More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Parenting Style Key to Good Schoolwork
May 14, 2004

When kids struggle in school, parents may be tempted to help them do their homework, or withhold privileges until their grades go up. But these controlling and punitive strategies can actually make an underperforming child do more poorly, new research finds.

What's more effective, a new study has found, is just a little extra encouragement.

In the study, published today in Child Development, researchers tracked mother-and-child pairs to see how the mother's parenting style affected the child's performance.

The researchers found low-achieving children showed success when their mothers reacted to the child's struggles in an encouraging way, by nodding or helping the child think through a strategy to solve the problem.

But struggling kids failed even more often when their mothers reacted in a controlling manner, either by taking over the task themselves or punishing children for not performing well.

"There's a lot of frustration and anxiety when a child is struggling," says study author Eva Pomerantz, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois in Champaign. "Parents need to be careful about how they get involved in the life of a low-achieving child."

Pomerantz and her colleagues suspect low-achieving kids hear so much about their failures at school that they need parents to help them build confidence in their abilities. "Parents who discuss problems with their child and let the work through the problem on their own give the child skills for the future," she says.

Experts agree parents need to remember that their behavior during homework time can affect how a child performs at school.

"It is important to recognize ... that parents contribute to children's academic success instead of assuming that home and school are entirely independent of each other," explains Judith Myers-Walls, an associate professor in child development and family studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Success Builds Shield
While mothers' behavior affected the success of low-achieving children, high-achieving children performed well even if the mothers were supportive or controlling.

"High-achieving kids already have a lot of confidence," explains Pomerantz. "If they have a failure, they might think 'I'm not going to let this interfere with my abilities' or 'I don't need my mom to help me through this.' "

High-achieving kids get lots of feedback at school that tells them they are doing well. Yet Pomerantz says parents of high-achieving kids are not meaningless to the process: "I think this study on its own might conclude that, but there are larger studies out there that show parenting style can affect high-achieving kids too."

For example, Pomerantz notes, "Both high and low-achieving children benefit from parents just sitting with the child while they do their homework." Such children develop less depression and anxiety over the homework tasks.

Advice for Parents
"It takes more time and energy to be a supportive parent," Pomerantz says. "You have to take the time to have discussions about a child's problem instead of just telling the child what to do."

Experts agree parents should emphasize the learning process rather than the specific outcome. As children build confidence in the process, the outcome will improve.

Explains Jay Reeve, a senior psychologist in the Children's Inpatient Unit at Bradley Hospital in Providence, R.I., "Children should be given help and encouragement, including such structure as a specific homework time during which no other activities are allowed. But parents should make clear from a fairly young age that homework is the child's job, and that they are expected to either do it on their own, or request help. The aim is for the child to feel some ownership of the process, not as if they have to do it to please or displease their parents."

Pomerantz recommends taking a break if you are frustrated with your child's struggles. "Take a deep breath. Leave the room."

In the study, moms who were most supportive actually sat on their hands to prevent themselves from interfering while their kids did homework.

Modeling good behavior for children is also important. "If the parents are watching television when the child is to be doing homework, or if the parents never read or do other academic tasks, the child will be likely to do the same," warns Myers-Walls.
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