Usable Knowledge

• Parents' strategies for staying involved in their children's education need to keep pace with the developmental changes that happen in the middle school years.

• Academic socialization includes setting expectations around homework, organization, and grades in a way that gives students a chance to take responsibility for their own success.

• Parental involvement that enhances students' understanding of the consequences and purposes of their actions without compromising their developing sense of autonomy has more impact than school-based and home-based parental involvement.

The Parental Involvement Puzzle

By Deborah Blagg 10/30/2009 3:28 PM EST | 10 Comments

It’s 10 o’clock on a Thursday night. Your eighth-grade son has been sitting at the computer for two hours, struggling with a conclusion to his essay on To Kill a Mockingbird. The assignment, which he’s known about for a month, is due first thing tomorrow.

In a situation like this, well-meaning parents — especially those accustomed to helping with time management, organization, and homework when their children were in elementary school — may be tempted to jump in with unsolicited advice or assistance. But according to published in Families, School, and the Adolescent, a new book coedited by Professor Nancy Hill, parents who want to help their secondary school children stay on track academically may need to shift strategic gears.

“To be effective,” says Hill, a leading scholar on and adolescent achievement, “parents’ strategies for staying involved in their children’s education need to keep pace with the developmental changes that happen in the middle school years. They also need to address the changing nature of family-school relations as the school environment gets bigger and more bureaucratic.”

In a previous study, Hill followed the progress of students from the 7th grade through the 11th grade, tracking the impact of on variables such as behavior, achievement, and occupational and educational goals. That study revealed an unexpected outcome. While all students whose parents were actively involved in their education in the 7th grade had higher goals and aspirations as 11th-graders, parents who were college graduates had a stronger impact on school behavior and grades, which are the prerequisites of reaching students’ goals. Parents who did not have college degrees were successful in instilling goals for upward mobility, but not in improving behavior and achievement.

“For students whose parents had college degrees, their parents’ involvement in the seventh grade set forth a chain of reactions that improved their school behavior from teachers’ perspectives in the eighth grade, which in turn increased their grades and test scores in the ninth grade,” Hill reports. “And grades and test scores in the ninth grade mapped on beautifully to occupational and educational goals.”

The study led Hill, an expert on variations in parenting and family socialization practices across ethnic, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood contexts, to hypothesize that college-educated and noncollege-educated parents must interact with their children’s education in qualitatively different ways. “The results made me curious,” Hill notes. “I wondered what these parents were doing. If we could identify the most effective strategies for parental involvement for middle and high school, then schools might develop programs and policies that would give all parents better tools to help their children succeed.”

Across-the-board declines in achievement in middle school have been well documented, and the challenges associated with parenting and teaching students who are developing their own sense of autonomy and independence have given rise to a large body of research. But there hadn’t yet been a systematic review of existing studies to determine which types of parental involvement yield the best outcomes for adolescents’ achievement. So Hill and doctoral student Diana Tyson undertook a meta-analysis of more than 50 studies of parental involvement in middle school. “The beauty of a meta-analysis is that you can look at all of the existing studies and calculate the strength of the relationship between one variable and another, taking into account variations in sample size, region of a country, quality of the study, and other factors,” Hill relates. The results of this study were published this past spring in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Hill and Tyson hypothesized that parental involvement that enhances students’ understanding of the consequences and purposes of their actions without compromising their developing sense of autonomy would have the strongest positive relation to achievement outcomes. They believed that school-based and home-based parental involvement — such as helping with an essay on To Kill a Mockingbird — would have less impact. And, in fact, that is what their research showed.

“We found that school-based parental activities, such as volunteering or participating in PTA meetings, had a modest but positive relationship to achievement,” Hill reports. “Likewise, parent-led activities outside of school, such as taking kids to the library or museums, also had a somewhat positive relationship, with the exception of homework help,” she emphasizes, “which actually had a negative impact.”

By far the most useful engagement parents can have, according to Hill’s analysis, is in academic socialization, which the researchers define as linking what children learn in school to goals and interests. “Some parents are better than others at helping their children make the connection between middle school achievement and post-high school plans,” Hill observes. “Our study shows that helping children understand the value and utility of education correlates well with higher achievement levels in middle school and high school.”

Academic socialization includes setting expectations around homework, organization, and grades in a way that gives students a chance to take responsibility for their own success. In focus groups the researchers ran concurrently with the meta-analysis, some parents talked about their belief that children learn from failure. “We call it scaffolding independence,” Hill explains. “Don’t jump in and help your children right away. Let them try to find their own solutions first. If you don’t bring their forgotten lunch to school today, they will be more likely to remember it tomorrow.”

