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For Scholastic Success, Support Is Better than Control

How parental involvement affects children’s performance in school


While 9th-graders and 11th-graders are busy respectively preparing for the Basic State Exam (BSE) and Unified State Exam (U.S.E.), their parents are the ones who lay the groundwork for their success. Mothers and fathers have already put out their annual ‘fall call’ for private tutors and purchased auxiliary prep books in every key subject and universities have put their preparatory courses for incoming school students in motion. But families cannot relax until their children have passed their exams with the desired scores. However, if parental assistance turns into pressure, it can produce the opposite effect on young people, HSE University researchers note. Pushing too hard for the child to perform can prompt students to give up on their studies entirely. Here, we look at how parents can help their children do well on the Unified State Exam.

The Elements of Success

Apart from their own ability and motivation, numerous factors influence how well students do in school — everything from home life and friends to socio-cultural traditions and economic conditions in the region where they live. However, family and the school itself are among the most important: they play the greatest role in the knowledge and skills the student acquires.

The type of school matters. Is it an ordinary school or does it hold special status as a lyceum, university-preparatory school, or institution offering advanced courses in certain subjects? Is the school known for having a better psychological environment, higher-quality instruction and a generally higher-achieving student body that gives rise to ‘positive peer pressure’? Are the teachers more qualified and more experienced, and does the school director place greater emphasis on the quality of education or on compliance with regulations? All of these factors influence students' success and their plans for further studies, such as pursuing higher education.

Family is no less important. When children choose their future path, parents can provide them with the proper guidelines and attitudes, information about education and financial support. They can motivate children to study and, therefore, to succeed. Parental expectations and faith in the child's abilities help them achieve more, whereas a lack of faith has an adverse effect. Such students put less effort into their studies and, consequently, perform worse on state exams and get into less prestigious universities — if they pursue higher education at all.

The Legacy Factor

Many researchers believe that parents often decide where and for how long their children will study, and in which profession they will work. However, such ‘parentocracy’ can both limit as well as broaden the opportunities available to a young person.

Parents’ socio-economic status (SES) strongly influences their involvement in their child’s education: their level of education and income, cultural interests, professional status, values and views on education all play a role. Previous research has shown that although working-class families monitor their children's academic progress, parents do not help with the actual schoolwork. By contrast, middle-class parents offer tangible assistance by explaining difficult assignments, finding explanatory literature and so on.

As a result, students from less-educated or lower-income families often follow their parents’ example by working the same professions and maintaining the same social status. They have limited education options, which impedes their social mobility. The children of more educated parents, however, have an easier time finding the path to success.

A family's background might well outweigh the child's academic performance when choosing options for higher education. If a child with strong grades comes from a less educated family, he or she will often enrol in a trade school or second-rate university rather than apply to a more prestigious school. Thus, the education system can contribute to perpetuating social inequality. 

The Resource Curse

According to one recent study, children from families with limited resources are one-half as likely to enter a prestigious university as their peers from families with high educational and professional status. Students from those families lack adequate support and information. They do not believe in themselves and have low expectations for education, while ‘privileged’ youth benefit from parents who place a priority on good education and who invest in their studies and the high academic performance associated with it.

Wealthier families value higher education. They invest money, effort and time in the education of their offspring, whereas low-income families often lack such opportunities. In effect, the children of low-income families often have lower educational goals simply because their parents have little or no experience in this area, and so they have no one to explain to them the advantage of completing high school and going to university. The family does not know how to guide the child properly or find decent educational options.

Schools are also biased against such students. Teachers and administrators often believe a priori that the children of families with low socioeconomic status have lower aspirations. The result is that the main investors in a student's educational capital — the family and school — practically refuse to make that investment.

However, if the school and family — as the formal and informal educational institutions involved — work together, the student has a good chance to succeed. Parents can further improve academic performance by hiring tutors and enrolling their child in extracurricular study groups and online courses. For this reason, parents with high SES often seek out additional preparatory courses for their children.

According to many experts, the role of formal education is waning. Children are increasingly alienated by schools, while informal education is taking on greater importance.

The Engagement Effect

Research has shown that parental engagement in a student’s education helps to expand their opportunities significantly. Increased parental attention can even offset differences in academic performance between children from families of different economic status.

‘Parental engagement’ means that parents participate in school life in a wide range of ways, from creating favourable study conditions for the child to organising extracurricular activities and serving on the school board.

Scholars classify the types of parental engagement differently, but three basic variations tend to influence students’ academic performance:

 helping with homework and selecting additional instruction for the child;

 attending parent-teacher meetings and maintaining close communication with teachers;

 ‘academic socialisation’: developing problem-solving skills and independent decision-making (that largely determines a student’s educational path).

A meta-analysis of 50 empirical studies conducted between 1985 and 2006 has shown a correlation between student achievement and two types of parental engagement: communication with the school and academic socialisation.

However, the data is contradictory concerning the benefits of parents communicating with teachers and schools. A different review of 25 papers shows that too much communication of this type adversely affects academic performance. However, this applies primarily to students in their final years of high school: teens struggle for independence and perceive parental communication with teachers as interference.

A number of studies have shown very little connection between students receiving help with their homework and their overall academic performance. Other analyses have also shown that checking homework and monitoring attendance is ineffective. At the same time, a meta-analysis of almost 40 studies conducted between 2000 and 2013 has shown that high parental expectations and the encouragement of reading habits do influence students' success.

Some data suggests that parents increase children’s motivation to learn by encouraging them to prepare for lessons independently. This instils the student with a greater sense of responsibility that is reflected in their grades.

