The parent connection

Talia Berkowitz, Marjorie W. Schaeffer, Christopher S. Rozek, Sian L. Beilock and Susan C. Levine consider what kinds of parent support promote children’s academic achievement.

Parents are often unsure what role they should play in supporting their child’s academic development. How much help should they give, and what kind? Partly due to the mixed messages that parents receive, they remain a largely untapped resource when it comes to fostering children’s learning.

Many parents will commiserate over the daily struggle to get their children to sit down and focus on homework. With increasing pressure to participate in extracurricular sports and clubs, and with the widespread availability of video, computer and tablet games – each more enticing than the next – there is seemingly no end to the distractions that pull children away from the crumpled-up assignments sitting at the bottom of their book bags. This constant battle can be overwhelming, leading to nightly bouts of sweat and tears, from both parents and children alike.

Yet, encouraging and helping children to complete their homework is just one of the ways that parents can be involved in their education. Perhaps because parents are a particularly motivated group when it comes to promoting their offspring’s learning, parental involvement has long been considered a crucial part of student achievement and school reform. Despite this, parents may not know where to start.

Going back to our homework example, some parents might opt to disengage completely, leaving their children to fend for themselves, to take responsibility. Others attempt to take firm control of the situation, implementing rules and routines that dictate when and for how long children must attend to their homework assignments versus competing activities. Many others may fall somewhere in between, attempting to make the homework experience more pleasant or rewarding, or using the opportunity to share in a joint learning experience with their children.

Even when things are going well, the type of support and praise that parents provide can differ considerably and influence children’s persistence and motivation. For example, when a child is struggling with a maths problem, some parents may show the child how to do it while others might ask the child leading questions that allow the child to solve the problem on their own. And with each of these different approaches, children pick up on intended and unintended messages from parents about their own abilities and self-efficacy, and about the importance of school and education – all of which can have long-term effects on their academic interests and achievement.

Factors such as parents’ own childhood experiences, time constraints and a lack of readily accessible guidelines lead many parents to rely on their own intuition in navigating the homework-help terrain. However, information from research on parent engagement could help guide parents’ decisions on how to help and support their children’s academic achievement. In this review, we focus on what the research literature tells us about how parents can best support their children so that they can be successful both academically and in life beyond school. We think about what it means to be an involved parent and about the types of parental involvement that are actually beneficial to children – What activities best support children’s learning? Are there activities and ways of interacting that should be avoided? And what benefits do children gain from different types of parental involvement? To answer these questions, we first address what constitutes parental involvement in children’s academic pursuits, and how this changes over the course of a child’s development. From there, we attempt to distil what research tells us about creating the kinds of environments that are supportive of children’s internal motivation to learn and their academic achievement.

Across the years    
Parents can seek to become involved in their children’s education via a myriad of activities over the course of their children’s lives. They may be categorised as:
•    activities that relate directly to the school environment (e.g. attending teacher conferences, chaperoning school trips, or watching a school play);
•    activities that relate directly to children’s academic learning (e.g. conversations and experiences that promote language or mathematical concepts); and/or
•    activities that influence children’s ideas, values and beliefs about the importance of learning and education.

Such activities may change drastically over the years.

Whether they realise it or not, parents are engaging their children in activities that promote academic learning in maths and science, as well as in language and literacy, well before they send them off to their first day of pre-school or kindergarten. As many researchers have found, the amount of language and cognitive input parents provide (e.g. talking to children, talking about number and spatial concepts, playing with toys and games, etc.) predicts children’s later academic outcomes. For example, the overall quantity of parent talk, the richness of the vocabulary they use, and the complexity of their sentence structure are important for children’s language development and promote the development of processing skills that facilitate language and reading skills (Hart & Risley, 1995; Huttenlocher et al., 2002; Weisleder & Fernald, 2013). With respect to mathematics, Levine and colleagues (2010, 2011) found that the amount of number talk (e.g. counting, labelling the number of items in a set, etc.) that parents provided when their children were between the ages of 14 and 30 months predicted their children’s understanding of number words (e.g. the meanings of ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’, etc.) when their children were 46 months old. Furthermore, the quality of those interactions also mattered: for example, counting present sets (i.e. objects that were in front of the child) was a better predictor of children’s understanding of numbers at age four than was talk about sets that were not present, such as just reciting the count list (e.g. counting from 1 to 10).

Parents should also recognise that at every stage of their child’s development, they convey important messages about their own attitudes and beliefs. Research has shown that children learn from simply observing how others act in the world. Children are constantly watching their parents and what they do, learning about what to implicitly value along the way. For example, frequently reading in a child’s presence can promote the child’s own interest in reading, while a trip to the science museum can send the message that learning science is both fun and important. Research led by Sandra Simpkins in 2012 suggested that when parents take the time to model the values they wish to instil in their children, their children are more likely to adopt and act on those values on their own.