Analysis of the focus group data will be completed next year, but Hill has already taken note of several strategies that stand out. “Parents across several groups mentioned signing their children up for extracurricular activities as a way to scaffold time management,” she reports. “If they have a soccer game Tuesday evening, students realize they will need to finish homework due on Wednesday ahead of time.” She also was struck by the number of parents who said they required their children to complete extra schoolwork, either through academic enrichment programs, camps, tutoring, or replacing computer- and TV-time with reading. “These parents are orchestrating their children’s free time in a purposeful, goal-driven way,” Hill notes.

In terms of policy measures that might enhance the impact of parents’ efforts, the research by Hill and other chapter authors in Families, Schools, and the Adolescent points to the importance of strengthening and broadening the content of school-parent communication. “No Child Left Behind talks about parental involvement in terms of communication and accountability,” Hill comments. “But, too often, teacher-parent communication is problem-driven. If parents could receive more information about their children’s strengths and about curriculum content, they would be better equipped to offer effective guidance and to reinforce classroom learning in real world situations.”

Hill says that schools need to be sure that parents, especially those who didn’t attend college themselves, realize that middle school courses can open or narrow their children’s choices further down the line. “In order to coach their children effectively,” says Hill, “parents need to understand the rules of the game.”

The study’s focus groups confirmed one other essential point for parents and school leaders to keep in mind. “It’s a myth that middle school and high school students don’t want their parents to be involved in their school lives,” Hill states. “Teens don’t necessarily want their parents to check their book bags or chaperone
school field trips, but talk to them about their strengths, potential, and goals, and you’ll see their faces light up.”

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  • Viviana

    Students at this age are so hard to manage. And also in China, parents dont have enough time to communicate, Esp these did not gain college degree’s.I am wondering how to communicate with parents and help them with student-parent conversation. That will be an interesting topic.

  • Hery Yanto The

    My experience taught on private senior high school for 10 years gave me opportunities to learn from the students who has problems with learning at school. I can see clearly the potential of what you mentioned. When dealing with students with problems in learning (bad attitudes, sleepy in class, likes to bother their friends in class, lazy on doing homework, etc.), I find most of these students have communication problems with their parents. Students with problems like this usually have a family situation as follows:
    (1) Not living with parents in one house.
    (2) Living with parents, but parents rarely at home.
    (3) Having a single parent who is very busy with work.
    (4) Parents have a crisis in marriage.
    (5) Parents get divorce.
    Almost all children identified by teachers in the situation having problems on learning caused by these factors. Extraordinary case sometime appear, but it is rarely, such as has diability or gifted childs. I became interested in trying to assess this issue more deeply.
    Hery – UH Manoa ETEC student’s and SMA Gembala Baik teacher

  • Zyad Meriwether

    I agree with Professor Hill. Parent involvement in their children’s lives and education is critical to their success. My mother is a special education teacher and all through out my childhood, and even now as an adult in college, she checks me to make sure that I am doing well in my classes. My mother consistently instills in me the importance of a good education and leadership goals.

  • Ramona Davenport Rogers

    I am a first-generation (paternal and maternal) college graduate. I was obviously gifted,but never encouraged to excel by teachers in high school. Therefore,upon graduation, I went to the same (local,but very good)college my older siblings had chosen,and “discovered” there an interest in the sciences.
    My father was one of the most intelligent men I have ever known,but was born to a very poor mother in the Jim Crow South. He was educated using Rejected books from the “Other”school. Teachers there dedicated their lives to elevating students and pushing them out of that environment. They expected students to work hard and be respectful,no matter their lot in life. And they did not complain about having to use REJECTED books in order to do so. He thankfully joined the military in order to brighten his future.
    I graduated with a Degree in BioSci,even though I never took it in high school,nor did I take Chemistry,nor math beyond geometry.
    I am my own worst example of a student who slipped under the radar of teachers and counselors who should have recognized my potential.
    Therefore,with my own children, I had to fight the urge to hover,because I was determined for them not to be underachievers. I also recognized that I needed to be my child’s biggest advocate. That is a HUGE responsibility. My son,by the way is a Pre-Law student at Harvard.
    I am unsettled by the number of very bright students in America who create disturbances in class out of boredom, and who are diamonds in the rough. My daughter graduated from Spelman,and is in her third school year teaching in an inner-city school. She has poured her life and soul into her students and achieved an astounding 97% pass rate for her students on state testing last year. I do call it HER achievement,because she has adoped the mantra”I am not teaching if my students are not learning”!
    Forgive me for rambling. Education is my passion,and I get emotional when I consider how it can make or break a human being.
    Ramona Davenport Rogers,
    Very proud mum

