How parents can help young teens at school

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Parents of adolescents know that it can be a difficult stage for kids. Schoolwork can sometimes take a back seat to stress about physical changes, along with social and relationship concerns. Add to these factors an increasing desire and need for independence, and it can leave parents uncertain as to how they can support their child's academic progress. In an article published in the current issue of Developmental Psychology, Nancy Hill and Diana Tyson analyzed the results of 50 studies that included thousands of students to find the most effective strategies to support school performance among junior high school students.

We've mentioned previously that parental involvement in general is related to improvements in school performance; this result was consistent across ethnic groups. For junior high school students, some kinds of involvement is more effective than others. The shocking finding from the study: parental help with homework was related to a decrease in school performance! The drop was small, but mathematically significant. In the context of a young teen's developing independence, homework support might interfere with the development of "self-efficacy" (the belief that one is capable of completing a task) or with the development of organizational or study skills. In addition, teens have an increased ability to predict the consequences of their actions and to learn from their successes as well as their mistakes, resulting in a reduced requirement for direct parental involvement. It's possible that parents might present the material in a different way than teachers do, resulting in confusion.

Even though homework help doesn't necessarily result in improved performance at school, other types of support was found to be more valuable. Providing educational materials and experiences at home (e.g., making books available, taking children to museums and libraries, etc) was positively related to school achievement. School-based parental involvement was also linked to improvements in performance; this kind of support included attending school events, participating in fundraising activities, volunteering, and joining groups such as the PTA.

So, home-based and school-based support seem to have small to moderate relationships with schoolwork. Another type of parental involvement had the largest correlation with academics across the studies being examined: something Hill and Tyson called academic socialization. This is really about linking academics to the real world. It includes talking to children about the value and importance of education and linking topics being studied to current events. Planning and preparing for the future, along with discussions of occupational goals, are also part of the socialization process. Discussing learning strategies is included as well.

Overall, Hill and Tyson found that indirect support is more strongly related to teen school performance than directly helping with homework. The researchers caution, however, that differences among the studies they examined, along with factors such as student motivation and other behaviours, might also play a role. One thing you'll hear in every statistics course is, "correlation is not causation." In other words, just because a link is found between parental involvement and academic performance, it doesn't necessarily mean the involvement causes the improvement. There could be a third factor that increases both parental involvement and academics.

How have you supported your children's schoolwork? Leave us a comment!

You can find Hill and Tyson's study here. UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal "The Juggle" blog also discussed Hill & Tyson's research here.

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