Teaching Kids What to Expect

Teaching Kids What to Expect


Brittany Bayliss, LCSW

I have learned countless lessons over the last eight years of my life as a mother. I can now cook and eat with one hand, I know how to function on little sleep, and I can expertly install any car seat in less than two minutes. However, my most valuable tool has come in handy not only in my life with my own children, but also in my practice as a licensed clinical social worker working in elementary schools over the past 11 years. Whether I am working with a classroom of 22 seven year old’s, or with my own eight and four year old, the tool I rely on most is setting expectations. It sounds simple, and it is, but when kids know what to expect out of a situation or environment, everyone’s life gets a little easier.

Each time I enter a classroom or work individually with a student the first words out of my mouth are expectations. I tell them who I am, why I am there and what I need from them. With my own children, the expectation setting is endless. Anytime we go somewhere I am letting them know what behavior is acceptable and necessary information about where we are going. For example: “We are going to a friend’s house that has a pool. We are not going to be going in the pool today, so do not go out the back door. You can play in the house.”

There is a cultural assumption that children are care free creatures, but developmentally this assumption proves false. Kids are experiencing the world for the very first time, which means they have no idea what to expect. This can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Children depend on adults to help them understand their environments and they watch us to learn how we solve problems. When we set expectations for children, we are combating the natural anxiety that comes with experiencing something for the first time.

Children thrive in environments where they understand what is expected of them and of those around them. For most children, simply setting expectations and boundaries can prevent a host of problem behaviors. When I take my kids to a store, I tell them why we are there and what we will be purchasing. This drastically cuts down on the number of “Can I have that?” questions. Even before they could talk, their dad and I would walk them through the toy isles at stores so they could experience being there but not necessarily going home with anything new. When working in a classroom and passing out supplies I often say “I will be handing out crayons now, there is enough for everyone to have one color. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit!” This stops most of the whining over who got the pink crayon, before it even begins.

Setting expectations is great not only for kids, but also for grown ups. When everyone has agreed to what is acceptable beforehand, there is less time spent reprimanding. Kids will always need reminding of the expectations, but reminding is much more pleasant than yelling or scolding.

When we set expectations with our children, we are not only helping them, but we are also helping ourselves. So do yourself the favor, and let everyone know what to expect!