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Research on the Factors for School Success

grandfather and grandson on computer


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.

Support refers to the guidance provided by, the communication between, and the interest shown by adults to promote student progress in school. Student progress is facilitated when adults give frequent verbal support and praise; provide the youth with regular, explicit feedback; talk directly to youth about schoolwork and activities; and teach problem solving and negotiation skills. It is what adults do on an on-going basis to help youth learn and achieve.

What Do We Know?

Selected Research Findings

Based on several comprehensive reviews of the literature, family correlates of positive academic achievement for elementary and secondary level students include: (a) parental interest in children's academic and personal growth (Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, & Brissie, 1987; Walberg, 1984), strong parental encouragement of academic pursuits (Clark, 1983), (b) fostering children's interest and skill in reading and math (Hess & Holloway, 1984), (c) orienting a student's attention to learning opportunities (Hess & Holloway, 1984), and (d) recognizing and encouraging the child's special talents (Bloom, 1976; 1985).

Parents and teachers who provide frequent verbal support; praise children's skill performance, progress and efforts; and let children know they care about them and their school performance influence the self-esteem of children and youth; these children tend to perform better in school (Clark, 1990).

Talking with children about schoolwork and school functions was identified by Peng and Lee (1992) as one of the family process variables that showed the strongest relationship with student achievement. Similarly, parents who are involved, in meaningful and ongoing ways (both at school and at home), with their children's schooling, enhance student achievement (Comer, 1984; Henderson & Berla, 1994).

Home support for learning programs and interventions are associated with improved student achievement (Jordan, Snow, & Porche, 2000). Family involvement that is linked to student learning has a greater effect on achievement than general forms of involvement such as volunteering and decision making (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). Finally, the continuity of family involvement over time seems to have a protective effect on youth as they progress across school years. The more families support their children’s learning and educational progress, both in quantity and over time, the more their children tend to do well in school and further their education after graduation (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Marcon, 1999; Miedel & Reynolds, 1999; Sanders & Herting, 2000). In these studies, parent involvement was associated positively with grades and test scores; parents with high involvement ratings tended to have children with higher grades and test scores. It is noteworthy that this finding was similar for all family income levels and backgrounds (Henderson & Mapp, 2002).

Keith and colleagues demonstrated that parent involvement makes a difference for the academic achievement of eighth graders. Based on responses from 21,814 students and their parents, researchers showed that students whose parents were involved had higher grades, largely due to greater homework completion. What is particularly significant about this study is the sample size and the finding that parent involvement contributed to the student grades above and beyond social characteristics (Keith et. al., 1993).

In a comprehensive review of home environmental influences on student achievement, Kellaghan, Sloane, Alvarez, & Bloom (1993) identified the following characteristics of academic guidance and support as positive and significant correlates of academic achievement: (a) frequent encouragement of children for their schoolwork, (b) parental knowledge of strengths and weaknesses in children's school learning and supportive help when needed (e.g., knowledge so supervision of homework is smoother or supplemental tutoring is provided), and (c) availability of a quiet place for study with appropriate books, references materials, and other learning materials. Knowledge of the child's schooling is a positive correlate of students' school performance (Baker & Stevenson, 1986).

Clark (1983) found that parents of high achieving, low income, secondary level, African-American students displayed a greater sense of responsibility in helping their children gain general knowledge and literacy skills and initiated more contacts with school personnel than did parents of low achieving, low income, secondary level, African-American students. In a subsequent study, Clark (1993) found that parents of high and low achievers engaged in similar behaviors; they both talked to their children about homework, read to their children, and monitored completion of classroom assignments. High achievers, however, were more involved in home learning activities and these students spent more time focused on homework supported by their parents. Clark concluded that all parents were enacting some positive behaviors that contributed to student success; however, to be academically successful, students apparently needed parents or other adults to expose them to a wide variety of additional supportive behaviors.

In her observational study of parent-child interaction in teaching situations, Scott-Jones (1987) found that it is not the presence or absence verbal interaction, but the process of interaction that differentiates high- and low-achieving African-American students from low income families. Mothers initiated contact and provided brief didactic material to low-achieving children. They appeared more formal, seemed to lack skills needed to assist the children and expressed more negative expectations for the child. In contrast, high-achieving children initiated more exchange with their mothers and the process of verbal interaction was two-way and interactive; the mothers appeared more comfortable, guided the child's learning, and provided more feedback.