Family Success

Using data from the HSE University longitudinal study Trajectories in Education and Careers (TrEC), Ilya Prakhov, Olga Kotomina and Alexandra Sazhina determined which forms of family engagement in the school are useful and which are harmful to the student. This study makes it possible to monitor students’ entire educational path (for example, their complete secondary education plus university, or their first nine grades plus a college or technical school). The students surveyed for this study were in the ninth grade in 2012 and by 2015 were in universities and colleges or on the labour market. The TrEC contains data on the students’ academic performance and their parents’ SES (with cultural capital traditionally measured by the number of books in the family’s home library).

In this study, the dependent variables were students’ educational achievements, measured primarily as scores on the BSE and U.S.E., and their educational trajectories, while the constants were the different forms of parental engagement in their children’s education (controlling for students’ gender and the characteristics of their family and school).

The researchers identified four main factors that describe patterns of parental engagement. The first is parental control, such as checking that homework is completed and calling teachers about grades.  The second factor is total engagement (the full spectrum of parental activity, from ensuring that homework is completed and hiring tutors to participating in school board meetings). The third factor is when parents are reasonably engaged by, for example, giving their children additional literature and attending parent-teacher meetings. The fourth factor is organizational: family members join the parents’ committee and organize extracurricular events.

It turned out that when parents take an active part in school meetings, hire tutors and provide auxiliary literature to their children, the students score higher on the BSE and U.S.E. These forms of assistance increase the likelihood that children will finish out their high school education and go on to university. Membership in the parents’ committee, however, has no effect.

As Ilya Prakhov explains, participation in such activities as school meetings lowers the risk of receiving inaccurate information. ‘Being properly informed is an important element in choosing an educational trajectory and succeeding in it,’ the researcher said. ‘At parent-teacher meetings for upperclassmen, parents can receive information on the correct approach for taking the U.S.E., whether additional exam prep classes are available, possible cooperation between the school and universities, and Academic Olympics competitions.’

However, recruiting tutors and supplying additional literature does not help in every school subject. It has a positive correlation with U.S.E. results in Russian, but the connection for math is not as clear. Here, the type of school plays a significant role, with formal education trumping the role of tutoring.

Excessive Control

The new study shows that a family can also be overly engaged. The child needs ‘a certain degree of independence in decision-making. This will favourably affect the incentives to study at school and choose a future path,’ Mr Prakhov said.

A measured amount of family engagement — as well as helping with, but not strictly controlling homework — also has a positive correlation to students’ educational success and whether they go on to study at university. On the other hand, the habit that, ‘helicopter parents’ have of ‘hovering’ over their children to check on homework and grades is definitely harmful and leads to lower U.S.E. scores. Excessive parental control has a particularly harmful influence on exam scores for ninth graders.

‘Here, we are probably seeing the opposite effect: the child is studying poorly and so the parents are forced to take matters in hand,’ the researcher said. ‘However, exercising total control over a high school student’s homework can cause them to protest or rebel, decreasing the motivation to improve academic performance. This can adversely affect U.S.E. results and, as a result, limit the choice of universities that will admit the student.’

Meanwhile, parental engagement depends on the type of family — its educational level, income and cultural interests. As mentioned above, in families with a high SES, parents devote greater attention to their child’s studies, but their engagement is more likely to be reasonable and measured. The type of high school also has a bearing on U.S.E. results, with those offering advanced courses and schools of higher status being the most effective.

Delayed Effect

The study also found that girls score higher on the BSE than boys do and family characteristics have a positive correlation to ninth-graders' final grades. At the same time, the type of school has little influence at this stage. In other words, the family — in terms of both its characteristics and its level of engagement in the child's studies — plays the greatest role in middle schoolers’ academic performance.

It was also found that attending parent-teacher meetings, hiring tutors and supplying additional literature helps students entering high school grades 10 and 11. However, researchers also noted that a stable progression from the ninth to the eleventh grades was the most important factor behind the strong Russian and math scores on the U.S.E. that are so crucial to university admissions.

Thus, family support at the earlier stages of education can influence academic success in the final year of study, even if the nature of this influence has changed. In other words, a family’s investment of time, effort and money in the child’s education has a long-term positive effect.

How to Help Underprivileged Students?

Given the risks of unequal educational opportunities that students from different families face, schools need to work with parents with low SES. 'And the sooner that work is done, the better the student's long-term chances,' said Mr Prakhov, ‘because investing in education at an early age is the most effective.’

The school and family should work together, with the school stepping in when the family’s resources are limited. This could happen ‘in high school by raising parents’ awareness about the opportunities the U.S.E. provides,’ the researcher said. ‘And primary and secondary schools could provide additional developmental classes — that is, where education on the part of parents could lose effectiveness due to lack of time or resources.’

It is also useful to consider the experience of so-called ‘resilient’ schools that help a wide variety of more challenging children achieve success, including those from single-parent homes and poor or migrant families.

According to the researchers, the experience of such schools shows that ‘regardless of the type of student body, it is possible to carry out effective work in guiding students to higher education’ — and to overcome unfavourable family circumstances.


Study authors: Ilya Prakhov, Senior Research Fellow at the International Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic ReformsOlga Kotomina, Senior Lecturerat the  Faculty of Economics, Management, and Business Informatics, HSE University-Perm, Alexandra Sazhina, Senior Lecturerat the Faculty of Economics, Management, and Business Informatics, HSE University-Perm.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, October 30, 2020