be limited by what we imagine is possible for ourselves.

If we don’t believe we are capable of achieving a particular goal, we are less likely to believe that a client or student is able to achieve a similar, or more ambitious, goal. We can then project those beliefs and limitations onto the people we work alongside.

Conversely, having high expectations, for ourselves and others, can positively impact on our sense of wellbeing

As Misha Ketchell from The Conversation notes, research has shown that having low expectations can ‘limit our capacity to develop and grow’ and ‘lead to feelings of helplessness and despair’.

Equally, having high expectations of ourselves can, ‘help us adapt to changing circumstances and keep going. It’s a sign of resilience, adaptability and wellbeing’.

Additionally, Misha describes how we tend to perform better when people have high expectations of us – this is called the Pygmalion Effect:

Our belief that others see us as capable and believe that we can accomplish more than we think we can pushes us to perform better. Likewise, when others have low expectations of us, we generally perform worse. The Pygmalion effect has been tested extensively in the workplace and education, showing similar results.

So how do we challenge our own limiting beliefs about what’s possible?

One of the best ways to challenge limiting beliefs is to take the time, as individuals or teams, to reflect on what we believe about people’s capabilities and future possibilities, and how we enact these beliefs in the work we do with others.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Examine your own beliefs about what you believe is possible, and not possible, for yourself. How might you be projecting those beliefs, consciously or unconsciously, onto the children or adults you work with in terms of your language, body language or other communications?
  • Do you have different expectations of people from different racial, economic, gender, religious or ethnic groups? Do you have different expectations of people who are differently abled or who are neurodiverse? Where do these beliefs or expectations come from? How do they manifest in the way you work with different individuals or groups?
  • How often do you ask clients or students about their hopes for the future? (When we’re working with people experiencing life challenges, it can be easy to forget to ask these questions. However, the right question at the right time about people’s future goals can be highly motivating and sometimes life changing.)
  • How do you ask? We may unknowingly build limiting inherent assumptions into our questions eg. consider the difference between these questions:
    • If you finish school, what jobs do you think you could get?
    • When you finish school, what university courses are you interested in exploring?
    • Imagine you are old, looking back on your life and you feel really proud of what you’ve done. What does your life look like?
  • When clients or students share their big dreams with you, how do you respond? Do you immediately jump to seeing all the possible barriers or do you get excited for them and invite them to explore the steps needed to achieve those dreams?
  • What language do you use to describe the people you work with? Do you talk about their limitations and challenges or their strengths and skills? (How we talk about people can impact on what we believe they are capable of achieving.)
  • When you think about your systems and processes, how do you think cultural, or structural, low expectations might be ‘baked’ in? How could you change these systems to make them more empowering and hopeful?

Having high expectations for people doesn’t mean pushing them into places where they feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. It is about inviting them to think big, challenge themselves, learn, grow, be ambitious and hopeful, and it is about supporting them to explore the practical steps needed to make their dreams and goals a reality.

It is also about believing that every person is capable of great things, no matter what their current circumstances are.


Have you ever had the experience of people not believing in you? How did you respond? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.

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