Middle-class kids are ‘squeaky wheels’

Middle-class parents train their children to be “squeaky wheels” in class, asking teachers for help, a new study finds. That may annoy teachers at time, but it pays off in the long run, concludes sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco of Indiana University Bloomington.

“Middle-class parents were explicitly telling their children to go to the teacher and ask for help, to ‘not take no for an answer,'” Calarco said. Working-class students worried about “bothering” the teacher.

“Working-class kids were most comfortable asking for help when the teacher came to their desk and said, ‘You look like you are having trouble, do you need help?’ Sometimes the working-class students working in a pair would ask their partner to go for help rather than going themselves.

. . . By contrast, middle-class students were more likely to ask repeated questions, and further negotiate for help even if a teacher rejected initial requests.

Middle-class students were more likely to get in trouble with teachers for talking out of turn or disrespect, but they treated reprimands as “joking,” Calarco said. “Middle-class students see help-seeking [behaviors] as opportunities for reward; working-class students see them as opportunities for reprimand.”

Calarco suggested teachers discuss with students how to ask questions.

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  1. I wonder if this carries through to the college years, too. I was recently talking to a student who was having trouble getting into a course that was a prereq for everything else in his major. I told him to talk to the professor and ask to be let in– the professor, not the registrar, not the secretary, not his advisor, but the guy who actually taught the course.

    He was reluctant… he was afraid of annoying the teacher, or of ending up on a departmental blacklist for asking him to waive the rules.

    Meanwhile, I was always taught to go straight to the top. And I regularly did. The worst that ever happened was that someone said ‘no’. But usually, when you’re asking to be allowed to work harder, or to take a certain class with a certain professor, the answer is ‘yes.’ Profs will think badly of you if you try to weasel OUT of work and deadlines, but they’re usually pretty happy if you’re fighting to get INTO their class… especially if you seem like you’re hardworking and an eager student.

    Anyway, it never occurred to me NOT to ask for exceptions when I was in school. But this guy I was talking to (first in family to go to college, and an older student) was afraid that simply asking for an exception could result in expulsion…..

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Do you think it’s solely cultural, or is it possible he’s had actual experience? If the latter, in what venues which differ from those of the middle class?

      • From his statements, it seemed cultural– that it ‘wouldn’t be fair’ for him to ask for special treatment, that it was important to just ‘follow the rules as written.’

        I think some of it might be a lack of knowledge about how universities work? In my experience, professors, academic advisors, the registrar, and whoever wrote the rule book actually have an adversarial relationship because they have different goals.

        So, for instance, the professors tend to get frustrated when ‘policy’ makes it impossible for someone to get into needed prerequisites for his major, because, to them, the difference between 100 kids and 105 kids in a lecture hall is totally unnoticeable.

        Meanwhile, the administrative staff tends to be tied down by rules and numbers.

        I’ve noticed that people who didn’t grow up in ‘college’ families often treat the professors as sages on the pillar– unreachable, untouchable, high above everything…. when those with a more academic background are more likely to realize ‘they’re just people.’

        So… for instance, when I was in college, the working class kids went to the student tutoring center for help…. because that’s what the handbook said to do. The middle class kids never set foot in the place (unless they were working there) and always went straight to the professor, or at the very least, the TA.

        Maybe it’s an inability to tell the difference between stupid rules (i.e., we will make it impossible for you to take this class.) and good rules (i.e. plagiarism = major sanctions?) Maybe, culturally, breaking any of those look like ‘cheating’ to some people? Where kids from a more middle class background realize that the first set of rules are bendable, even if the second aren’t?

        I think the author’s suggestions (basically, teach the MC kids to can it.) are off-the-mark, though. I think it would be better to teach the other kids how to stick up for themselves and approach authority figures.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          It would be useful, if fruitless, to speculate about why the difference. Presumably, the MC know which rules can have exceptions and the LC do not. Or the LC don’t think any rules can have exceptions.
          Why would that be? Is every attempt to bend, escape, ask for exceptions, etc met with a negative experience while for MC the rewards are available?
          Does the LC community blindly obey all laws and rules?
          I know that in various hierarchies, the guys who really go far break rules. But they’re the ones who get away with it. Other guys take chances and don’t. Is there a cognitive ability to discern which breakings will succeed and which will not? Besides the obvious, I mean.

