By Evanthia Patrikakou
Harvard Family Research Project’s (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarized, researched, written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors, but published by organizations other than HFRP.
Adolescence is an intriguing stage of development filled with many physical, cognitive, social, and emotional changes. At the same time, the increase in academic demands and the complexity of the school structure make the task of academic success for adolescents even more difficult. Because parent involvement has been shown to be a very important positive force in a child’s life (Patrikakou, Weissberg, Redding & Walberg, in press), one would expect that during such a critical and demanding phase the two most important environments in child development, home and school, would increase their collaboration. The opposite though is true: As children progress through school, parent involvement declines dramatically (Zill & Nord, 1994). Several factors contribute to this paradoxical decline: the more complex structure of middle and high schools, the demanding curricula that can be intimidating to parents, and the fewer school outreach efforts to involve parents. Or, is this decline of parent involvement just an indication of an underlying decline of parent influence over adolescents? This digest will explore paths by which parental involvement impacts achievement in high school and beyond.
Data for this investigation were drawn from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), an extensive longitudinal study, which has been constructed to follow a cohort of students from the eighth grade through high school, college, and into the workforce. The first wave of data were collected in 1988 when participants were in eighth grade and they have been resurveyed four times (in 1990, 1992, 1994, and 2000).
The model used to explore parent involvement influences was constructed using theoretical and empirical elements in the broader area of parent influences and academic success. The model consists of three blocks of influence: first, background factors such as gender and prior achievement, and parent involvement factors such as parent expectations and parent-child communication; second, the adolescent’s perceptions of the parent involvement factors; and third, student characteristics such as time spent on homework and the student’s own academic expectations.
The model was tested using structural modeling, a statistical procedure which estimates both direct and indirect effects that different factors have on the outcome under investigation. The two primary outcomes tested were academic achievement in high school (measured by standardized scores) and post-secondary attainment (measured by a 6-point scale ranging from some post-secondary education but no degree attained to Ph.D. or a professional degree attained).
Several of the parent involvement factors measured when the adolescents were in eighth grade had significant and lasting effects on the academic achievement in later grades in high school, as well as on post-secondary attainment. Some of the paths influencing both academic achievement in high school and post-secondary attainment involve parent expectations and include the following:
Parent Expectations Achievement
The further in school parents believed their adolescents would go, the higher the adolescents’ academic achievement.
Parent Expectations Perception of Parent Expectations Student Expectations Achievement
The further in school parents believed their adolescents would go, the clearer the adolescents’ perception of such expectations, the higher their own academic expectations, the higher their academic achievement.
Parent Expectations Perception of Parent Expectations Time Spent on Homework Achievement
The further in school parents believed their adolescents would go, the clearer the adolescents’ perception of such expectations, the more time they spent on homework, the higher their academic achievement.
In agreement with findings from other studies (Catsambis, 2001), high educational expectations constitute a powerful way through which parents can encourage continuously the educational attainments of their adolescents in high school and beyond.
Implications for Teacher Preparation and School Practice
The long-lasting effects that parent involvement variables have on the academic achievement of adolescents and young adults indicate that parent involvement during high school and beyond still remains an important source of guidance and support for the developing individual.
Often, both parents and school personnel misinterpret the adolescents’ desire for autonomy as a developmental barrier to family involvement. However, studies have indicated that such a desire for autonomy serves as a moderator of preferences for certain types of involvement over others, rather than as a barrier to any type of parent involvement (Xu, 2002). Secondary education students believe that they can do better at school if they know that their families are interested in their schoolwork and expect them to succeed, thus challenging the prevalent view that adolescents do not want their parents involved at all.
Also, parent involvement should not be viewed and defined in too narrow terms, such as direct involvement in homework completion, because the increasingly complex demands of the high school curriculum would prohibit many parents from being involved in that way. However, findings reported in this digest indicate a strong form of parent involvement is expectations. Parents who hold high expectations for their teens, communicate clearly and encourage their adolescents to work hard in order to attain them, can make a difference in students’ success.
Teacher Preparation in Family Involvement
Robust teacher preparation for the schools of the 21st century should reflect the multitude of research findings pointing to the importance that parent involvement has in all stages of the educational process. However, only a few teacher preparation institutions have reported offering a course on family involvement, and even then as an elective. Several institutions report having some topic—usually parent-teacher conferences—relevant to parent involvement integrated into another course (Chavkin, in press).
Infused in some other course, or taught separately, pre-service teachers should have a comprehensive picture of the many benefits of a broadly defined parent involvement, as well as be aware of key areas that can make them more effective when working with students and their families (Epstein, 2001; Shartrand, Weiss, Kreider & Lopez, 1997). Especially making teachers who will teach in middle and high schools—where parent involvement is not an expected part of the educational process—aware of the influential effects of parent involvement is essential. For example, required courses about adolescent development should debunk long-standing myths and inform prospective middle and high school teachers of the power that parent involvement has to positively affect achievement. Empowered teachers will empower parents to be involved and expect more from their adolescents. Empowered parents can inspire their teens to do better at school and in life.
School Practices and Family Engagement
Sometimes we take things for granted or we consider them self-evident when we should not. Many parents might be surprised to learn that research shows that they have a strong influence on their teenagers. Simply letting them know is an important first step. Among other things, schools can encourage parents to (a) keep open lines of communication with their teens by maintaining family time to discuss things and share common activities; (b) enforce consistent rules that help adolescents learn the relationship of independence and responsibility; and (c) show that education is important by encouraging homework and reading, knowing the student’s teachers, and supporting post-secondary education planning. In addition to these general recommendations, it is important for schools to provide specific information and suggestions that are aligned with the broader curriculum framework and expand learning from the classroom to home and beyond.
In order to further foster better communication between home and school, teachers should encourage parents to be aware of school policies and the curriculum. Letting parents know about the best ways to communicate with their teen’s teachers will also promote communication as it lifts some of the confusion that the structural complexity of secondary schools creates. In addition to printed communications, there are many fora through which such information can be communicated or reinforced: parent mentoring programs (especially during times of transition to middle and then to high school), family resource centers, the school website, brown bag meetings, or parent-teacher meetings. We should also recognize that school-initiated communication for specific students tends to take place when adolescents misbehave or face academic problems. It is critical to expand child-specific communication to include positive news. Such a strategy will foster a positive climate and make parents more involved and responsive to future school outreach.
Parent involvement continues being a positive and powerful source of influence for the achievement of adolescents and young adults. By encouraging parents to be involved in developmentally appropriate ways, schools can maximize the benefits for all students by gaining an important ally in their effort not to leave children behind.