Maximizing the benefits of parent involvement programs

iStock_000026636782XSmallResearch indicates that parental involvement at school is associated with positive outcomes for children, including better grades, lower dropout rates and fewer behavior problems. Such findings have led school districts to spend substantial time and resources promoting parent involvement, even though it is not clear that these programs achieve the same effects as naturally occurring involvement.

In fact, among the few programs that have been rigorously evaluated, most do not appear to increase positive outcomes in children. Gail L. Zellman, RAND Corporation, and Jill M. Waterman, University of California/Los Angeles, state that there is much to learn about how to promote parent involvement and how to maximize its effects.

Using data from a study of 193 second- and fifth-grade children and their mothers, Zellman and Waterman attempted to confirm the relationship between parental involvement and child outcomes, and to determine what underlies it. Their results revealed that parental enthusiasm and a positive parenting style may be the keys. If this is true, parent-involvement programs might produce more significant and long-lasting effects on children if they focused more clearly on improving parenting skills.

Identifying parent behaviors that produce positive outcomes

All parents want their children to succeed at school, but some parents are more successful than others in promoting their children’s academic success. In an attempt to find out why, these researchers studied an even number of boys and girls from two public schools and one private school in urban Los Angeles. The children were ethnically and economically diverse.

The majority of the children came from intact families with both a mother and a father. In approximately one third of the families, there was no male adult in the home. One-third of the families were Latino, one third were white, 17 percent were African American, and the remainder were Asian or of mixed ethnicity. About 29 percent of the mother interviews, and 18 percent of the child interviews were conducted in Spanish at the subjects’ request.

Mothers and children were interviewed separately and then each mother-and-child pair participated in a 10-minute conflict-resolution task that was videotaped. They were asked to discuss an issue that both of them separately had rated as problematic and to come to a solution. Common issues included chores, homework and relationships with siblings. In addition, the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test was administered to each child, and classroom teachers filled out a rating scale that described the child’s strengths as well as any behavior or learning problems. Interviewers talking with mothers assessed parental enthusiasm (measured by breastfeeding and the mother’s views on the rewards of parenthood and her own effectiveness as a parent), involvement with homework and involvement at school. School involvement was measured by attendance at school events, volunteering in the classroom and being on a school governance committee.

Factors predicting parental involvement

Single mothers and African American and Latino mothers were less involved overall at school; in particular, they volunteered less often in the classroom. But there were no ethnic differences in the frequency with which mothers reported
attending school events or being involved in school governance. A child’s IQ was a significant predictor of a mother’s involvement with homework. Mothers of high-IQ children were less involved. Involvement in homework appeared to be a problem-solving behavior designed to help children who needed it. Child IQ was unrelated to parents’ school involvement.

Parenting factors, including parental enthusiasm and a positive parenting style, contributed significantly to the prediction of involvement in school. Al though family composition and ethnicity seemed, at first, to be important predictors of parent school involvement, they were far less important than parenting style. When parenting factors were taken into account, family composition and ethnicity were no longer significant predictors of school involvement.

In fact, a positive parenting style was the only significant predictor of positive outcomes in children. Positive parenting is defined as a high level of warmth and low negativity. Other styles — authoritarian (high clarity, high negativity); indifferent (low clarity, low warmth low negativity); crazy-making (low clarity, high negativity, high emotionality); and unclear (low clarity, low warmth, high negativity and low emotionality) — did not predict child outcomes.

Positive parenting predictor of reading scores

Parenting style was a better predictor of children’s reading scores than parental involvement at school. A positive parenting style was associated with markedly higher scores and significantly fewer reports of learning problems. Positive parenting appears to be the most fundamental factor in increasing student achievement, indicating that programs that bring parents to school to work on parenting skills may lead to positive student outcomes.

Because parental involvement has been associated with positive outcomes in children, most parent-involvement programs are designed to make parents feel more comfortable at school, to help them ask the right questions about their child’s school progress, and to inform them about school curriculum, rules or governance.

These goals are important, but if the ultimate goal is to improve student achievement, programs might be focused more productively on the fundamentals of parenting — what being a good parent is all about, what constitutes an appropriate parenting role, and how to relate to your child in ways that enhance cognitive
and emotional development.

The independence of parenting factors from family-background factors suggests that parenting style is not enmeshed in the social context defined by poverty, wealth or ethnic background. This is encouraging, and it suggests that parenting style may be changeable and, therefore, teachable.

These researchers urge educators to examine their parent-involvement programs, focusing them more clearly on improving parenting skills to produce more significant, longer-lasting benefits for children.


“Understanding the Impact of Parent School Involvement on Children’s Educational Outcomes” The Journal of Educational Research, Volume 9, Number 6, July/August 1998, pp. 370-381.

Published in ERN October 1998 Volume 11 Number 7

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