One day, my seven year old son came home from school pretty upset and said he did not want to go school next day. Why? What happened? He loved school; only a few weeks ago, he was upset that he could not go to school because of strep throat, and he recently received a mastery award in math and a music award from school. I thought he was doing well at school, but why now? I was panicking in my head to the extent which I could not formulate a coherent sentence. After taking a deep breath, I asked him what happened. He told me it was because he did not get a readers’ badge but a lot of his friends got one each. He also added that his teacher gave special coupons to those kids with badges to bring stuffed animals to school. He continued to tell me, “I’m not good at reading, mom. I can’t read many books that fast. They’re boring.” As I was listening to his rants, I knew we had to fix the problem now otherwise it would create other possible problems as he ages.
The part he said that he was not good at reading was hard for me to understand since we read at least three nights a week together before bed. He often talks about characters from the stories he read with me for days, thus, he knows the joy of reading books. Then why does feel like he is inept to read at school? One study notes that children are motivated by many factors including both intrinsic and extrinsic. In other words, children are motivated to read for their own interest or fun as well as to gain recognition or a reward (McGowen et al. 2016). My son appears to have both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation to read, but why is it difficult for him to meet the goal to receive the badge? Perhaps, it can be explained by Festinger’s social comparison theory (Schneider et al., 2012).
According to Festinger, we tend to judge our performance in comparison with those who are similar to us in our environment. It is not an exception for my son; he may have compared himself to other children in his class. When one of his friends got the badge first, downward social comparison may have occurred to make him feel better about his status. When more children got the badge, upward social comparison did not occur but he may have experienced less confidence in his reading ability (Schneider et al., 2012). As Keil, McClintock, Kramer, and Platow concerned, a repeated lack of improvement in performance may influence an individual to experience less confidence, lose motivation, and experience low feelings of self-worth (Schneider et al., 2012). When he sees more children in his class getting badges, he is feeling less confident in reading and now believing that he is just not good at reading. Another important factor is teacher’s perception and expectation on low achievers. I would like to believe that my son’s teacher is doing the best she can to help him improve his reading aptitude, yet a self-fulling prophecy cannot be negated in this situation. According to Schneider and his colleagues, low achievers are more susceptible to what their teachers thought of them and expected from them (Schneider et al., 2012). Does she unconsciously have certain expectations about my son that influence her behavior toward him? Maybe so, but it cannot be confirmed as she may not be consciously aware of her behaviors.
Then, what can I do to help my son improve his reading? Now that we have a distal goal, proximal goals should be set to cultivate competence and self-efficacy. According to Bandura and Schunk, proximal goals have three major psychological effects: 1) self-motivation can be created and sustained at its best by attaining proximal goals that lead to larger goals, 2) proximal goals provide immediate incentives and feedbacks for the performance, and 3) they play an important role in development of self-percepts of efficacy (Bandura & Schunk, 1981). How the proximal goals work is similar to what objectives do to attain goals of an intervention in applied social psychology. First proximal goal is to have him expose to different types of literature to broaden his interests. Since one of the complaints he had about reading was that he only wanted to read books that he liked, we will visit a local library where he can be exposed to different genres of books that may pique his interests. For a long time, he was a big fan of Dr. Seuss series, then he was introduced to the National Geographic for Kids which he loves reading about animals. Therefore, I think the library visit will be a great opportunity for him to find different genres of books that he may like. We are planning to pick out three fiction, three non-fiction, and one of his choice. The second goal is to increase his reading speed. Within 30 minutes, he will be reading as many books as possible. He is currently expected to read one or two books based on his past performance, but the goal is for him to read three twenty-or-less-page books for the first graders. Followed by reading, we will be having a short discussion on the books to help him identify main ideas and morale of the stories. By improving his speed with better accuracy of comprehension, he will be likely to be confident in reading among his peers, and recognition from his teacher may reinforce his behavior further.
Bandura and Schunk noted that children are likely to progress rapidly in self-directed learning, achieved mastery of a subject, and increase their perceived self-efficacy by setting and attaining proximal goals (Bandura & Schunk, 1981). I can only hope that this strategy may help him increase his perceived self-efficacy that will not be altered when he is faced with new challenges in the future. And of course, he will be getting the readers’ badge before the end of the school year as it is his distal goal. After devising this strategy, I realized that my own self-fulfilling prophecy influenced the strategy a lot which I believe the most important for my child. Regardless of factors that may have contributed to his reading experience, my belief that he is a good reader that needs a bit of guidance may improve his reading skills at school and later in his life based on the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy (Schneider et al., 2012).
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.
Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3), 586-598. doi:10.1037//0022-35126.96.36.1996
Mcgeown, S. P., Osborne, C., Warhurst, A., Norgate, R., & Duncan, L. G. (2016). Understanding children’s reading activities: Reading motivation, skill and child characteristics as predictors. Journal of Research in Reading, 39(1), 109-125. doi:10.1111/1467-9817.12060