How parents can help teens succeed

To help teens succeed in school, parents’ role starts at home, concludes a new book, Families, Schools and the Adolescent.

For example, while helping with homework makes a difference for elementary students, it has little impact for middle and high schoolers, concludes Nancy Hill, a Harvard researcher.

Visiting the school, volunteering, and attending school events seemed to be just moderately related to student achievement.

Twice as effective as the things parents did at school were the efforts they made at home, apart from helping with homework, to support schooling. Those included communicating their expectations for their children’s achievement; discussing learning strategies; fostering career aspirations; linking what children were learning in school, or were interested in learning, to outside activities; and making plans for the future. Ms. Hill puts those activities under the category of “academic socialization.”

However, college-educated parents have more impact on their children’s achievement and behavior than less-educated parents; whites have more impact than blacks. The less-educated parents influence their children’s aspirations but not their achievement, leaving them unprepared for college.  Middle schools should explain to parents “the educational pathways that lead from middle school to high school to college,” Hill said.

“They should be saying, ‘Here are the courses you need to take, and if your child’s not ready for those courses, here is what you can do to get your child ready so the pathways lie open.’”

College-prep charter schools for low-income students, like the one in my book, do just that. They make sure students know what skills they need to learn and what classes they need to pass (with an A or B) to make college a realistic choice.  Often, parents can’t help with the academics but they can push their kids to do the work and persist in the face of adversity.

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  1. Is it that the parents do this and have that effect, or is it that college-educated parents tend to send their kids to schools dominated by the other kids of college-educated parents and so the kids all have peers who regard going to college as normal?

    Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption really changed my thinking about a lot of research results.

  2. Preparing for college has to start before middle school. Kids who enter middle school with weak reading and math skills and who lack content knowledge in literature, history, geography and science will have a very hard time catching up in time to do real high-school work and will therefore be unready for college-level work.

    When you build a house, you start with the foundation. In education, k-5 is the foundation and the current house is falling down. Enough kids have parents who know what is needed and make sure the kids get it (at home, Kumon, tutors etc) to allow the schools to pretend that they are doing a decent job. The kids who lack that home support are passed through heterogeneous classrooms doing whole language, invented spelling, journaling, fuzzy math and group projects until they get to middle school and can’t pass the sorting tests and do the work for the honors/college route. The schools carefully avoid asking WHERE/HOW the successful kids were really educated.

  3. I remember hearing from a family member many comments about his secretary. She and her husband had sons slightly younger than his sons and she regularly asked questions about their school, their classes, the books they read, what he and his wife did with them at home etc. They lived in a less affluent area, with few families with college experience and with weaker schools, but they wanted more for their kids. She used to say that if these books, these math drills, these games, these museum trips etc. were good for her boss’s kids, then she and her husband would do the same. Of course, their kids also had two involved parents who expected good manners and hard work, just as their mom displayed in her job.

  4. “The less-educated parents influence their children’s aspirations but not their achievement, leaving them unprepared for college. Middle schools should explain to parents “the educational pathways that lead from middle school to high school to college,” Hill said”

    I agree with the finding, but not the conclusion. Other research has supported that the efforts of middle-class educated parents have more bang for the buck that the efforts of low-income parents–who in fact frequently “try harder.” To move from that reality to one that says yet again “we have to teach low-income parents to do a better job of parenting,” is facile and self-serving.

    We desperately need to change the aspirations of those who are inside the schools. Study after study has revealed that the aspirations of parents and students are higher than those who are teaching–on average. This leads to behaviors that impact achievement. Struggles are allowed to continue unabated longer without intervention. School troubles are less frequently reported to parents with a high probability that the “fix” is perceived to be a home problem. Connections between school and home are weaker and parents are overall less likely to be seen as equal and supportive partners in the education process.

    Hill also says that his advocated parent training should include helping parents understand what classes their students should be taking in order to continue beyond high school. I am sorry, but in my district the allowable role for parents in this regard is perfunctory to say the least. At middle school parents are not even asked into the selection of electives or the assignment into levels when this exists. At high school level the counselor may meet with the student, but in the end, courses are determined by the scheduling computer with parent sign-off several days after the start of the school year. Rocking the boat at this point not only requires tenacity and persistence, but the best case scenario will succeed in garnering a schedule change weeks into the school year. More like a completely revamped schedule will be required–along with the need to make up any work missed in the new classes and the penchant for teachers to say unpleasant things (sometimes within studen earshot) about the kinds of parents who force them into these kinds of situations.


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