The Hawthorne Effect in Schools

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 thirteen 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 thirteen 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!

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About colbypearce

I am a practising Clinical Psychologist with twenty-seven years’ experience working with children and young people recovering from abuse and neglect. I am also an author and educator in trauma-informed, therapeutic caregiving. My programs are implemented in Australia and Ireland, and I am well-known for my practical and accessible guidance for caregivers and professionals alike.
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8 Responses to The Hawthorne Effect in Schools

  1. Tina Hendry says:

    how true ad its not rocket science, our children make it difficult for teachers and Asna’s to build a relationship with them ,,…acknowledging that as a profession they may require to raise awareness: implement training ,,, and work together, this will help our children feel safe in this environment and be more likely to engage, leading to a positive outcome for all concerned 🙂

    • colbypearce says:

      Thanks Tina. It is a problem the world over. I am looking to get a school here in Adelaide to become a ‘Lighthouse School’ for children who have experienced complex developmental trauma. Look out for updates on how I go!

  2. I think the Hawthorne effect is a really interesting concept. I’ve read about it very briefly in terms of where the idea first came from but don’t know much about any further testing of it since then. I guess you could test this theory to some degree by varying what you do with different schools and seeing if the improved outcomes are still the same or similar (i.e. Is it ‘what you do specifically’ that helps or just the fact of ‘doing something’ at all)? Just a thought…

    • colbypearce says:

      Hi David. Thanks for your comment. I agree with your point. I would like to think that what I do makes a difference, but that is not really the lesson of the Hawthorne Effect . . .. I think that, in my work, there are a combination of factors that make a difference – what I do and the fact that something is being done at all. This applies to all mental health intervention and caregiving, I suspect. Would love to do research more actively but clinical work keeps dragging me back in! Best wishes. Colby

  3. Hello Colby
    I am teaching Functional Skills to in maths to 16+ students. These students have failed to achieve a ‘C’ grade in GCSE maths, hence they are doing the Functional Skills. Most of them are not interested and many of the students are disruptive. You have discussed in the above topic that you have successfully used the Hawthorne effect to remedy student’s behaviour and improve learning satisfaction. I would be grateful if you can share your approach so I can help my students.
    Kind regards

    • colbypearce says:

      Hello Rokon. Sorry for the delay in replying. I do not regularly visit this site and review notifications. The point of the Hawthorne Effect blog is about doing things that make the students feel like you are interested in their welfare. Best wishes.

  4. Rosalie a. Ko says:

    Please recommend journals and books regarding hawthorne effect as a tool to parenting to the millennials.

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