The Hawthorne Effect in Schools

An article, written by Principal Clinical Psychologist Colby Pearce, which originally appeared on Colby’s blog site Attachment and Resilience.

The notion of the Hawthorne Effect is derived from a series of experiments conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne works of the Western Electric Company. In these experiments, the experimenters manipulated aspects of the working conditions of some employees in order to study the effects of these changes on employee productivity and wellbeing. The most famous were the so-called “Illumination Experiments”. In these experiments, productivity improved with successive increases in illumination in a work area, then increased again when the illumination was subsequently reduced. This led to the conclusion that it was not the level of illumination that played a role in worker productivity, but the perception of the worker that management was interested in them and in their working conditions.

Several years ago I was asked to conduct assessments of fourteen children who were of the most concern to staff at a particular school, in terms of their engagement and behaviour. My assessments incorporated interviews of each child, their parent(s), their classroom teacher and senior staff at the school. I prepared a diagnostic report for each child and made recommendations regarding each child’s care and management requirements. I conducted individual feedback sessions with the parents of each child, and with their teacher. I also provided general education to staff of the school about engaging children who are disengaged and who exhibit challenging behaviour in the education setting.

I returned to the school the following year, approximately six months later. Only one of the original fourteen children continued to be of concern to school authorities, in terms of their engagement and behaviour.

Since that time I have observed the same effect in other schools with whom I have an association.  When school authorities and teaching staff take an active interest in those children who are disengaged and presenting a behaviour management challenge in the school, such as by instituting special programs for them, the behaviour and engagement of these young people invariably improves! In contrast, when school authorities rely primarily on suspension and exclusion of the student from school, their engagement and behaviour invariably deteriorate further.

So, take an active interest in the disengaged and those who exhibit challenging behaviour in the school setting. It really is the only viable way forward with these young people!