Is it a surprise to anyone that helping children do well in school is part of successful parenting? Virtually all parents want to reach this goal. As with so many noble parenting goals, the devil is in the details. Many well-intentioned parents do too much, too little or bark up the wrong trees when it comes to school support. I will summarize the basics succinctly so that I can focus on some of the subtleties of the support role which are misunderstood by even the most competent of parents.
Many studies have shown that parental involvement with children’s learning predicts school achievement, which in turn predicts how well they thrive in life. The key ingredients include:
• High (but not unrealistic) expectations for school achievement
• A home environment that supports learning (e.g. setting aside homework time, preventing distractions like media, mandating bed times, maintaining good family relations and positive affirmations about work efforts)
• Involvement in the school and community
• Parents who role model intellectual curiosity, rich conversations at the dinner table, reading for pleasure and lifetime learning interests.
These recommendations are ubiquitous and uncontroversial. Now for the nitty-gritty of how the parent role can go haywire.
The student’s performance, attitude and feelings about school
As students proceed through elementary school, parents should expect their child to do satisfactory work, like school and feel comfortable there (mostly). If not, parents should consider meeting with the teacher and doing some problem solving, so that this pattern does not become entrenched. Children develop what I call an “academic identity” early in childhood: “I am a bad,/adequate/excellent student.” When children report that they hate school, it means that they are not thriving there, and the “hate” is a defense against the terrible feeling of vulnerability.
Concerns about learning problems, disabilities and attention deficit disorder can surface at any point in a student’s life. Children can struggle or underachieve for many other reasons, including complications of their temperament, social or emotional issues, school context or family dynamics. Parents should seek the help of teachers and specialists to address these concerns. It is the parent’s responsibility is to help address these problems.
One of the developmental tasks of 6 to 12 year olds is to feel competent about what they do academically and socially. Hating school or doing unsatisfactory school work should be considered as perilous as being diagnosed with an illness. You’d take your child to a doctor wouldn’t you? He’s got the school blues? Schedule a meeting with the teacher!
If your child’s teacher advises an assessment, tutoring or any other recommendation, follow it unless you have a really good reason not to trust the teacher’s opinion. Parents that jump in, mobilize action plans, cheer on their kids, avoid blaming and take a problem-solving approach are heroes in my book. If the best of plans results in B’s and C’s (due to the complexity of the achievement problem) and the parents stay positive and supportive of their children, then they are super-heroes. It’s a crying shame how often well-meaning but anxious parents end up blaming their children for “poor motivation”. Negativity eats away at the parent-child relationship and does not enhance that flagging motivation.
Poor parental responses to school problems
Poor academic performance, the “I don’t care” identity, or its nasty twin, the “I hate school” feeling, all constitute a slippery slope into the danger zone. Although parents should arrest the downward slide as soon as possible, emotions and the complexity of underachievement often throw families off course.
The three most common dysfunctional parental response patterns to this slide are: “The Ostrich” who under-reacts and doesn’t deal with it; “The Anxious Aggravator” who over-reacts with anxiety, negativity and future forecasting of doom and gloom, which interferes with effective problem solving; and “Polarizers”, the parents who react to each other and fail at unified teamwork, thereby sabotaging their efforts to help the child.
All of these unfortunate patterns stem from complicated origins. Some Ostrich parents have had bad academic experiences themselves as children or have magical thinking that the school performance will correct itself. The Anxious Aggravator parents may be flooding with anxiety about their children blowing their chances for getting into certain colleges. The Polarizer parents may have all sorts of feelings about their child doing poorly at school—anger, anxiety, fear, confusion, indignation—which are channeled into blaming instead of an effective intervention.
Sometimes a student’s downward spiral can correct itself. Friendships can improve making school a happier place to be. A child might discover the rewards of a strong work ethic overnight. A new school or teacher may provide a better learning environment. But parents usually do not have control over these dynamics. They do have choices about how they relate to their children and seek consultation.
The “Back off! Be involved!” message to anxious parents
When schoolwork is substandard, parents have a range of options. Recommendations to parents may include hiring a tutor, controlling media and social networking, mandating a minimal homework time period, making weekend privileges contingent upon completion of weekly school work, or strategies for improving organization and study habits. In Getting to Calm, we’ve outlined detailed ways that parents can help their children improve their school performance.
One of the hardest lines to walk is the dual message parents receive about being involved but not overbearing. Once parents fulfill their responsibilities listed in the bullet points above, school is chiefly the student’s responsibility. Anxious parents may have a hard time accepting B’s and or C’s on the report card, especially from the teen with “potential” for much higher performance. Understandably, they see the college options become reduced, only raising their blood pressure higher. The problem is that expressed parental anxiety does not enhance school motivation.
Anxious parents may say, “I’ve given my bright son every opportunity and advantage, so there is no excuse for these B’s and C’s”. Tweens and teens are complicated people. Like adults, there are lots of reasons why they may not be motivated to work really hard, despite others imploring them to do so. Developmentally, they don’t understand the full consequences of slacking off. But telling them over and over won’t jolt them into action.
A question I pose to anxious, over-talking parents of B-average students is, “You may be right, but are you effective?” The “back off” message to parents relates to nagging, over-interrogating and stalking them with homework haranguing. Parents are right about school work being of the utmost importance, but we all need to remember Einstein’s famous quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” (The ideas for jump-starting scholastic improvement in Getting to Calm’s chapter on academics represent “action” approaches rather than lectures).
In affluent homes, perceived academic pressure from parents is associated with depression, anxiety, and drug abuse. Parents may mean well by showing a value on achievement, but the kids hear: “All my parents care about is grades and getting into a good college.” Children need to feel that their parents love them, believe in them and empathize with their struggles first and foremost. Collaborating on an academic “action” plan without the over-talk comes second.
Stay positive and supportive
With the recession, outsourced jobs, and global competition, parents have never before in history been more worried about their children’s educational performance. Social commentators warn us that if our kids can’t compete in the global economy, they’ll be lackey assistants to the high achievers in China and India. Staying cool-headed, strategic and effective in supporting lackluster students seems like an impossible goal for parents. But nothing is more important than maintaining a good parent-child relationship—out of that garden, everything else has the potential for growth—even improved academic achievement.