In this comprehensive and insightful article on parental involvement in Review of Educational Research, University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign psychology professor Eva Pomerantz and graduate students Elizabeth Moorman and Scott Litwack ask a provocative question: Is more necessarily better? The conventional wisdom is that increasing parents’ involvement in children’s academic lives is something educators should be working on all the time. In fact, say the authors, “more involvement on parents’ part may not always be better for children.” Here’s their argument, framed in response to six questions:
- What is parent involvement and does it make a difference? The researchers define it as “parents’ commitment of resources to the academic arena of children’s lives” and say that it occurs in two places:
- Involvement at school includes general school meetings, attending parent-teacher conferences, initiating contact with teachers, attending school events like open houses and science fairs, volunteering in the school, and taking part in school governance. The research says that this kind of parental involvement often has a positive impact on achievement; it is more common among more economically advantaged parents.
- Involvement at home includes helping children with homework, helping choose a course or a project, talking about what happened in school, encouraging hard work and achievement, and activities not directly related to school work, such as reading to children or visiting a library or museum. Research says that reading to children and taking them on enriching trips helps school achievement, but some studies show that direct help with schoolwork can actually have a negative impact on achievement.
- By what mechanism does parents’ involvement influence children’s achievement? The authors cite numerous studies that say this can happen in two ways:
- It can develop skills because: (a) being involved gives parents insights about what children are learning in school, which allows them to be helpful as they work with their children; (b) being involved helps parents understand their children’s level of achievement; (c) being involved informs parents’ efforts to help their children; and (d) teachers tend to give extra attention to children whose parents are involved.
- It can develop motivation because: (a) parent involvement tells children that school is important and helps develop their intrinsic motivation to do well; (b) parent involvement represents an active strategy for dealing with an external agency (school), which can give children a sense of control over academic performance; and (c) parent involvement can help children become more familiar with school tasks and see themselves as more competent in the academic arena.
- Are schools’ efforts to increase parent involvement working? Several meta-analyses “do not support the benefits of such programs,” write Pomerantz, Moorman, and Litwack. Some studies show that school programs designed to increase parent involvement actually have negative effects on student achievement.
- How can parent involvement have such uneven effects on children’s school achievement? This is the crux of the article. The authors argue that there are four ways in which parents influence their children’s academic development – for good or for ill:
- Controlling versus autonomy-supporting parents – Parents with a controlling style pressure their children toward particular outcomes through commands, directives, or withdrawal of love. Parents with an autonomy-supporting style allow their children to explore their environment, initiate their own behavior, and take an active role in solving their own problems. “There is now a fairly large body of research using a variety of methods consistent with the idea that parents’ autonomy support enhances children’s performance in school, whereas parents’ control inhibits it,” write the authors. “These effects appear to begin early in children’s lives and extend into the adolescent years.” This happens because children whose parents support their autonomy tend to develop better skills and stronger, more internalized motivation in school.
- Ability- versus effort-focused parents – Some parents focus on their children’s innate abilities and intelligence and their performance compared to other children. Other parents focus on how hard their children tried and the importance of enjoyment in learning. Numerous studies show that children do better in school when adults focus on effort rather than innate ability.
- Negative- versus positive-affect parents – Some parents’ interactions with their children around homework and school are tinged with irritation and anger. This can stem from children’s own frustrations and difficulties with school, as well as from parents’ own life stresses. Other parents are successful in keeping their school-related interactions with their children positive and enjoyable. Research indicates that children do better when they experience positive rather than negative affect.
- Negative versus positive beliefs about children’s potential – Some parents have a low opinion of their children’s school abilities, and this affects parents’ level of involvement in academic matters and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other parents have a more positive view of their children’s abilities and/or potential, and their children have a marked advantage.
Pomerantz, Moorman, and Litwack argue that how parents work with their children in these four areas makes a world of difference – and that differences among parents account for the variations in the research on the impact of parent involvement. Involvement, both in school and at home, is beneficial when it supports autonomy, focuses on effort, is delivered with positive affect, and conveys positive beliefs about children’s abilities. Parent involvement pulls down achievement when it is controlling, focuses on innate ability, is delivered with negative affect, and conveys negative beliefs about children’s abilities. The authors say this explains why school-based parent involvement has a more positive impact than home-based involvement: when parents come to school, they are often in an environment where children’s accomplishments are showcased and teachers focus on what parents can do to help. But at home, parents are often dealing with frustrated children and are themselves frustrated that they can’t be more helpful. If they believe they need to control their children, think that ability is fixed, and have doubts about their children’s potential, their interactions may become negative – in which case the four horses of the apocalypse are all riding at once, and the development of children’s skills and motivation is bound to suffer.
- What is the role of children’s previous school experiences? The researchers’ final insight is the most interesting: that children’s competence experiences – their previous school achievement and perceptions of their own ability – play a crucial role in how they respond to parental involvement. Children who are doing well in school and are reasonably confident of their abilities can survive interactions with parents who don’t have the ideal profile with respect to the four traits discussed above. But children who are not doing well in school and have doubts about their academic abilities have a heightened need for parents who encourage their autonomy, focus on effort, have a positive affect, and believe in their potential. The right kind of parental involvement can help these children overcome school deficits and do well. But if these children are unfortunate enough to have the opposite kind of parenting, their school achievement will plummet.
- What is the impact of parent involvement on children’s emotional growth? The authors say the research is mixed and not well developed, but in general, the right kind of parent involvement (see the four traits above) is beneficial to children’s mental health, social functioning, and behavior in school.
- What are the implications of this research for schools? Pomerantz, Moorman, and Litwack end their article with three recommendations:
- First, schools should work to ensure that parents have a sense of control over their children’s development. This is important, say the authors, because of what happens when the opposite is true: “Beginning early on in children’s lives, parents who experience themselves as lacking control over their children engage in poorer quality parenting, especially when they perceive their children as difficult.” What can schools do? Give parents information demonstrating the malleability of children’s ability, and help parents develop the skills they need to help their children with their school work. This should contribute to effective help at home – with upbeat affect.
- Second, reduce the pressure on parents. Studies have shown that parents who feel intense pressure to improve their children’s school performance tend to adopt controlling and negative-affect styles, which can bring out the worst in terms of beliefs about ability and potential. Expectations should be high, but educators should focus parents on the process of learning rather than students’ performance.
- Third, schools should emphasize the importance of parents’ positive affect and positive beliefs about their children’s potential. For example, teachers should assign homework that is interactive, allowing children to share what they are learning in school with their parents. Parent workshops should be upbeat and positive, because that affect may carry over to parents’ interactions with their children. Finally, schools should constantly highlight children’s improvement with respect to fixed standards rather than in comparison to other children.