Furthermore, parents can teach their children important behavioural lessons and non- cognitive skills through playing games. Studies by Kelly Fisher, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and others show that skills such as turn-taking, learning how to cope with losing and disappointment, rule-following and perseverance are just some of the crucial skills that children can learn through play. More explicit statements about what a parent likes and dislikes can also have effects on children’s attitudes. If parents frequently state that they ‘are not a maths person’, this can lead the child to believe that maths is not for them either. Children may also be able to pick up on more implicit messages by observing differences in the toys that are provided to girls versus boys (e.g. blocks and Lego are more frequently bought for boys).

As children start school, the landscape of parental involvement begins to shift and adapt. Schools and teachers typically take on more responsibility for teaching children new ideas and concepts. As a result, parents may incorrectly see themselves as playing a lesser, peripheral role in their children’s education. However, even once formal schooling begins, parents continue to influence children’s learning and achievement in crucial ways.

The types of support that parents provide for their children during the school years have been categorised in various ways. One notable framework is the primary location in which the activity occurs (for example, Joyce Epstein has discussed school versus home). However, other theories highlight that while parents’ actions (such as helping with homework, trips to the library and volunteering at school) are important, their attitudes and expectations about school and education are of particular significance as well. For example, in their 1994 ‘Multidimensional Conceptualization and Motivational Model’ of parental involvement, Wendy Grolnick and Maria Slowiaczek distinguished between activities that involve active communication and the maintenance of connections between home and school (e.g. volunteering at school or helping with homework), activities through which parents expose children to educationally stimulating experiences (e.g. trips to the library, museums, reading activities), and more personal involvement, where the attitudes and expectations that parents have about school and education convey value and utility of education (e.g. Hyde et al., 2016). Frameworks such as these provide useful ways to think about parental involvement, and important ways to examine which kinds of parental involvement matter most for child outcomes.

What types of parental involvement promote learning?
Recent work has started to explore what types of parental involvement are most helpful to children’s academic outcomes rather than considering involvement more globally (Grolnick, 2016). Research most strongly supports the link between activities that fall under the umbrella of personal involvement with later academic achievement, suggesting that parental involvement is particularly important because of the expectations and values for educational achievement that are conveyed to children through a parent’s actions.

Nancy Hill and Diana Tyson’s 2009 paper in Developmental Psychology explored the usefulness of different types of parental involvement. While they found no effects of school-based involvement and only moderate effects of home-based involvement, the strongest effects were related to academic socialisation, which encompasses personal involvement, to convey the value of learning, explaining how children’s interests connect to what they are learning, etc. Being a parent who is invested in a child’s academic success highlights the value of learning to children, and fosters children’s own engagement with academics (Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994; Hill & Tyson, 2009; Rozek et al., 2017). In addition to parental value of education and learning, parental expectations for their child’s academic success are also important. For example, Lydia DeFlorio and Amber Beliakoff’s 2015 study found that families from higher SES backgrounds tend to hold higher expectations for their children’s academic success than parents from lower SES backgrounds by the time their children are five, and these expectations predict children’s math achievement.

Parental involvement can be most beneficial when parents engage in activities that encourage children’s independent problem-solving skills. When parents do this, children’s autonomy as problem solvers is reinforced, and children develop intrinsic motivation to complete homework on their own (as shown in a 2011 study led by Idit Katz). Parents may be more likely to have the time and nuanced understanding of their child’s needs than teachers, enabling them to provide help that is tailored to a child’s needs and abilities (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001). Furthermore, having an involved parent can be a validating experience for the child. Parents’ support can convey to children that they are competent and of worth, leading to the development of self-beliefs that are crucial for achievement (Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994; Jacobs & Eccles, 2000).

So it seems that parental involvement is influential both because it supports the child, reinforcing concepts and skills that are learned in school, and because it conveys messages about the importance and value of what is being learned in school. As a result, especially as children get older, parents maintain a critical role in their children’s achievement through both of these pathways. However, parental involvement can also be a double-edged sword, risking detrimental effects if not wielded properly. Authoritative or intrusive behaviours (e.g. monitoring, controlling and providing unsolicited help, doing the work for a child), lead to decreased motivation in children, and can lead to negative effects on academic achievement (e.g. Cooper et al., 2000; Pomerantz et al., 2007). Further, when parents do not understand the homework materials themselves, their attempts to explain or guide their children through their work may lead to confusion and frustration on the part of the child. If parents feel ill-equipped to help their child with their homework, they should remember that they can find other ways to remain involved and promote achievement, such as making sure that out-of-school activities provide constructive learning experiences, praising their children in ways that promote a growth mindset and intrinsic motivation, and modelling behaviours that demonstrates the importance and value of learning, such as becoming a co-learner with the child as they try to figure out a problem

