Are involved parents scoring an own goal?

A controversial study by US academics suggests that taking an interest in your child's schoolwork may not be an unqualified good

Most schools communicate regularly with parents. They hold open evenings, write letters and make phone calls home. The rationale is clear: parental involvement is key to academic success and is therefore encouraged. And a lot of research on the topic supports this view.

But a book published earlier this year by US academics concludes that this message is misguided. According to the authors of The Broken Compass, not only does parental involvement not have all the positive benefits we have come to expect, it can actually be detrimental to a child's progress.

Research by sociology professors Keith Robinson of the University of Texas at Austin and Angel Harris of Duke University suggests that only 15 to 20 per cent of parental involvement has a positive impact, 30 per cent is negative and the remainder is statistically insignificant.

The study is a substantial one: using data from the US National Center for Education Statistics derived from student surveys and family questionnaires, the researchers gathered more than 30 years' worth of information and examined the impact of more than 60 different kinds of parental involvement, from help with homework to meetings with class teachers. And their findings have driven a wrecking ball through one of the most deeply established pillars of education.

Hindering, not helping

First, when parents regularly helped children with homework, pupils usually performed worse in tests. One possible reason was that the parents were unfamiliar with the subject matter so their well-meaning involvement hindered attainment.

Second, parent-teacher meetings were found to be wanting. Parents who regularly meet teachers and school leaders in the hope of advancing their child academically will be disappointed to learn that Robinson and Harris found the effect of such meetings to be negligible.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the discipline that parents meted out when their children failed to perform was found to be ineffective or counterproductive in terms of its impact on academic achievement.

Open a dialogue

A lot of people reading this will undoubtedly be shaking their heads in disagreement - and they are not alone. When the book was published, it was met with fury in certain quarters, with academics and commentators presenting evidence to counter the researchers' conclusions.

Most teachers, too, will tell you that when parents are involved in and care about their child's education, students tend to be more diligent - which in turn can lead to better results.

Robinson responds to the critics by saying that his findings do not dispute that parents can be helpful. He explains that he is all for parental engagement but maintains that it has to be of the right kind.

The key is anxiety. Robinson argues that some parental engagement can burden students with anxiety and that this is a proven barrier to learning. Parents, he says, need to understand the effect of their involvement and to have an open dialogue with their child about the level of participation they feel comfortable with.

He points to the areas where parental involvement was found to be beneficial. With younger children, the more hands-on practice of reading scored highly. With older children, by contrast, it seemed to be more important to encourage them to "see the bigger picture" by talking to them about their future.

Whatever works

There will still be teachers and academics who dispute the findings of The Broken Compass, of course, and Robinson concedes that the research has limitations.

"We weren't able to look into other potential benefits of parental involvement - for example, on emotional health - so it could be that there are other benefits that haven't yet been investigated," he says.

But whether you take the research at face value or not, looking again at how and when parental involvement works best is a sensible option. All too often we can fall into the trap of believing that any form of this is a good thing, whereas the Robinson and Harris study forces us to consider if the approach we are choosing is the right one.

Robinson suggests bearing the following considerations in mind when dealing with parents:

l There is no one-size-fits-all model of parental involvement.

l Parents need to consistently communicate to children that schooling is important.

l This communication does not have to be through typical forms of involvement - for example, helping with homework or volunteering at their child's school. It can take place in subtle ways.

l Simply telling parents to "be more involved" is not going to generate the type of academic success we envision for schoolchildren.

l If the question is whether parental involvement is critical for academic success, it depends on the form of involvement you have in mind and the specific academic outcome you are trying to achieve.

Gillian Harvey is a teacher and freelance writer based in France

What else?

A Teachers TV video gives advice on dealing with problem parents.


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