          • Richard: I mistakenly acquired a masters in ed (Notice I don’t say earned) from a well known school. One of the luminaries opined that the reason for this is that lower SES schools are more rule driven and more focused toward skills and rote; while higher SES schools focus on higher order thinking skills and creative application of knowledge. A couple years in the classroom and plenty of friend teachers indicate there’s some truth.

            Maybe nobody ever told them about Grace Hopper:

            It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

          • Hmm… actually, come to think about it, I wonder if it’s because most of the bureaucracy LC kids deal with is the welfare apparatus? The Feds are really unforgiving. If you fail to fill out the right form or wait in the right line or please the low-level administrative employee, well, that’s it.

            Meanwhile, MC kids are more likely to see their parents in situations where going straight to the top works? I.e. if a mechanic screws up your car, you don’t complain to the secretary– you complain to the shop owner. “I need to speak with the manager” is a staple of middle class life. But in LC life, that mean lady sitting at the front desk shuffling papers IS the one you have to placate.

            Meanwhile, in University life, going straight to the person you need to talk to and bypassing the hoops is almost always the fastest way to get results.

            So… their reaction may be complete reasonable, given that there’s no real way around the ‘bureaucratic roadblocks’ most low SES people see every day.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Asking for help and breaking rules are VERY different things.

    I don’t know much about rule-breaking — except that I did a lot of it, and have never noticed any trend along socio-economic lines.

    As for the asking for help, it’s definitely a cultural thing, and it has NOTHING to do with welfare offices, although it does have to do with the fact that in the lower socio-economic classes, there isn’t a lot of give-and-take in commercial situations (nonrefundable, nonechangeable plane tickets, as-is sales, etc.).

    Frankly, though, the biggest part of it is that a lot of us lower class kids are of the (false) belief that things get done by people acting alone, and that to ask for help is to admit that you’re not good enough.

    Believe it or not, watching My Cousin Vinny (“You win all your cases, but with somebody else’s help, right? You win case after case, and then afterwards you have to go up to somebody and you have to say, ‘thank you.’ Oh my God, what a fucking nightmaya!” ) was kind of an eye-opener in this regard.

    • I teach in a bridge program for first generation (mostly low income) college students, and one of the big things it teaches them is to make use of their resources, including faculty and each other. I have seen a real reluctance to admit any confusion to the instructor. And I know one reason the program administrators like having me teach is because my students are much more likely to use my office hours during the year!

  3. cranberry says:

    It would make sense for a school to teach students how to learn: how to research answers, how to tackle problems, and how to elicit help from teachers. As middle class students do better on average in school than working class students, classroom expectations should be explicitly taught.

    Consider KIPP’s student expectations: “I will always work, think, and behave in the best way I know how, and I will do whatever it takes for me and my fellow students to learn. This also means that I will complete all my homework every night, I will call my teachers if I have a problem with the homework or a problem with coming to school, and I will raise my hand and ask questions in class if I do not understand something. – See more at: http://www.kipp.org/our-approach/five-pillars#sthash.94ILVTwf.dpuf

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    Deirdre Mundy: “Maybe it’s an inability to tell the difference between stupid rules (i.e., we will make it impossible for you to take this class.) and good rules (i.e. plagiarism = major sanctions?) Maybe, culturally, breaking any of those look like ‘cheating’ to some people? Where kids from a more middle class background realize that the first set of rules are bendable, even if the second aren’t?”


    I think that this may be part of it. Also, the idea that some things are “more guidelines than actual rules” (even though the two are presented similarly) may be part of it. Or maybe “the rule is here for a *reason* … does that reason apply”. An example:


    When I was in college (several decades ago …) I wanted to take an undergraduate macro-economics class. I did not, however, have the “required” pre-requisite micro-economics class and a I also had no interest in taking the micro-economics class. What I did was that I signed up for the class I wanted and then asked the TA at the first section meeting if it would be alright. If he had said, “no,” I probably would have dropped the class, but he asked me for my major and when I told him what it was he said that I didn’t need the pre-requisite class.


    This never even felt to me like “cheating” or breaking a rule. I figured that the pre-req was there for a reason (to keep kids from signing up for a class that they had no chance of passing) and if the reason didn’t apply then there was no reason for me *NOT* to take the class.


    I’ll note that I had never been explicitly taught to think this way … but had probably soaked this approach up through osmosis.


    Maybe the approach that “the rule is here for a reason, does it apply?” versus “the rule is here so we must follow it no matter what” is part of what is going on.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Mark. The premise is one view is common among the MC and the other among the LC.
      Wonder why.