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Research on the factors for school success

father and son talking with teacher


Sandra L. Christenson, Ph.D Professor — College of Education and Human Development and Cathryn Peterson, Teacher — Armstrong High School, Robbinsdale, MN

Revised June 2013 by Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for school success.


Climate/Relationships refers to the amount of warmth and friendliness; praise and recognition; and the degree to which the adult-youth relationship is positive and respectful. Student success at school is enhanced when students experience cooperative, accepting environments; a non-blaming relationship between home and school; and encouragement, praise and involvement from key adults. Continuity between home and school relationships and interactions, influences the degree of academic achievement of youth. Climate/Relationships is how adults in the home, in the school, and in the community help youth to be learners.

What Do We Know?

Selected Research Findings

Implementing school-wide programs that emphasize partnering with parents to develop children's and adolescents' behavioral, social, and academic competence has been shown to be effective in increasing academic and social skills and reducing behavior referrals and suspensions (Comer & Haynes, 1992). In this program, the emphasis was placed on developing a non-blaming, positive relationship between home and school, one that reduces the discontinuity students often experience when traversing these settings.

Hansen (1986) demonstrated achievement increases for elementary students for whom there was a match and decreases in achievement for students for whom there was not a match between home and school. He examined the extent to which the interplay of family interactions and rules and classroom interactions and rules influence children's success in elementary schools. Basically, he studied how things are said and done in families compared to classrooms. He found children's grades improved significantly across grades 3-5 for those students for which there was continuity, but declined for students experiencing discontinuity. Similarly, based on a comprehensive literature review, Hess and Holloway (1984) concluded that achievement for students depends on the consensus between parents and educators about the goals of education, the degree to which these goals are taken seriously, and the ability of parents and educators working together to counter knowledge, values, and goals that come from competing sources, such as television and peers. Diffuse and contradictory messages eroded the effectiveness of family or school efforts. This collaborative approach between home and school was supported by the recent research conducted by Zill and Nord (1994), where they demonstrated that school performance for adolescents was significantly better when families and schools worked together toward common goals for students.

The degree to which the parent-child relationship is characterized by parental acceptance, nurturance, encouragement, involvement and responsiveness to the child's needs is positively associated with academic achievement for students (Clark, 1983; Hess & Holloway, 1984; Walberg, 1984). In their study of high school students, Dornbusch and Ritter (1992) showed that parental encouragement was associated positively with academic performance if the student was doing reasonably well in school. These parent behaviors were not associated with improvements in academic performance: punishment, rewards for grades, expression of negative emotion, and uninvolvement. Across many studies high achievers report receiving more encouragement from their parents than under-achievers.

In an examination of 2,699 youth, aged 11-20 years, from eight cultures, Scott, Scott, and McCabe (1991) showed that: (a) youth's poor interpersonal skills are associated with high parental protectiveness (e.g., authoritarian parenting), (b) youth hostility and aggression are associated with parental punitiveness, and (c) positive self-esteem and low anxiety for youth are associated with family harmony and nurturance. These findings were similar across the different cultures.

It has been shown that a positive affective relationship between parents and children increases the likelihood that the child will initiate and persist in challenging and intellectual tasks (Estrada, Arsenio, Hess, & Holloway, 1987). Parent behaviors related to cognitive development are amount of interaction, providing support in problem-solving activities, and allowing children to explore (Ferguson, 1987; Portes, Franke, Alsup, 1984).

When studying children's post-divorce socio-emotional adjustment, researchers have found that families in which nurturance, mutual support, and some family rituals were maintained, yielded the best performance/behavior for children. Family process variables, such as positive affect, involvement, and problem solving, were significant in promoting children's social competence (Portes, Howell, Brown, Eichenberger, & Mas, 1992). In another study with over 400 fourth and sixth graders in China, parental acceptance and parental resources, such as education, occupation, and personal psychological functioning, have been shown to be strongly associated with children's social competence and use of little aggression (Chen & Rubin, 1994).

Redding (2000) identified Parent-Child Relationship [e.g., daily conversation, vocabulary development, expressions of affection, cultural experiences (libraries, zoos, museums), and discussions of books and newspaper events] as one of three family patterns that enhance positive habits of learning for youth. Children benefit from a parent-child relationship that is verbally rich and emotionally supportive. Although busy families fall out of the habit of daily conversation, the importance of bi-directional communication is particularly important for adolescents. Talking with older students about schoolwork is important for fostering achievement motivation (Bempechat, 2000). One study identified parent expectations, talking about schoolwork, providing learning materials, and learning opportunities outside of school as the most influential family actions (Peng & Lee, 1992).

Heller and Fantuzzo (1993) found that combining parent involvement with peer tutoring in mathematics showed the greatest achievement in math scores, better work habits, and higher levels of motivation for elementary students. In addition to raising children’s confidence with peers and in the classroom, high levels of satisfaction were reported by parents, teachers, and children.

