How parenting practices affect school achievement

Researchers in education are seeking to understand how specific parental behaviors contribute to the success of children in school. Such knowledge is helpful in developing family-based programs that enhance student achievement. Several recent studies have demonstrated that children raised in “authoritative” homes perform better in school than those from non-authoritative homes.

The correlation between authority at home and achievement at school seems to hold up despite the various definitions of authoritative parenting used in different studies. Previous research indicates that authoritative parenting practices lead to successful school achievement regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic level, or family structure. Authoritative parenting has been associated with a stronger work orientation, greater engagement in school activities, more positive feelings about school, more time spent on homework, more positive academic self-concept, and lower levels of school misconduct.

Authoritative parenting

Authoritative parenting means more than simply “strict” parenting. It appears to combine a high level of responsiveness to children with a high level of structure and responsibility for children. Authoritativeness is thought to be a rather complex combination of three elements that together contribute to healthy psychological development and, indirectly, to school success. These are parental acceptance and warmth, strict supervision of behavior, and finally, “democracy” or the granting of some autonomy to children.

Along with authoritative parenting, parental involvement in school activities, encouragement, and high expectations also contribute to success in school. Recently, Laurence Steinberg and Nancy Darling, Temple University; Susie D. Lamborn, University of West Florida; and Sanford M. Dornbusch, Stanford University, studied the ways in which these factors combine to influence student achievement.

Adolescents accurate reporters of parent behavior

Steinberg et al. studied an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse sample of 6,400 adolescents from schools in Wisconsin and northern California during 1987 and 1988. Forty percent of these students were from ethnic minority groups and nearly one-third had parents who had no education beyond 12th grade.

Previous research has demonstrated that adolescents are accurate reporters of their parents’ behavior and, for this reason, researchers relied on students to provide information on child-rearing practices, parental expectations, and involvement in school. Information about three dimensions of authoritative parenting was collected. These were categorized as: (1) acceptance/warmth/involvement (e.g., Can you count on your parents to help you if you have some kind of problem?), (2) strictness/supervision (e.g., What’s the latest you can stay out on weeknights?), and (3) psychological autonomy granting (e.g., How often do your parents tell you not to question their decisions?).

Students’ self-reports were also used to study academic outcomes including grade-point average, amount of time spent on homework, classroom involvement, school misconduct, positive relationships with teachers, commitment to school, academic competence, and educational expectations.

Parental encouragement not enough

Amounts and degrees of parental authoritativeness, involvement in school, and encouragement to succeed, varied with ethnicity, parental education, and the gender (but not age) of the child. In general, data collected over two years indicates that authoritative parenting does have a significant positive impact on academic achievement and engagement in school during adolescence.

The differences in performance among adolescents raised under different parenting styles were significant. Generally, parental authoritativeness had a similar positive effect (i.e., increased achievement and school involvement) across most ethnic and economic groups.

These researchers also found that parental involvement in school usually leads to better school performance. However, parental encouragement by itself does not appear to have a measureable impact on academic performance. Steinberg et al. state that both parental involvement in schooling and encouragement to succeed are far more likely to promote school success when they occur in the context of an authoritative home environment. When analyzing the parental influences among various ethnic groups, however, different combinations of parenting behaviors appear to produce somewhat different student responses. For example, in this study, parental encouragement and school involvement appeared to have a greater impact on student achievement in Asian-American and Hispanic-American families than in European-American or African-American families. In addition, authoritative parenting appeared to have less of an impact on the achievement of African-American adolescents. These researchers call for further research examining parenting practices and adolescent development in various ethnic groups. The differences among ethnic groups with respect to the influence of parenting practices on adolescent achievement indicate that such relationships are complex and not fully understood. Steinberg et al. call for further research in this area.

Steinberg et al. conclude that adolescent students at all grade levels who describe their parents as authoritative – loving and democratic, but strict about behavior – report better school performance and stronger engagement in school than do their peers. Overall, the general parenting style appears to have a greater influence on student performance than any specific parental behavior. Even in the space of only one year, authoritative parents were successful in helping their child raise his/her academic achievement and engagement in school. This conclusion contradicts the widely held belief that adolescents, particularly older adolescents, are impervious to parental influence.


“Impact of Parenting Practices on Adolescent Achievement: Authoritative Parenting, School Involvement, and Encouragement to Succeed” Child Development, October 1992, Volume 63, Number 5, pp. 1266-1281.

Published in ERN November/December 1992 Volume 5 Number 5

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