Parents: What works in helping kids?

  • Nicholas Alchin
  • 2018-03-03

Decades of research generally support the conclusion that children do better at school when their parents are involved in their education. However, exactly what form of involvement is most effective has been much disputed. Is active supervision of homework the key? Attendance at school functions? Rewards for high grades? Rewards for effort? Punishment for failure? A rich cultural life around museums, theatre, music, art? Out of school tuition? With so many variables – and differing cultural expectations – it is hard for parents (whose own children of course form a very small sample size) to know what works and what doesn’t.

But the research is gradually coming in; and it shows that some practices are more effective than others. The picture is not what you might expect. Researchers Robinson and Harris (2014) looked at academic attainment as related to specific parental involvements. It turns out that the two seem to be unrelated in 53% of the 1,556 cases they examined; which is to say that most actions we take as parents seem to have no effect! Even more worryingly, there were more negative associations (27%) between parental involvement and achievement than positive associations (20%). Even if this research is somewhat off the mark, it does suggest that there is a lot of wasted effort going on. This counter-intuitive finding is in line with a series of recent Singaporean studies which show that children who received tuition in Maths, English and Science actually scored worse than those that did not – even after adjusting for differences in students’ age, gender, home language, family structure, schools, parents’ education levels and employment status! Coming from one of the tuition capitals of the world, this is a fascinating finding, and one that we should pay close attention too (see here for why tuition can be harmful).

All this, and further research from Jaynes (2011), suggests that “traditional measures of parental involvement fail to capture the fundamental ways in which parents actually help their children academically”, and goes on to suggest “that parents focus on only two factors: messages and life space.”

Messages: Communicating high expectations. This seems so obvious – most parents express that education is important. But some parents are able to make this message more central to their children’s own academic identities, so that they come to internalize high aspirations for themselves. It’s probably easier to explain what this is not. It’s not nagging about homework, which “gets the job done, but doesn’t improve achievement”; because when schoolwork is a chore to be finished under duress, it’s about parental wishes, not internal student identity. As such, it is of little lasting value. Nor can we communicate high expectations by simply talking about school; dinner table conversations of ‘so what did you do today?’ have little impact on student success; in fact, one ex-student in the research noted “her parents rarely talked to [her] about school, did not help with homework, and did not read to [her]. Despite their lack of involvement, however, her parents had high expectations and [she] knew from an early age that doing well in school was important.”

So should we, as parents, communicate high expectations? It turns out that the mechanism here is subtle. Harris and Robinson suggest not thou-shalt-go-to-college edicts, but rather, as “everyday enforcement of the value of education, sacrifice, and hard work that students come to internalize as high aspirations for themselves.” More precisely, they argue (persuasively, to my mind) that “… certain aspects of their [family life] reinforce the importance… [of] education or living a “life of the mind”: having a home office, regularly reading [high quality] media, hosting occasional dinner parties, effortlessly (and even obliviously) engaging in (or enacting) critical thinking in common everyday discussions”. This is subtle, far reaching, and is the causation that underpins much of the well-known correlations between socio-economic status and academic attainment. We need to take careful note here.

Life-Space: Creating a high-quality learning environment. It is obvious that parents have a massive say on the physical home environment. And the key is what we as parents do, not what we say. Harris and Robinson again: “…each decision as to whether to have a television in a child’s bedroom, whether to put a desk in the child’s bedroom or in a more common area, or whether to have bookshelves in the living room or a home office communicates nonverbally something about the importance of learning.” There’s probably even more to it than that – are the children’s desks spacious, well lit with comfortable chairs? I have taken the expensive – but I hope valuable – step of allowing my kids to buy any books they want, as long as they tell me what the books are (easy on a family kindle account), and guarantee they will read them if I buy them. A small step, but I have seen the amount they read shoot through the roof. I also make sure my kids see me read each day. Small things, but powerful ones.

These two themes suggest that as parents, we can feel a little liberated in how we support our kids. Harris and Robinson asked a group of successful ex-students, “Did any of your parents read books to you when you were a child, attend PTA meetings, regularly converse with your teachers, or discuss college plans with you?” Many students shook their heads, and a male student recalled, ‘My parents didn’t do any of those things with me.’” That’s not to say that we shouldn’t do these things, of course, but to focus on specific tasks and behaviours misses the overall point. The deeper, more profound parenting come from the tens of thousands of daily interactions – in conversation, and in unspoken environmental ways.