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How can parents become more effectively involved in their adolescent children's schooling? That was the question almost 150 psychologists, sociologists, researchers, educators and parents tried to answer when they gathered at Duke University in July at the conference, "Family-School Relationships During Adolescence: Linking Interdisciplinary Research and Practice."

Sponsored by Duke, the National Science Foundation and APA, the event brought together researchers and practitioners to gain a better understanding of what type of relationship between parents and schools leads to the best results for older children across all ethnic groups and measures of socioeconomic status.

Social scientists' research points to types of parental involvement that lead to good results in elementary schools, according to conference co-chair Nancy Hill, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Duke University affiliated with Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy. Generally speaking, involved parents know their child's elementary school teachers by name, regularly talk to that teacher about their child's progress or problems, help out with homework and volunteer for school activities like field trips, Hill says.

But when it comes to adolescence, that model doesn't fit, she said. Children develop more independence and typically don't want to see their parents at school during the school day, and middle and high schools are larger and more impersonal.

"There are more courses and more teachers. The schools are bigger and more bureaucratic, and there's less information for parents on how to get involved," Hill says, noting that at the same time, the stakes for parental involvement rise. Students need the right courses if they want to go to college, and parents need to know how to make sure their children are on the right track, she says.

The question of how to keep parents connected is also important in part because the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to develop written policies on involving parents in education, Hill says.

Conference participants heard from speakers such as conference co-chair Ruth Chao, PhD, an associate psychology professor at the University of California-Riverside, and Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey, PhD, chair of the Vanderbilt University psychology and human development department.

Chao presented information from one of her studies in which she and her colleagues followed two classes of ninth-graders through graduation--both classes enrolled students with parents who emigrated from Asia and students with European-American parents.

As Chao describes it, parents with an Asian background tended to take a more "structural" approach to involvement with their children's education--assigning extra homework, buying additional textbooks and tracking college entrance requirements. By contrast, European-American parents had a more "managerial" approach--participating more directly at events at school, monitoring homework and even helping complete homework.

In follow-up longitudinal analyses done since the conference, Chao has noticed a troubling pattern--namely, that parental involvement at ninth grade was less predictive of students' subsequent performance than students' grades at ninth grade were predictive of parents' subsequent involvement.

That is, parents across all ethnic groups become more closely involved and helpful by, for example, providing extra educational materials, when a child initially earns good grades at ninth grade. But they pull back if a child isn't doing so well.

"They see who's doing well in school, and if they're not doing well, they don't bother," Chao says.

Those results indicate that the path to high school success begins during middle school, and that parents need to set the course for success early on, Chao says.

From her review of the involvement literature, Hoover-Dempsey says that adolescents can be influenced by their parents' behavior, including encouragement, reinforcement and modeling. For example, students learn from their parent's own learning style and curiosity about the world, whether it involves discussion, watching a documentary or reading a newspaper.

"If the parent is enjoying learning, it suggests tothe child, 'This is a way people I know live their lives,'" she says.

One practical application for schools might be asking parents to help their middle school children track their assignments with a day planner--a technique used by many parents to manage their own responsibilities, she says.

Further Reading

Conference audio and video clips can be downloaded from www.childandfamilypolicy.duke.edu.