An adolescent boy or girl is about to enter high school. Now what? What role should parents play in this educational experience? How hands-on, or off, should they be? Should they continue to be actively involved as a volunteer at the school, just like they were in elementary school? Or should they say, “my child is now an adult, it is all up to him/her?”
Typical parents ask questions about what their role should be and no doubt some keep themselves up at night worrying about this big step their son/daughter is about to take. As a parent, I also worried about my daughters as they entered the strange and scary world of high school. Except in my case, I not only worried about my own two girls but also the one thousand I was responsible for as their high school principal.
Because of this two-pronged worry, I conducted a major study of high school students throughout Southern Alberta to see relationships between various parenting types and high school student performance. I conducted the study, however, from the point of view of the students. To that end, I surveyed close to 500 young men and women ranging in age from 15 to 18 years and covering grades 10 to 12.
“Type of parent involvement” referred to the kind of impact that parents have on the lives of their high school-aged children. Epstein’s (2001) basic typology was used to differentiate between six types of parent involvement. Epstein’s typology was adjusted to reflect adolescent students:
Type 1 – Basic Parenting (setting basic rules of home life, including amount of television watched per week, setting weekday curfew, assigning basic chores);
Type 2 – Communicating (making contact with school and teachers during the school year, attending parent/teacher conferences, reading school newsletters on a monthly basis);
Type 3 – Volunteering (taking part in school-based activities, attending school concerts, performances and/or athletic events);
Type 4 – Learning at Home (assisting with homework, setting basic ground rules for completion of homework, encouraging the completion of school-related duties, talking about world affairs);
Type 5 – Decision Making (active involvement in school-based decision making bodies, such as School Council, PTA, sports governing bodies, etc.);
Type 6 – Collaborating with the Community (involving students in community-based activities, such as athletic events, cultural events, or other events of student interest).
I compared these parenting types to high school students’ academic achievement, engagement, attendance and attitude toward school. Student academic achievement was represented by the average of students’ most recent percentage grades in science, social studies, English language arts and mathematics. Student engagement was a self-reported measure of the amount of time that students spent involved in school-related activities. Attendance was drawn from answers to survey questions, reported directly by the student. Attendance was expressed as a percent and reflected the number of class periods absent from school during the last full semester attended by the student. Student attitude toward school scores were drawn from the results of the School Attitude Assessment Survey – Revised (2002).
What I found was rather revealing and in some cases counterintuitive to my pre-existing beliefs. For instance, I thought that if I could get high school parents into the building and be active volunteers, just as I had done rather successfully with elementary school parents, then high school student results would improve. However, the opposite was true. The results indicated a negative relationship between volunteering at school and academic success, student engagement, and attitude toward school, and a neutral impact on attendance.
However, what I found to be most revealing were the areas that seemed to produce some very positive results. The parenting types of Learning at Home and Decision Making offered solid suggestions for the type of involvement parents should have with their adolescent students. Learning at Home had a positive relationship to academic achievement, student engagement and student attitude toward school and was neutral in regard to attendance. The Decision Making type had a very positive relationship to student engagement— where parents took an active role in the formal decision making process of the school, the likelihood was that their children would be engaged in the school.
The following is a list of activities, that when blended together, produced the greatest impact on high school student performance.
- Parents setting basic rules around the house. Chores were expected and the adolescent had regular responsibilities in and around the home. Things like TV and Internet access were limited but still available to the adolescent.
- Parents did not regularly impose negative consequences for work not completed—rather the emphasis was on positive rewards.
- Parents taking an active interest in the school work of the adolescent, didn’t mean they had to help do it, just meant that they knew what was expected by the school and what was being completed by the student.
- Students knew they could talk to their parents about issues that mattered to them. Regular conversations happened within the home — world affairs, family life, or school relationships.
- Students knew they could talk to their parents about issues that were troubling them and that these conversations happened on a regular basis in the home.
- Parents set high, but achievable, expectations for their adolescent children. What was to follow after high school mattered in the family and regular conversations happened about the future—college and university were ongoing topics in the home.
- Students needed to see parents as being active in the life of the school and that they attended meetings or watched students participate in school events, yet were not active volunteers in the school. Even though these two thoughts seem to conflict, I think they don’t. The first highlights the importance of the parent showing respect for the school while the volunteering appears to be viewed by the adolescent as hovering.
Parents then need to understand that age and stage of development is important and that adolescent students still need them, but in a different way than when the children were in elementary school. They still need to be loved and cared for but yet require a greater degree of freedom and responsibility. Parents need to “be there” for their adolescent children, set high expectations, talk to them about what is important in life and be available to listen when they need to talk. If parents were to follow this advice (advice given by adolescents and supported in research) life with their adolescent children will be fruitful, if still a little stormy at times.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Carmen Mombourquette
Dr. Carmen Mombourquette was a high school principal and vice principal for many years, and is now an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Lethbridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2012 issue.