With the best of intentions, educators are recommending an infusion of energy directed at increasing parental participation in schools. The federal government has issued documents to help schools organize parent participation programs. Major educational interventions list parental involvement as an important ingredient. Scholarly writing on the topic abounds; new searches produce hundreds of references, many of them guides for schools to help increase parental participation or descriptions of programs implemented in one locality or another. The purpose of this report is to review scientific research on the role of parents’ involvement-at home and in school-in supporting children’s academic achievement. Unfortunately, the mountain of material about parent-school partnerships yields very little if any empirical data about the impact of parental involvement on students’ academic achievement. This review focuses on a different set of research studies: studies of specific parenting practices that empirical data have shown are related to students’ academic achievement. The factors considered here, unlike characteristics such as race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or native language, are “manipulable;” that is, within the control of individual parents to increase or decrease. That parents play a critical role in their children’s learning is without question. In fact, extensive research reviews find that the home environment is among the most important influences on academic performance. At the same time, there are enormous differences in how parents interact with their children at home and how they involve themselves in school-related activities. It is important to understand how, and to what extent, these “parental engagement behaviors” bolster children’s learning before implementing programs to further promote such behaviors. Scientific studies of the relationship of parents’ behavior with academic performance among school-aged children have examined diverse topics, including, for example, parenting styles; the precursors of learning in school; school outcomes among students at risk; the impact of family structure on children’s development; and student resilience. Differences in children’s performance could be explained instead by environmental process variables; that is, specific conditions and parental behaviors related to cognitive functioning. Among their process variables were parents’ roles as language models, parents’ press for achievement, and provisions for general learning. Parents of high-achieving students had distinct styles of interacting with their children; they made continuous attempts to create emotionally supportive home environments and provided reassurance when the youngsters encountered failure. School performance was viewed as being accomplished through regular practice and work. Parents in these homes accepted responsibility for assisting their children to acquire learning strategies as well as a general fund of knowledge. Recent research has focused on specific clusters of behavior, and may give more direct guidance to parents and educators. This research has revealed that parental engagement at home and engagement at school are not equally important to children’s learning; which of these is important depends upon the child’s age. At home, parents undertake specific activities in support of their children’s school work; they interact directly with the child in a number of ways. At school, parents display their interest and concern by attending school functions, by interacting with the teachers, and by playing an active role in the classroom. Certain responsibilities are attached to each of these, even for parents who undertake them with pleasure. Engagement at home requires that time be allocated for school-related interactions. Parents must maintain a level of awareness of the children’s school activities and a degree of competence in interacting with the child and supporting his/her academic work. Engagement at school requires a major commitment of time-time not always available to a single parent or one with full-time employment.
Three dimensions of engagement at home have been consistently found to be associated with school performance:
• Parents actively organizing and monitoring their children’s time.
• Parents helping with homework.
• Parents discussing school matters with their youngsters.
A fourth set of activities is germane particularly for younger children:
• Parents reading to, and being read to, by their children.
The exact form that each of these takes may differ from one family to another, but research shows that each is important. Parents of successful students actively helped them organize their daily and weekly schedules, and checked regularly to see if they were following the routines; other studies have shown that children who are involved in regular “routines” at home tend to have better school performance. It is likely that family routines that establish behavior patterns in the early years are precursors to school behavior patterns and learning throughout the grades. Monitoring children’s use of time is found to be important in all studies of parental engagement. Both school-related and non-school related activities are significant. Research shows that parents of academically successful students make sure they are informed about their children’s activities in school, their school performance, whether or not they have been assigned homework, and make certain that a place and time are allocated for homework. In addition, school performance is better among students whose parents know where they are, whom they are with, when they plan to come home, and exercise reasonable control over non-school activities-television viewing in particular. It is not uncommon for students to be assigned small amounts of homework even in the early grades. Homework offers an opportunity for parents to take a direct role in their children’s schooling. Making certain that homework is completed, discussing the specifics of homework assignments and papers, explaining the assignments, examining and checking the completeness and accuracy of homework, and actively helping children complete assignments have all been found to be related to children’s academic performance. Of course each generation brings home school work with which parents are not familiar. However, even the acts of asking children about the specifics of an assignment, examining completed work, and asking questions about it on a regular basis underscore the importance that parents attach to the acquisition of academic skills. In some instances, parents may serve as tutors to their children. The familiarity of the home environment, in contrast to the structure of the classroom, can become a comfortable setting in which a parent can serve as tutor. A survey of parents of elementary school children found that over 85% spent at least 15 minutes daily tutoring their children when it was requested by the teacher. Of course, tutoring too requires some degree of subject-matter knowledge and some knowledge of teaching strategies.
