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Letting Go, Staying Close

Strategies for parental involvement in school during the teenage years
UK Parenting

As anyone who has parented a teenager (or been one) knows, adolescence is a time of shifting dynamics — a tightrope negotiation of new roles and greater freedoms. It’s also a time that challenges parents’ desire to stay connected to their child’s learning, as the size and structure of secondary schools close off the pathways that worked in elementary school.

But new research is showing that parental involvement during these years is still essential. It’s just different — like so much else about parenting in adolescence.

Professor Nancy Hill of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and colleagues Ming-Te Wang, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’10,  and Tara Hofkens of the University of Pittsburgh are among the first researchers to explore how family dynamics during adolescence reshape parental involvement in education. What Hill and her colleagues found is that even though communication between home and school declines in middle and high school, another kind of age-appropriate parental involvement becomes important — what they refer to as “academic socialization.” Parents’ use of new strategies during these years — especially efforts to link education to future success, to scaffold their teens’ independence, and to provide structure at home — staves off all manner of problems, including declines in GPA, negative behavior at school, and depressive symptoms across high school.

When parents increase their use of these strategies, students’ outcomes improve (and declines are less steep), especially when paired with the elixir of parental warmth, which enhances the effects of other involvements. The bottom line is that teens whose parents stay connected to their education are more likely to do better academically, behaviorally, and emotionally.

Parenting a Teen: What Works?

In the study, published late last year in Child Development [PDF], Hill and her colleagues looked at five strategies of parental involvement in education and assessed their impact on academic, behavioral, and mental health outcomes for children in middle and high school. They also looked at how ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and levels of parental warmth affected those interactions.

Among the findings:

  • Each of the five strategies of involvement — proactive/preventative communication with teachers, quality of communication between parents and teachers, scaffolding independence (i.e., encouraging kids take responsibility for their schoolwork), providing structure at home, and linking education to future success — protected against declines in GPA across middle and high school. For African American teens, the positive impact of structure at home on GPA was even stronger than for European American teens.
  • Three types of involvement — increased preventative communication, efforts to provide structure at home, and efforts to link education to future success — were associated with decreased problem behaviors for adolescents.
  • Three types of involvement — quality of communication between school and home, linking education to future success, and scaffolding independence — were associated with reducing depressive symptoms. As the study notes, there is already significant evidence of positive associations between some parenting practices (such as warmth) and depressive symptoms, but this is among the first evidence that specific types of parental involvement in education may build emotional resilience.
  • Parental warmth was important in bolstering achievement and staving off problems across all demographics – increasing the benefits gained by providing structure at home.
  • Trajectories of parent involvement were largely consistent across SES, but African Americans reported providing greater levels of structure at home and making greater efforts to link students’ educational pursuits to their future success, while reporting lower levels of scaffolding independence than did their European American counterparts.

The findings make it clear that strategies for parental involvement should change to match the developmental needs of teens, Hill says. Declines in some types of involvement may be developmentally appropriate, and increases in some types of involvement may have negative effects.

“Scaffolding independence and enabling greater autonomy, responsibility, and decision making are central parts of the renegotiation of the parent–adolescent relationship,” says Hill. “This study supports parents in that renegotiation process by showing that these new freedoms are related to good educational outcomes.

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