When parents, teachers, and students communicate, meet, and plan together, fewer behavioral problems and improved school experiences result (Webster-Stratton, 1993).

The benefits of a collaborative family-school relationship include enhancing communication and coordination between parents and educators; continuity in programs and approaches across family and school contexts; shared ownership and commitment to educational goals; increased understanding of the complexities of the child and his/her situation; and pooling of resources to increase the range and quality of solutions, diversity in expertise, and integrity of educational programs (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). We also know that when teachers reach out to and involve parents, they view parents more positively and stereotype parents less than those teachers who do not involve parents (Epstein & Sanders, 2000).

The quality of family-school interaction is critical for students’ academic success (Patrikakou & Weissberg, 2000). The quality of the family-school relationship is a predictor of students’ grades in high school; however, the amount of variance in GPA accounted for, while significant, is small (Adams & Christenson, 2000).The quality of the school-family partnership was significantly related to improved attendance for 80 public elementary schools (Epstein, Clark, Salinas, & Sanders, 1997). Students at these schools also made small but significant gains on writing and math tests.

The quality rather than the quantity of parent-teacher interactions is the important variable for student outcomes (Izzo, Weissberg, Kasprow, & Fendrich, 1999). These researchers studied 1200 students in grades K-3 in urban schools. They found that parental engagement in home learning activities was the strongest positive predictor for reading and math achievement. Parent participation in activities at school was positively related to students’ school engagement, a measure of their learning problems, acting out, and work habits. The quality of parent-teacher interactions was positively correlated with students’ social and emotional adjustment, whereas the number of parent-teacher contacts negatively predicted students’ school engagement and adjustment. The researchers suggest that frequent contacts may mean children are not performing well in school. Thus, efforts to foster constructive interactions between home and school are warranted.

Westat and Policy Studies Associates (2001) conducted a study for the U.S. Department of Education that examined the impact of standards-based reform practices (e.g., teaching techniques, teacher ratings of professional development, focus on assessment and accountability, outreach to parents) on student achievement in 71 Title 1 elementary schools. Teacher outreach to parents of low performing students, which measured how much teachers communicated with parents and included meetings, sending educational materials home, and regular, routine telephone contact, was positively related to gains in reading and math achievement. Differences were marked between schools with high and low outreach to parents. For example, the growth in student test scores in math between third and fifth grade was 40% higher for low achieving students in schools where teachers reported high levels of parent outreach compared with students in schools whose teachers reported low levels of parent outreach. Growth in reading test scores was 50% higher when high levels of teacher outreach to parents occurred early (i.e., grade 3).

It is noteworthy that students are more likely to avoid high-risk behavior (e.g., substance abuse, violence) when they feel connected to their families and schools (Resnick et al., 1997). Also, graduation rates for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities were significantly higher for students who received Check & Connect than for the control group (Sinclair, Christenson, & Thurlow, 2005). Check & Connect is a model designed to promote student engagement with school through relationship building, problem solving, and persistence. Check & Connect consists of three main components: (1) a mentor who works with students and families over an extended period of time (years), (2) regularly checking on the educational progress of the student, and (3) intervening in a timely manner to re-establish and maintain students’ connection to school and learning. Relationships among students, educators and families are underscored in this intervention.

School programs that successfully connect with families and community share common dimensions. They include: invitation to be involved and to be a partner; a welcoming approach and attitude; responsive to family and community needs; attention to creating and sustaining respectful, trusting relationships; and embracing a philosophy of partnership where the responsibility for children’s educational outcomes are shared (Christenson, 2003; 2004; Pena, 2000).

Cox (2005) critically reviewed the research design, methodological quality, and effectiveness of 18 studies that used home-school collaboration to improve the academic and social development of youth. Cox concluded that home-school collaborative interventions are effective in helping achieve desired educational outcomes. The most effective interventions are those where families and educators work together to implement interventions utilizing a two-way exchange of information (e.g., parent-teacher action research teams) and those involving two-way communication (e.g., daily report cards, school-to-home-notes).

Much evidence exists for the positive benefits of both home and school support for students’ achievement (Carlson & Christenson, 2005; Gutman & Midgley, 2000; Sanders & Hertig, 2000; Trusty, 1999). Students who experience continuity in the messages provided by home and school report feeling more self-confident and recognizing the value of school and learning. They also are less disruptive in classrooms, earn higher grades, have better attendance, and are more likely to go to college or other post secondary options.

A cooperative, pleasant classroom climate, in which students are accepted and assisted in completing academic work successfully, is a strong correlate of achievement for students in both regular and special education settings (Fraser, 1980). Students for which there is a match between their actual and preferred classrooms excel on several indicators of achievement, including grades, classroom participation, and test scores (Fisher & Fraser, 1983).

