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When their mothers get involved, low-achieving students improve both their daily and long-term performance in school, a study in APA's Developmental Psychology (Vol. 37, No. 2) finds.

Past research has suggested that a child's sense of autonomy and motivation may be undermined if parents get too involved in his or her homework. But while this may be true for children who are meeting or exceeding standards, it is not the case for "low-achievers," found Eva M. Pomerantz, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and Missa Murry Eaton, a UIUC doctoral student. They defined low achievers as those who are performing on the low end of the continuum, with a grade point average below a B. By getting involved in their children's schoolwork, moms appear to be turning low-achievers into average achievers, says Pomerantz.

The study's sample consisted of 166 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders of all ability levels from two schools in southern Illinois and their mothers. Students' mothers were given a checklist to complete every day for two weeks. It asked whether they helped their child with homework when the child asked and whether they checked their child's homework when their child did not request such assistance. Mothers also completed a questionnaire that measured how much they worried about their children's school performance.

Children were given a similar questionnaire to see how uncertain they felt about how to do well in school. The researchers then compared each child's grades six months prior to the start of the study with his or her grades six months after the study.

"When kids are doing poorly, they also report more uncertainty about how to do well," Pomerantz says. "This seems to be a cue for moms to increase their level of involvement."

For kids who lack persistence, concluded Pomerantz, having parents who are going to sit down with them and assist them in following through with difficult homework will help them.

"Parents are teaching their children the skills necessary to do well. The teacher might not have time for this," says Pomerantz. "By getting involved, parents are saying 'It's important for you to do well. It's important for you to stick to it.'"

Pomerantz also wondered if, by providing such intrusive support, parents were sending a double message: "Gee, I really want to be involved in your life," but also "You can't do this on your own."

To examine this issue, Pomerantz is taking a more in-depth look at the type of help that mothers are giving. Though the data are not in yet, her hypothesis is that simply giving one's child the answer to a problem isn't helpful.

"You're not giving them the skills or the feelings of competence," she says. "You're not even communicating, 'Hey, this is fun and something you should try hard at.'"