Establishing Expectations

*For a pre-verbal or newly verbal child, please see this post about expectations.

Expectation – a strong belief that something will happen or become the norm in the future.

Identify your expectations, model them, and step in when your kids need help meeting them. Set high expectations and watch your kids not just meet but exceed them independently.



Early in my career, I spent four years teaching 5th graders in NYC. I have always been more comfortable with the little ones, so this was initially unnerving. Every year I asked my principal if I could switch to my comfort zone in the primary grades, but I never convinced her to make the change.  Once I moved back to VA I got back to my “early elementary” roots. I began teaching 1st grade and I realized how thankful I was for those four years with the “big” kids.

Moving from 5th grade to 1st grade, I knew where my students were going. I had a new perspective. It’s easy to get narrowly focused on one grade’s standards since that is what you are responsible to teach.  However, by knowing what skills were needed as a 5th grader, my default with my 1st graders was to raise my expectations. I set the bar high, not unrealistically, but high and the most amazing thing happened – 99% of the time my students met those expectations. And when they didn’t, I was there to help.

As a mom, I constantly think about my expectations for my kids. I expect Keener to take his shoes and jacket off independently when we walk in the door, and I expect him to greet someone and say hello. When he doesn’t, I remind him and model the behavior I expect. When someone says ‘Hi Keener,’ you say ‘Hi, Ms. __ .  It’s nice to see you.’ He either says it, or I step in.

My sister has a 3.5 year old and she recently told me that she wants him to take his plate to the sink after meals. Right now it isn’t a habit, so she still must remind him after each meal. But, by being aware that it is something she wants him to do automatically in the future, she is setting it up to be the expectation – when you finish your food, you clear your plate.

The first step is identifying your expectations — the ones you really want to focus on. If you do not have an awareness of your expectations, your kids will be confused and you will be frustrated. If out of the blue you ask your child to take their plate to the sink but then do not ask them for another three weeks, it’s unrealistic to expect they will do it in the future without being asked. Therefore, it is important to spend time thinking about what you truly expect — for yourself and your children. That way, you can prioritize your focus and energy on your high value expectations and let go of the ones that are less important to you right now.

The second step is to make it clear to your children what you expect. There is no better way for them to know than for you to explicitly tell them and show them. Use language such as:

I expect you to _____.

Watch how I ____; now you try.

Listen how I ____. Now it’s your turn.

By modeling the language or behavior you expect them to do, they know exactly what you want and can start trying to meet your expectations. However, be sure to pick an appropriate moment to explain your expectation to your child. The hour before bedtime is not the best time to tell an overtired kid that he needs to start putting his PJs on by himself. Instead, give him advanced warning when he is not overtired, and try to put PJs on early for a few nights to make sure your expectations are realistic.

Last but not least, aim high. One of my “high expectations” for Keener, at 2.5 years old, is to respond with “yes, mama” when I call his name and give him a direction. Does this always happen? Hardly. But I expect it, will model it for him, and will remind him when he doesn’t meet this expectation. I will say, Keener, when I call your name and ask you to come get your shoes on, I expect you to stop what you are doing, say ‘yes mama,’ and find your shoes.  Let’s try it again. While this is a high expectation for a 2.5 year old, it is one that matters to me — a lot. When he listens, we both win. We get where we are going on time, I don’t want to pull my hair out saying the same thing 10 times, and he learns that when mama gives a direction, he must stop and react. Set the bar high, and be the support they need to reach those high expectations. Yes, it is exhausting. But what I’ve found through teaching 1st graders is that the short term pain is worth the long term gain for you and them.

For ideas, here are some of the expectations I am currently working on with Keener:

  • Having him respond “yes mama” when I call his name
  • Stopping whatever he is doing when he hears the word “stop”
  • Answering questions and responding when adults speak to him
  • Saying please and thank you when asking/receiving goods/services
  • Staying seated at the table until everyone is finished eating
  • Not throwing toys when frustrated

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