Scholarly interest in parental involvement was sparked in the late 1960s, when the seminal Coleman report (Coleman et al. 1966) found family social background to be the most important predictor of children’s academic success in the United States. Educational inequalities by social class are found in most countries and such findings prompted researchers’ efforts to identify what aspects of family background are responsible for children’s educational success (Gonzalez 2004). Some focus on economic resources, family structure, or parental education, while others investigate parental involvement in children’s education.
Despite a significant amount of research on parental involvement, there are considerable differences in its conceptualization and measurement. Early researchers conceived of parental involvement as participation in school activities, while contemporary scholars recognize that it consists of a multitude of family activities (Ho 1995; Hoover Dempsey & Sandler 1997; Epstein 2001). Epstein (2001) developed a widely used classification of parental involvement that defines six distinct types:
- establishing a positive learning environment at home;
- communicating with school about educational programs and student progress;
- participating and volunteering at school;
- participating in students’ learning at home;
- being involved in school decision making; and
- collaborating with the community to increase students’ learning.
Many family practices fall within each type of involvement. Findings from a number of countries, such as the US, England, Korea, and Hong Kong, show that the specific practices and the types of involvement that different families adopt may vary across nations and are generally affected by children’s age, socioeconomic and race/ethnic background, family relationships and experiences, school policies, or neighborhood living conditions (Ho 1995; Huss Keeler 1997; Catsambis & Beveridge 2001; Epstein 2001; Gonzalez 2004; Wang 2004).
Parental Involvement from Preschool and Beyond
Parental involvement in education begins even before children enter school. Parents adopt a number of family practices in order to address children’s developmental and educational needs. Parents of preschool children engage in home based educational practices, such as reading to children, and in activities involving the wider community, such as taking children to museums, zoos, libraries, and day care centers. Parental involvement reaches its peak when children enter elementary school. At that time, nearly all parents communicate regularly with the school and many engage in school related activities, such as volunteering at school and participating in PTA. Parental involvement in the elementary grades is often initiated by school personnel and typically consists of notes and memos transmitted by the child. Parents and teachers may also communicate by brief conversations before and after school and on ”parent night” or by special appointment and telephone conversations. Less frequently, teachers establish relationships with parents by visiting children’s homes (Epstein 2001). While these specific practices are documented in the US, schools in most countries initiate communication with parents and encourage involvement in their children’s elementary education (Carvalho & Jeria 1999; Gonzalez 2004).
Monitoring children’s homework is the main venue through which parents participate in their children’s elementary education. In addition to its academic purpose, homework pro vides opportunities for communication among parents, children, and their teachers. Teachers often ask parents to help with children’s academic and discipline problems, and therefore parents spend more time supervising home work if their children are having trouble at school (Epstein 2001).
Scholars and educators generally believe that parental involvement declines when children enter middle school. At that time parents may lose confidence in their ability to help with more advanced schoolwork and teachers no longer ask for parent participation. However, it is possible that declines in parental involvement are reported because most studies do not investigate developmentally appropriate practices for older students (Hill & Taylor 2004). Parental involvement in secondary education has received little attention and not much is known about its nature and effectiveness for high school students. National longitudinal data tracing changes in parental involvement as children grow have been available only in the US. These data reveal that most parents of middle grade students continue some of their already established practices of supervising children’s lives and education at home (establishing rules for completing homework, TV viewing and curfews, and discussing career aspirations and plans about future education). When children reach high school, parents drop their involvement in learning activities at home and loosen daily supervision. They increase their communication with schools regarding academic programs and student progress, and participate more at school events. Overall, at this stage of schooling, parents are concerned with preparing adolescents for their future lives and careers and they begin to take actions related to college attendance (Catsambis & Garland 1997).
Does Parental Involvement Make a Difference?
Empirical evidence in the US, Canada, Australia, and many European and Asian countries has established that parental involvement is important for the academic success of students at all stages of schooling (Villas Boas 1998; Epstein 2001; Gonzalez 2004; Hill et al. 2004). Children whose parents are involved in school have more positive attitudes about school, better attendance and work habits, and higher academic success than do children whose parents are not involved (Epstein 2001; Hill et al. 2004).