Children whose parents converse regularly with them-even daily-about school experiences have better academic performance than children who rarely discuss school with their parents. Other research suggests that the nature of parent-child discussions is also an important factor. Parents should be willing to hear about difficulties as well as successes and play a supportive role, encouraging persistence when school work or relationships at school are problematic. Research supports a practice of joint parent-student decision-making when the situation permits, for example, what project to undertake or, in later grades, what courses to take. This level of interest is associated with higher student engagement in school as well as with academic achievement. New studies have shown a positive relationship between a literacy-laden home and students’ school performance. The presence of newspapers, magazines, books, and a computer helps to create a positive home setting. Even when these resources are in short supply, reading to a child and asking the child to read to the parent are crucial activities for the development of literacy. A great deal of research confirms a strong relationship between parents reading to their children and the development of reading proficiency. Further, there is an important connection between children reading to their parents-especially if the parents guide and correct the young readers-and reading achievement. Unfortunately, these interactions are often attenuated. Many households, especially low-income and/or minority homes, have few books in total and even fewer that are appropriate and interesting to children. Children from these homes arrive at school with surprisingly little experience with books-even how to hold them or where to start looking for text. At the same time, many parents feel they lack the skills, or actually do lack the skills, to guide their children’s reading or school work. Some parents who, in their children’s interests, attempt to read with their youngsters, make “beginners” mistakes-for example, reading an entire story just to get through it when part of a story would suffice; focusing so much on mechanics that their child’s motivation is diminished; taking a punitive attitude when the child makes errors.
School-sponsored programs, although not universally available, have been highly successful in improving these situations. At least one program provided books that the children took home twice a week. Better programs have proactive components to recruit parents, improve their literacy skills, overcome obstacles to literacy activities in the home, help parents develop a regular structure for home-based literacy, and convince parents that their children can become successful readers. Most research on parental engagement at home, with the exception of studies of parent-child reading, has involved students in junior high-school grades. There are good reasons to believe that the same parental engagement behaviors are important in the younger years. Psychologists and educators agree on the importance of early years in setting habits that persevere throughout childhood and beyond. Since early dysfunctional behavior tends to be sustained and to increase over the years, the most efficient time to start a child on a positive trajectory is when he/she is young. Household routines involving school work, and discussions of school matters, should be initiated when school begins. Involvement with a child’s homework should occur the first time homework is assigned-often in an earlier grade than parents expect. The opportunity to stay intensively involved in school diminishes as students become increasingly independent and as peers come to have greater influence. At the same time, parents can continue to be in-school participants by visiting school; attending school events, performances, and athletics; and initiating contact with teachers and administrators. It may be surprising that research has not consistently documented links between in-school engagement and student achievement. Teachers may pay more attention to students whose parents are involved in the school which may in turn explain the relationship. Given this research base, it is natural to ask why there is so much press to increase parent-school partnerships. Much has been written about different ways in which parents and schools can work together to facilitate academic outcomes; basic health and safety responsibilities of parents and schools; parents volunteering to assist at school and attending school functions; parental involvement in learning at home, as recommended and supported by school staff; parental involvement in decision making; and encouraging parents and schools to become involved in community organizations that support families and children’s learning. Parents who are involved in some of these activities tend also to be involved in others, but not that these activities are related to children’s school performance. These types of activities require real time commitments-time not always available to a single parent or someone employed full-time. In spite of its appeal, engagement in school has not been shown to have clear academic benefits. A parent who does not have the time for attending school may, out of frustration, not consider more helpful activities that can be undertaken at home. For these reasons, we must ask if it is prudent to emphasize increased parent-school connections at this time. While there can certainly be no harm in promoting parental involvement, and while parents who exhibit one sort of engagement are likely to practice others, the only answer research provides about the unique benefits of engagement in school is that the jury is still out.
Children whose parents are disengaged have the poorest developmental patterns, lacking psychological maturity, social competence, and self-esteem. The problems encountered by these youngsters, in school and out, multiply throughout the school years. The research reviewed here points to specific attitudes and behaviors which, if implemented by parents, are associated with improved academic performance.
• Providing structure-structuring routines at home, coordinating with the school when problems arise.
• Active involvement-monitoring the child’s expenditure of time; teaching and explaining concepts; reviewing homework; providing support when the child experiences difficulties.
Some authors give guidelines for parents who wish to increase their support for their children’s academic work, and many effective programs are available for parents who would like assistance. Although the research evidence on participation in school is mixed, the evidence about parental engagement at home is persuasive. Disengagement is incapacitating. This review did not examine research on home-school partnerships, but one ingredient should be noted. A component of most programs is the school’s “outreach” to encourage parental involvement. Schools can foster the specific behaviors at home shown to promote student performance. This function of parent-school programs, at least, should be encouraged and should be examined in further empirical research.