  • Ramona Davenport Rogers

    I forgot to mention that my daughter is with Teach For America, and teaching English and Language Arts in an inner-city school. Among her students’ parents are drug dealers,strippers, prostitutes, and such. (We live in a middle-class neighborhood near Santa Barbara California) She does house visits,realizing that her job is not to judge the lifestyle of her students’ parents,but it is to EDUCATE their children.
    Commensurate with their ability, she expects the same from each student,having heard from me the examples from the segregated schools my father attended. To expect anything less than the best from a student,and accepting less based on circumstances, does not serve in the students’ best interest.
    She has discovered that the majority want the absolute best for their children,will do what she asks to hold their student accountable, and most do not want their children to repeat their lifestyle. They just need more direction and assistance from the teacher in order to support the child.And the students need more intensive help both with their English skills and social skills. The job is very hands-on and not for the faint of heart:-).
    On the other hand,I can tell you that it was one of my proudest moments as a mother when my daughter called with her classes’ test results!
    Since we (the American tax-payer) own the public schools,we have a stake and should be insisting that the product we get(an educated populace)is one of good quality. We must continue trying to get this right. We cannot afford as a society to continue accepting anything less.
    Ramona Davenport Rogers,
    Very Proud Mum

  • Shana Chambers

    Dr. Hill,
    This was a very interesting study and hit home. I came from a working class family that desired to provide the social capital necessary for navigating integrated ( racial/socioeconomic) school settings. However, there really are “snobs” in some settings and my family expereinced quite a bit of backlash while attempting to be involved parents. The “prostitutes and drugdealers” the previous post spoke of were infact, my family trying to participate but unfortunately being seen a those titles and nothing more. I hope that in efforts to really give a hand up to all students and sincerely encourage parental participation some of the people blocking the progress will open up their minds and realize that there is genius and valuable input even by those “prostitutes and drugdealers” HOLLA’!!

  • Ramona Davenport Rogers

    Indeed, the education of this generation is a group effort. We all must involve ourselves in assuring the viability of our education system.
    Most parents,regardless of their lot in life, want the very best for their children. Teachers really do set the pace and can be influential in establishing healthy partnerships with parents. Unfortunately we could be better in that area.
    I do not agree that it takes a village to raise a child;I believe that job belongs to the parents,with support from the village.

  • Colombia: Javier Alberto Carvajal Jaramillo

    Strongly agree with this statement of Professor Hill, since 1996 I started my teaching practice in a public elementary school in Colombia now continued in the same institution, but I’m in the upper grades of high school and I have noticed great changes in these students. In terms of school relationships to help parents, school success, fades in as the student assumes autonomy (responsible or not responsible), you could say old. In the garden. Parents want to be all the time knowing what happens to your baby and the institution has no strategies to involve the parent in the educational process. Here’s a reason and not emotion in parent education, because they are academics or not, are within the expectation of learning from your baby. In this I have some thoughts and observations I have developed during this time (I think there is space). But thinking in this emotional landscape by the parent, two things can happen, one that the parent accompanying the enjoyment of their child and engage seriously in the process from the first stage (first-time parents found a way to be accompanying his son and experienced parents will see a new way to accompany their children and maintaining a permanent dialogue through a common interest.), and the other in the process see an opportunity to approach your child through a dialogue intended.
    But what are those tools which will allow the approach of a parent? In this process, I see a very big difficulty is the question the teacher, we should prosecute him for this would be well-targeted support from the parent and not take it as a nuisance. In Colombia in paid or private education, parents are involved and claim, any error, even the smallest flaw, for reporting to teachers facing directives lack the training. In public education this phenomenon occurs not only parents worry when you know who have lost their courses or if they have a behavioral problem, so that only attend when called. Responding to the question of tools from the emotion to the parents they can be part of the activities and curriculum development through free Web 2.0 tools, I have developed two of these, based on RSS, within a social network and mobile . Parents are informed of activities, challenges and achievements. This via the Internet or your cell phone when they want it. They’re very easy to use, to generate expectation of participation.

  • Emma Roads

    Being parents has never been as difficult as it is today – especially when both the mother and father work outside the home. There is no single rule as to how to help your child achieve his goals or even help him set targets. Each child is unique and hence many a times you just have to listen to your conscience when it comes to disciplining or channelizing your child’s aptitudes.Teachers Resources helped me a lot in guiding my 8th grader to do his best in academics as well as non-academic activities.

  • Hope

    I think this is one of the factors that explain why KIPP: GCP (Gaston, NC) works. As early as 5th grade, students and parents in this rural community are academically socialized. There is a marked difference between the level of expectations around homework, organization, grades, and student responsibility in this middle school when compared to many neighboring public schools. Parents of GCP students accept this structure and commit to certain behaviors, including relinguishing their “helicopter mom” (or dad) pilot license. While there is a mix of college educated parents and parents without post secondary education, not all students enter the school from the same trajectory. Yet, they ALL graduate at some point and are accepted into college. This notion of academic socialization plays a big role.

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