Availability of learning resources (e.g., print materials, paper and pencil, play materials) has been found to be associated with literacy (Hess, Holloway, Price, & Dickson, 1982; Morrow, 1983).

Encouraging children's learning and progress in school, including maintaining a supportive learning environment when grades are lower than desired, helping with homework, discussing the value of a good education and possible career options, and staying in touch with school staff about the youth's progress, has been identified by several researchers as a positive and significant home correlate of students' academic performance (Amato & Ochiltree, 1986; Baker & Stevenson, 1986; Eagle, 1989; Mitrsomwang & Hawley, 1993; Stevenson & Baker, 1987).

The type of parental support differs as a function of grade level. There is evidence that parents' involvement in home-based reinforcement systems for positive behavior and performance in school, enhances children's self-esteem and grades, especially for preschoolers and elementary students (Sattes, 1985). Ziegler (1987) found that while student achievement was enhanced across grades K-12 with parent participation, the type of participation differed for elementary and secondary level students. For elementary students, parent participation in reading and literacy programs, even for parents with lower literacy skills and varied language backgrounds, enhanced student achievement. For middle and high school students, parents who were aware of what their children were studying in school, communicated regularly with teachers, and reinforced schoolwork had children who made greater achievement gains.

Sixth graders’ perceived support from parents predicted their academic goal orientations which is consistent with previous research findings linking positive parenting practices to mastery goal orientations (Hokoda & Fincham, 1995; Wentzel, 1998).

Parental involvement helps students to internalize educational values. When parents show an interest and enthusiasm for what their children are learning, they provide a support system at home that buttresses the child’s academic learning and reinforces the value of schooling. By providing such emotional support, parents establish a foundation for socializing children’s motivation to learn. Parents communicate the importance of education. Students are motivated when they observe their parents take an active interest in school. When parents communicate their values about education and learning, students in middle schools were more motivated and had higher perceived academic competence (Marchant, Paulson, & Rothlisberg, 2001). A home environment that focuses on the value of education and learning and availability of learning resources has been shown to be more valuable for the achievement of low income African American students than a home environment focused on direct assistance with schoolwork (Halle, Kurtz-Costes, & Mahoney, 1997).

Parental assistance with homework does not always influence grades and test scores positively. Using longitudinal data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY), Shumow and Miller (2001) conducted comprehensive interviews with parents of 60 students in middle schools in urban, rural, and suburban settings. They found that parents of struggling or average students assisted more at home with schoolwork than parents of successful students; the latter group of parents was involved more at school. Although at-home involvement was related to positive student attitudes about school, a negative relationship between at-home involvement with grades and test scores emerged. Students felt it was important to perform well at school when parents were more involved at home.

There is evidence for coordinated family and school support for enhancing students’ achievement during the transition to middle school. Gutman and Midgley (2000) found that the combinations of parent involvement at home with teacher support for learning or parental involvement and student sense of belonging had a significant positive effect on grade point averages (GPA) for students who had transitioned to middle school. In this study, students reported on three influences: parent involvement (talking to students about school, checking homework, attending school functions, volunteering at school), teacher support (helping students, being supportive rather than critical), and sense of belonging (feeling accepted, respected, and included at school). No single influence had an effect on student grades. Students who reported high parent involvement and a high sense of belonging or high parent involvement and high teacher support also had higher average grades than students who reported low support at home and school. Thus, parent involvement alone does not have a substantial effect on grades; students must also feel that they belong and have support for their learning at school.

Using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88), which consisted of over 24, 000 eighth graders and their parents and teachers, Ho and Willms (1996) found that parental help to plan education programs and discussing school activities at home had a greater effect on the students’ standardized test scores in reading and math than did monitoring out-of-school activities, having contacts with school staff, or volunteering and attending parent-teacher conferences and other school functions.