A supportive teacher-student relationship has been identified as a critical element for students' school success (Brophy & Good, 1986). Of utmost importance is the research conducted with students at-risk for educational failure. Many times these students feel alienated and do not experience a sense of belonging in the school environment. School programs that have established a positive teacher-student relationship, particularly one that supports the student and helps the student feel connected have been successful in reducing the probability of dropping out (Fine, 1986; Whelage & Rutter, 1986). Finn and Cox (1992) have shown that fourth grade students who were active participants, passive participants, or non-participants in classrooms differed in achievement since first grade. Student withdrawal from participation in the classroom needs to be monitored carefully by teachers.

Students, regardless of age, ability, subject area, or learning task, have been found to achieve more in cooperative, rather than competitive or individualistic learning structures (Johnson & Johnson, 1986; Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson, & Skon, 1981). Additionally, research has demonstrated that students achieve more when they help each other during independent seatwork (Slavin, 1980). The effects of cross-age peer tutoring, peer-assisted instruction, and class-wide peer tutoring are positive for students (Cohen, Kulik, & Kulik, 1982).

Brophy and Evertson found that teachers who produce the highest levels of achievement are businesslike and task oriented. The majority of the time in the classroom is spent on academic activities; the classroom is clearly a learning place. These teachers also have high levels of self-efficacy, take personal responsibility for what is happening in the classroom, are well organized, and plan proactively (Brophy & Good, 1986).

The level of student socio-economic-status has an impact on what type of teacher/student relationship and learning environment is best for the student. Students of lower SES do better in school when there is more structure and control than do students of higher SES (Conell, Halpern-Felsher, Clifford, Crichlow, & Usinger, 1995). To further highlight this difference, teachers in classrooms with students of higher SES levels, produced more from students when they challenged their students and communicated high expectations. This is in contrast to classrooms where students were of lower SES levels. Teachers in these classrooms gained the most from students when they motivated their students through gentle and positive praise, rather than challenge (Brophy & Good, 1986).

Police in Kennebunk, Maine were frustrated by the slow process of the juvenile court system. As a result, they initiated a program called Jump Start to shorten the time between offense and consequence. The program is structured so non-violent first time offenders sign a contract and the offender's parents sign the contract. The offender then participates in a three month probation where he/she completes community service, makes restitution for the offense, writes letters of apology to the victims, and completes an eight week decision-making skills course in conjunction with the police department. In addition, each youth offender is provided with adult mentor to assist and support them throughout the program. The focus of the project is on building assets and forming relationships with caring, supportive adults. The results after the first 15 months of the program are as follows: 57 youth have been through the program and there have been 3 repeat offenders which results in a 7% recidivism rate as compared to a former rate of 35-40%. Additional positive outcomes on youth have included increased academic performance or participation in groups such as AA (Search Institute, 1996).

According to the Search Institute in their work on asset building and community health, the majority of youth need to experience a positive school relationship in order for the community health to improve (Blyth, 1992).

Well planned family-school partnerships enhance academic achievement for youth (Comer, 1995). Schools need the family and the community to be successful, but often there are barriers to these partnerships. Family involvement is most successful when teachers assume that all parents want the best for their children and will make important contributions to the lives of their children. In addition, family involvement is usually higher during elementary years and then declines during secondary years of school. The importance of these relationships was reiterated in a California State University, Fresno project called Parent Power. Pre-service teachers worked with families in the community for ten weeks. During this time families completed surveys regarding family involvement programs. This program resulted in improved grades and classroom behavior, and seemed to reduce tension at home. Lastly, these positive relationships can enhance family decision making when teachers treat families with care and respect (Shartrand, Weiss, Kreider, & Lopez, 1997).

Youth benefit from relationships with teachers, parents and parents of their friends. These relationships have an impact on their academic achievement-related beliefs and performance. In addition, positive adult relationships help to increase student engagement in school (Connell, Halpern-Felsher, Clifford, Crichlow, & Usinger, 1995)

Focus Group Comments

How Do We Do This?

At Home

Positive Affective Relationship

Facilitating Communication

Encouragement and Advice

In School

Within Community


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Brophy, J. E., & Good, T. L. (1986). Teacher behavior and student achievement. In M. L. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd ed.) (pp. 328-375). New York: MacMillan.

Blyth, D. (1992). Healthy communities; healthy youth: How communities contribute to positive youth development. Minneapolis, MN: The Search Institute.

Carlson, C., & Christenson, S. L. (Eds.). (2005). Evidence-based parent and family interventions in school psychology [Special issue]. School Psychology Quarterly, 20(4).

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Heller, L. R., & Fantuzzo, J. W. (1993). Reciprocal peer tutoring and parent partnership: Does parent involvement make a difference? School Psychology Review, 22(3), 517-534.

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Related resources

Building stronger parent-child relationships — Strengthen your own relationships with your children to help them succeed in school.

Modeling — Review what the research says about modeling, and the role that the modeling behavior of parents, teachers, and other adults enhances children's school success. Part of the Research on the factors for school success series.

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