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Hill: Parents Need to Link Schoolwork to Future Goals

New findings by Harvard Graduate School of Education Visiting Professor Nancy Hill, reported in the May issue of Developmental Psychology, suggest linking schoolwork to future goals may be more effective for middle school children than increased parental involvement.

"Middle school is the time when grades and interest in school decline. Entering puberty, hanging out with friends, wanting distance from parents and longing to make one's own decisions win over listening to parents and studying," Hill says. "Instilling the value of education and linking schoolwork to future goals is what this age group needs to excel in school, more than parents' helping with homework or showing up at school."

As lead researcher on the study, Hill examined 50 studies with more than 50,000 students over a 26-year period looking at what kinds of parent involvement helped children's academic achievement.

While adolescence is a time when analytic thinking, problem-solving, planning and decision-making skills start to increase, teens also begin to internalize goals, beliefs and motivations, and use these to make decisions. However, adolescents still need parental guidance to help provide the link between school and their aspirations for future work, Hill says. Although the study showed that parents' involvement in school events still had a positive effect on adolescents' achievement, it did not rank as highly as parents conveying the importance of academic performance, relating educational goals to occupational aspirations, and discussing learning strategies.

Additionally, helping with homework had mixed results. The study discovered that some students felt parents interfered with their independence or put too much pressure on them or that parents' help was confusing because they didn't use the same strategies as their teachers. Another possible explanation for the negative return on homework "was that those students who needed help with their homework were already doing poorly in school and this showed up as being associated with lower levels of achievement," Hill says.

Ultimately, this kind of involvement can prevent long-term problems and future academic challenges. "Lack of guidance is the chief reason that academically able students do not go to college," Hill says. "Communicating the value of education and offering curriculum advice about what to focus on helps these students plan their long-term goals."

Hill's research focuses on variations in parenting and family socialization practices across ethnic, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood contexts as well as demographic variations in the relations between family dynamics and children's school performance and other developmental outcomes. She is the cofounder of the Study Group on Race, Culture, and Ethnicity, an interdisciplinary group of scientists who develop theory and methodology for defining and understanding the cultural context within diverse families. She will assume her role as Professor of Education at the Ed School on July 1.