Every year it seems as though parents are expected to be more and more involved in their children’s education. They are encouraged to monitor homework, attend school events, volunteer in the classroom, help out on school trips, bake cakes – and the list goes on.
We have known for years that parental involvement is beneficial for children’s well-being and academic achievement. But clearly, some parents are able to be more involved than others.
This is mainly beacuse not all parents have the same opportunity to help their children succeed in school – think parents who work full time, are on a low income, or who have recently immigrated into the country. And research shows that teachers could be leaving some of these groups behind when they ask parents to be even more involved.
Previous research has already shown that middle-class and working-class parents are involved in their children’s education differently. Middle-class parents generally practice so-called “concerted cultivation”, which sees them focusing on organising children’s time in a structured way. They pay special attention to extracurricular activities, which develop critical thinking and presentation skills. And they talk to children as equals and instill in them the feeling of entitlement.
This is quite different to working-class and low-income parents, who often adopt the “accomplishment of natural growth” approach. Here, children are given more freedom to choose their leisure activities, and parents interfere in their lives only when necessary. Kids can play freely on their own, with siblings, or neighbours instead of being constantly supervised by adults.
So while middle-class parents have the capacity to “cultivate” their children – because they generally possess the higher levels of education and financial resources needed for organised extracurricular activities – working-class and low-income parents often suffer from a lack of time and money.
Research also shows that involvement in a child’s education is shaped by gender, race, and cultural norms. Only White, middle-class, native English speaking women are viewed as “properly” involved parents. Meanwhile, parents who do not follow the teachers’ expectations in terms of presence in school or parent teacher conferences – due to economic constraints or cultural differences – are labelled “hard to reach”.
At the same time, parents who are critical of school or those who bring up issues of racism or discrimination are seen as “too involved”. This makes “getting it right” difficult for many parents.
Prior research shows that ethnic minority and immigrant parents often get involved in their children’s education in ways different from the majority population.
For example, black parents in the UK, who historically faced racial discrimination in education, are often cautious in their relations with educators and school officials. And they also have to prepare their children for racist behaviour or comments in school.
Similarly, research shows that, generally-speaking, Latino parents in the US like to entrust schools with their children’s academic development. And instead they concentrate on instilling good morals, transmission of home culture, and provision of material help – such as buying computers, books and school supplies.
But this is where the difficulty can arise, because research from the US shows that white teachers traditionally see “school-based” activities as a more legitimate form of parental involvement. And as a result, knowledge and skills developed by Latino families at home or in their community are often not recognised by the school.
My research also shows that immigrant parents who are “shaped” by their own previous educational experiences in their countries of origin face even more misunderstanding regarding their role in a students’ learning.
Many of these parents grew up and were educated in countries where teachers have significant authority over school matters, and in places where parents help children mostly at home and come to school only when called. So some of them view involvement in school as interfering with the work of teachers.
Research shows that immigrants who come from the middle classes in their home countries often experience downward social mobility after migration – and are not adequately informed about how the education systems in their new country works. And many immigrant parents also face additional challenges because they aren’t able to speak the language.
It is clear then that parental involvement tends to favour white middle-class parents, because their economic, social, and cultural experiences provide more knowledge about the “rules of the game”. And it is easier for them to adopt the type of involvement that is expected and rewarded by the school system.
This means that minority and low-income parents are often seen as less involved by teachers, because of systemic inequality. And these group’s preferences for home-based activities or different patterns of communication with teachers can make them less visible.
So to harness the positive benefits of parental involvement, we need to adopt a more holistic definition of this idea. Activities in school, alongside those in the family and community, should be recognised and rewarded.
Cultural differences between parents based on race, class, and immigration also have to be taken into account, to allow teachers to see that parental involvement doesn’t always look the same.