Scholars note that not all family practices are effective for children’s academic success (Muller 1995, 1998; Lareau 2000). Moreover, given changes in children’s developmental needs, children of different ages may respond to different kinds of involvement from their parents (Muller 1998). It is only parental educational aspirations for their children that are strongly associated with academic related attitudes and success across all school grades (Astone & McLanahan 1991; Singh et al. 1995; Juang & Vondracek 2001; Wang 2004). In the elementary grades, reading activities at home are most important for students’ achievement growth (Epstein 2001). In secondary education, students’ achievement is positively related with parent/student discussions regarding school matters and general parental supervision and, to a lesser extent, with parent-school contacts and participation in school activities (Astone & McLanahan 1991; Schneider & Coleman 1993; Ho & Willms 1996). By the last years of high school, effective parental involvement may consist of activities that support adolescents’ educational decision making regarding course selection and plans for postsecondary education (Catsambis 2001). Much more work is needed to identify changes in effective parental practices associated with children’s age and to develop a comprehensive theoretical framework of parental involvement.
Does One Model Fit All?
Factors related to families’ social conditions influence the extent and effectiveness of parental involvement practices. Although research indicates that the negative effects of single parent families and working mothers on parental involvement may be exaggerated (Muller 1995), it has provided consistent cross national evidence of the importance of socioeconomic status and of parental education (Gonzalez 2004; Hill et al. 2004). Parents from middle and upper classes are more knowledgeable about how to be involved in their children’s schooling, and their involvement is more effective than those of less advantaged parents (Lareau 2000).
Race and ethnic variations also exist in the levels and effectiveness of parental involvement, but findings are inconsistent in this regard. Some findings show that in the US, Hispanic and African American parents are more involved in their children’s education compared to whites once other factors are controlled (Ho & Willms 1996), while others show no such differences (Hill et al. 2004). These inconsistencies may be explained by limitations in existing theory and research that have not adequately considered national or international variations in family life and parenting (Huss Keeler 1997; Gonzalez 2004; Hill et al. 2004). Some disadvantaged parents may have had negative experiences with school, which may instill a level of distrust toward schools (Hoover Dempsey & Sandler 1997). In other cases, ethnic minority parents may participate little in their children’s education because they value highly teachers’ professional status and delegate authority for their children’s education entirely to schools (Hoover Dempsey & Sandler 1997; Lareau 2000). Others suggest that more study should be devoted to how culturally specific parent-child activities may influence the academic development of children from different ethnic backgrounds (Huss Keeler 1997).
More study is also needed on how the social environment of communities or neighborhoods may affect parents and their children. Specifically, disadvantaged neighborhoods may pose constraints on parents’ ability to adopt effective parental practices (Brooks Gunn et al. 1997; Catsambis & Beveridge 2001). A recent US study revealed that although disadvantaged neighborhoods suppressed parents’ ability to help children succeed in school, parents’ frequent communication with children, close mon itoring of their activities, and provision of out of school learning opportunities offset some of the educational disadvantages associated with living in such neighborhoods (Catsambis & Beveridge 2001).
Can Parents Do It All?
The above findings underscore the importance of institutional interrelationships for children’s learning and development. While family is a significant force behind students’ academic success, parents alone cannot overcome the educational challenges that many children face. Most parents are interested and make efforts to participate in their children’s education, but many of them require assistance in order to engage in educationally supportive activities (Epstein 2001). To be effective, parents need to draw support and resources form the wider social environment, and especially from schools. Both families and schools need to take each other’s perspectives, expectations, and actions into account in developing practices that promote student learning (Huss Keeler 1997; Epstein 2001). Indeed, the importance of parent-school supportive relationships has gained widespread recognition and many educational reforms and intervention programs throughout the world target parental involvement as a key strategy for improving student achievement (Schleicher 1992; Carvalho & Jeria 1999; Gonzalez 2004). The success of such reforms greatly depends on scholars’ continuing efforts to close gaps in existing research and develop a comprehensive theoretical framework of parental involvement.
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