Parental communication and home support for learning has an effect on students’ postsecondary enrollment and education plans. Using longitudinal data from NELS:88 and the third follow-up in 1994, Trusty (1999) found that if students’ believed their parents communicated with them and supported their learning in eighth grade, they were more likely to have plans to continue their higher education two years post high school graduation. Regardless of income and family background, students’ expectations for further schooling were affected by these variables; students’ reports of parents’ home-based involvement showed the strongest effects. Thus, the more students perceive parental involvement and support, the farther they expect to go in school.

An authoritative parenting style appears to mediate children's academic and social competence through the use of problem solving to discuss schoolwork and every day events, modeling of problem solving and negotiation skills, and facilitating learning through support and expectations for success (Steinberg, Lamborn, Dornbusch, & Darling, 1992).

Enhancing learning opportunities at home, specifically related to postsecondary options, has demonstrated positive outcomes for 12th graders irrespective of family backgrounds (race, parental education, income). Students are more likely to enroll in a challenging academic program, earn credits toward graduation, and make higher test scores when parents express high expectations, discuss attending college, and help students prepare for college (Catsambis, 1998). The most effective types of parent involvement are aimed at advising and guiding teens’ academic decisions for future endeavors rather than supervising students’ behavior (e.g., making contact with the school, excessive monitoring, focusing only on high school graduation).

Teachers who provide regular, explicit, extensive feedback elicit higher achievement (Brophy, 1986). Particularly important is the degree to which students understand what makes their responses right or wrong. McKee & Witt (1990) also identified that performance feedback and follow-up on seatwork were related to achievement. It seems that this feedback and follow-up is more influential than general praise and reward.

General praise like "good work" is unrelated to student achievement gains. Neutral, task-specific praise is related positively to student achievement; the relationship between the frequency of general praise and achievement is usually quite low and sometimes negative (Brophy & Evertson, 1976; Brophy & Good, 1986). Characteristics of effective praise include immediacy, task specificity, and maintaining an academic focus.

The most critical aspect of effective feedback is the degree to which it enhances student opportunity to respond. Anderson, Evertson, & Brophy (1979) found that first graders who were high achievers in reading received sustaining rather than terminal feedback from teachers. Sustaining feedback maintains the interaction between teachers and students; teachers rephrase questions or provide cues and prompts.

Feedback based on continuous monitoring of student performance and appropriate instructional modifications for student skill level has been shown to be positively correlated with student achievement for students with and without special learning needs (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1986). Further, parents may facilitate learning by scaffolding new concepts; in doing so, parents are seen as trusted partners (Gonzalez-DeHass, Willems & Holbein, 2005).

Students who understand how to solve problems and how to approach tasks achieve more in schools (Winne, 1985). Students who are directly taught thinking skills and use learning strategies complete more schoolwork and have higher grades (Weinstein & Mayer, 1986).

Parents who provide autonomy support for their children help prepare children for the school environment, which emphasizes independent mastery and self-regulation (Grolnick & Ryan, 1989).

Further, students are made to be more resilient after experiencing success and failure and working through academic struggles (Bempechat, 2000). Parents, therefore, can assist in the use of mistakes as learning tools.

A significant, positive relationship between achievement and the use of specific motivational strategies is consistently demonstrated in the literature (Newby, 1991). Motivational strategies that emphasize personal effort (Dweck, 1975; 1991), setting goals (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1986), maintaining student engagement with the learning task (Ainley, 1993), and teacher presentation of tasks with positive expectations, such as the knowledge or skills that will be gained from task completion (Brophy, 1983), have been shown to enhance student academic performance.

Garbarino (1995) cites the importance of supporting community efforts to increase supervised recreational activities where youth can experience success.

The Search Institute identified the importance of the influence of the family, but also recognized that this influence weakens outside the borders of the individual family. In fact, when care and support of individual families within communities were compared, significant differences between communities helped to explain levels of risky youth behavior. Blyth (1992) contends that families must care about their communities and be involved in making their neighborhoods better places for children.

Friends and elders in the community seem to be especially important for youth who demonstrate resiliency. These youth seek out support, comfort, and counsel from community members, including favorite teachers, during difficult times. In a study of youngsters who displayed resilient characteristics in Kauai, the resilient youth could identify at least one teacher who was a critical person in providing support (Werner, 1995).

Focus Group Comments

How Do We Do This?

At Home

Home Support for Learning


Support through Struggles

Parental Communication and Involvement with the School

In School

Within Community


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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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