Parental involvement in children’s schooling

Sharon Wolf discusses the benefits and pitfalls
Sharon Wolf

Sharon Wolf, an applied developmental psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, discusses how parental involvement can impact children’s schooling and affect the delicate nature of parent-teacher relationships.

Aisha Schnellmann: What role does parental involvement play in a child’s success in school?

Sharon Wolf: Parental involvement makes a really big difference, especially in early childhood. It has been proven to enhance children’s academic performance and contribute to their overall success in school. There are many ways for parents to be involved in their children’s education. They can help with homework assignments or with issues their children are encountering in the classroom, for example, and they can exert a positive influence on a child’s behavior and attitude towards school. They can also foster relationships with teachers that promote better learning. Parents’ interest and encouragement inevitably affect their children’s conduct in the classroom, their self-esteem, and their motivation to learn.

AS: Can parental involvement have negative effects as well?

SW: While most research has indicated that parental involvement has largely positive effects on children’s education, it may also cause conflict with teachers and adversely affect learning environments. Disagreements between parents and teachers about how children are taught, for example, can have a negative impact on learning outcomes.

Developing parent-teacher relationships that support children’s learning requires a nuanced understanding of how the two groups can engage effectively with one another as well as with the children. This can inform better intervention strategies, as our team’s recent findings have demonstrated.

“While parental involvement has largely positive effects on children’s education, it may also cause conflict with teachers and adversely affect learning environments.”

AS: Your research has shown that when efforts are made to encourage parental involvement and teacher engagement by sending text messages to the two groups separately, school dropout rates decrease significantly. When both parents and teachers were simultaneously “nudged,” however, there was no impact. What does this reveal about parent-teacher relationships?   

SW: Over the duration of one year, our research team implemented the Eduq+ program, sending parents and teachers of students in 296 classrooms across 100 public schools in the Ivory Coast SMS messages specifically designed to “nudge” them to become more engaged in the children’s education. The messages were sent twice a week, with those sent to parents differing from those sent to teachers. Teachers received messages focused on improving the quality of their teaching, while parents were reminded of the returns on investments in their children’s education. In addition to suggesting activities parents could engage in with their children to support social-emotional development, the messages encouraged parents to take more interest in their children’s school life by increasing their interactions with teachers.

When parents and teachers were “nudged” independently, there was a significant reduction in school dropout rates. But when text messages were sent to parents and teachers at the same time, these gains were erased. Instead of feeling supported, teachers were demotivated because they felt that they were being subjected to additional monitoring by parents. This led to lower teacher attendance, which in turn caused school dropout rates to increase. This is an illustration of how excessive monitoring by involved parents, for instance, may undermine teachers’ sense of agency in the classroom and reduce their intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, it points to the delicate nature of parent-teacher relationships, suggesting that schools have to be more careful about how they engage parents and teachers, and how they ask them to engage with one another.

“Additional monitoring by parents backfired particularly for teachers who were already putting in a lot of effort to engage their students.”

AS: How can schools adapt existing parent intervention programs to provide teachers with optimal support and nurture their intrinsic motivation?

SW: We learned from our research that excessive parental intervention had the greatest effect on highly motivated teachers who were already very engaged in their students’ learning at the start of the study. In other words, additional monitoring by parents backfired particularly for teachers who were already putting in a lot of effort to engage their students. Schools play an important role in managing the interactions between parents and teachers. For example, by moderating the extent to which parents are encouraged to approach teachers, schools are able to foster more positive interactions that provide optimal support.

AS: Because of the pandemic and remote learning, parental involvement in children’s education has dramatically increased. Parents have also been able to experience first-hand the challenges that teachers face every day in the classroom. Do you think that this experience will make parents more aware of how best to complement teachers’ efforts more effectively in the future?

SW: Like so many things with the pandemic, it’s so difficult to know how it will change the status quo moving forward. Things will be different; it’s just hard to know how. But I do hope that parents will have a deeper appreciation for the important work that teachers do to support and nurture their children’s learning and development. I also hope that this will translate to more productive parent-teacher relationships, with teachers feeling respected and supported by their school communities.

Sharon Wolf is an applied developmental psychologist interested in how young children’s social environments—specifically their families and schools—shape their development, and the role interventions play in promoting child development and reducing inequalities. She is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research informs interventions and tests the effectiveness of theoretically informed policy solutions designed to promote early childhood development and learning through randomized field experiments. She is a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow 2018-2020.

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