Some of our unpublished research suggests that intrusive parent behaviours may be especially detrimental for children who hold an entity framework (i.e. the belief that intelligence is fixed) as compared to those who have an incremental framework (i.e. the belief that their intelligence is malleable and can grow through effort). Parents may be more effective in helping their children when they provide process praise (‘Good job! You worked hard on that problem.’) than when they provide person praise (‘Good job! You’re really smart in maths!’). Process praise boosts children’s intrinsic motivation and encourages a growth mindset, which is associated with improved persistence and academic performance (Cimpian et al., 2007; Gunderson et al., 2013). In addition, recent research led by Chris Rozek shows that when parents talk to their children about how various subjects such as maths, science and literature fit into their own lives (e.g. highlighting the aspects of baking that relate to maths and chemistry), this promotes children’s achievement.

The explicit and implicit messages parents convey about the material being taught in school also influence children’s motivation and achievement. Parents should take care not to express their own disengagement from particular school subjects (e.g. ‘I’m not a maths person’), and avoid sending messages that lessons taught in school are a waste of time or unimportant (e.g. ‘You’ll never use this’). These negative attitudes and beliefs are picked up by children and can negatively impact their interest in particular subjects and their performance in school (Hyde et al., 2016). In fact, research from our own labs has shown that for parents who feel fear and apprehension about maths (i.e. maths anxiety), providing frequent maths help can decrease children’s maths learning compared to similar anxious parents who help with maths less frequently (Maloney et al., 2015).

This is not to say that parents who are anxious about maths (or any other subject) should completely avoid engaging with their child around that subject. Rather, these parents need support to help improve the quality of their interactions with their children about maths. With this help, maths anxious parents can effectively support their children’s maths learning. For example, we showed that the children of maths anxious parents learn as much maths over the school year as the children of non-maths anxious parents when parents and children are given a maths app that fosters engaging parent–child maths problem solving (Berkowitz et al., 2015).

Finally, it is also important to consider a parent’s motivation for helping their child. As Wendy Grolnick points out, the helpfulness of parental involvement is largely dependent on the reasons parents become involved in the first place. If parents are pushed into assisting their child, involvement may increase temporarily, but then is rarely sustained and so will have minimal effects. Furthermore, parents who feel forced to help their children with homework are more likely to be unhappy while doing so, which can translate into a negative interaction for the child. Indeed, this may explain in part why a 2013 review from Beng Huat See and Stephen Gorard  found mixed results when it came to the efficacy and success of interventions that encourage parental involvement.

Suggestions for moving forward
It is clear that a variety of parent–child interaction is crucial to a child’s academic success. However, each interactive avenue is also quite tenuous, and the quality and quantity of interaction must be carefully tailored to best support the child’s development, and to allow the parent to interact to the best of his or her own abilities.

Our main message is that parents should not feel alone as they search for ways to become more effectively involved in their children’s academic lives. Research has found that children often do better in school when families, schools and community groups work together to support learning. To do so, schools can attempt to outline the expectations they have of parents and can provide regular programmes that support parent–child involvement. Parents should be encouraged to talk to their children about school and to convey the expectation that children will perform well in school, and teachers can facilitate this by providing parents with suggestions for the best ways to talk to children about learning.

Currently, not all parents have access to the same resources to help their children. Differences in parental involvement are often related to race and parent education level – minority parents are less likely to be involved in their children’s education, while higher levels of parental education are highly correlated with levels of parental involvement in children’s schooling. However, it is important to remember that these variables (e.g. income, education and ethnicity) do not necessarily determine the value that parents put on education or their desire to be involved and have their children succeed (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997). Even when parents do have the time and resources to be more engaged with their child’s education, their involvement can backfire if not properly implemented. With a little help and guidance, supported by improved research–practitioner–parent partnerships, all parents can more effectively foster their children’s intrinsic motivation to learn and provide the kinds of evidence-based support that have been shown to foster children’s academic success.

- Talia Berkowitz, Marjorie W. Schaeffer, Christopher S. Rozek, Sian L. Beilock and Susan C. Levine are in the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago
[email protected]

Author note: We thank the Heising-Simons Foundation Development and Reseach in Early Mathematics Education (DREME) network (support to Susan C. Levine) and the Overdeck Family Foundation (grant to Susan C. Levine and Sian L. Beilock) for support of this work.

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