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Setting the Stage

While the benefits of parental involvement may be a universally accepted idea, it really isn’t that straightforward. In fact, there’s much that we have always assumed about a parent’s involvement in their child’s schooling that we have either been wrong about or has been incomplete.

In a recent study conducted by Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris for their 2014 book, “The Broken Compass,” the authors make the following observation: “Much of our analyses can be summarized as follows: Most of the ways in which parents can be involved have little impact on children’s gains in reading and math achievement.” Talk about deflating. Does it really mean that the things we do as parents to try and help our kids in school amount to very little, if anything? Why, then, have teachers, administrators and politicians been extolling the virtues of parents being involved in their children’s education for years?

It’s important to reassure moms and dads that parental involvement is important and can have a positive effect on a child’s academic success. However, the question really shouldn’t be as black and white as “does it make a difference or not?”Instead, we should be asking about what kinds of parental involvement actually make a difference.

Whenever we think of parent participation we usually assume that it involves things like volunteering in the classroom, attending parent-teacher meetings, maintaining regular communication with the teacher, and being involved with a school’s parent advisory committee in some way. These kinds of activities can have a lot of value by allowing parents to nurture a positive relationship with the teachers and administration and, generally, stay in the loop regarding activities and expectations. The problem is that this kind of involvement contributes little, if anything, to a child’s academic success.

So what can we do that actually makes a difference? Perhaps the best analogy we can use is something Robinson and Harris refer to as “stage setting.” A child’s “life space” is like a stage where the child is the main actor and the parents are in charge of everything that goes on behind the scenes to make the production a success. They arrange the “stage” in such a way as to ensure the actor, or their child, can engage with the environment. While the actor may have tremendous ability, this potential will never be fully appreciated if the rest of the production is left in disarray, of poor quality or disorganized between acts. In the same way, parents can create the conditions where their child can enjoy real and lasting academic success.

Admittedly, the notion of stage setting can be a tough one to buy into. It doesn’t feel as tangible as talking with your child’s teacher, volunteering in the school, or sitting down and helping your child with some tough math homework. Yet, if you look at some of the most successful countries in terms of international testing in math, science and reading you’ll find a very different attitude from our traditional views on parental involvement. In places like South Korea and Finland, parents and teachers simply don’t view parent volunteering as an integral part of a child’s academic success. Parent-teacher communication, while important, is minimal. But if you look more closely, you won’t find parents being disinterested or disengaged. Instead, you’ll discover that parents in these countries have been engaging in a type of stage setting. Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of attitudes and actions involved in stage setting.

A Supportive Attitude

If parents truly place a good deal of importance on schooling, then their attitudes and actions will reflect this. A genuine interest in a child’s school-related activities – both academic and extra-curricular – is one good example. A supportive attitude can also involve parent-teacher interactions and volunteer work at the school, but these should be viewed as a part of the wider strategy, not as an effective stand-alone approach.

High Expectations

Parents should expect their children to put forth their best effort. Effort alone shouldn’t be the measure of success, and it should be understood that the outcomes should reflect the effort. Effort is more than just trying really hard; it’s about finding ways to succeed, whether that means sacrificing more “fun” activities in order to master a difficult concept, getting organized and being better prepared for tests, or looking for extra help from the classroom teacher or mom and dad.

A “School-First” Attitude

Parents should convey the importance of earning a good education. This can take many forms but, generally, it can come through in the way parents talk about school and the importance of college and university. While sports and other extra-curricular activities have many benefits, if parents place a greater emphasis on a child’s performance in a certain sport than on his or her academic success, the wrong message will come across loud and clear.

The Right Kind of Help

This is a tough one and can be multifaceted. It’s important that young students receive the right kind of help and guidance when needed. For kids in elementary school, parents can help teach basic, essential skills in math and reading. These skills form the foundation for the more complex concepts that they’ll be taught in high school and beyond. Study and organizational skills have also proven to be of great benefit to students and this is an area where parents can teach and keep their kids accountable.

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