When you think of parents who are really involved in their kids’ education, who do you picture? For most of us, it’s probably the mom or dad who is hunched over the table, helping with homework, or who manages to go to every single school event and PTA meeting, or who seems to have an endless string of enriching activities on the family calendar. It’s easy to feel guilty that we aren’t more like that person.
But a growing base of research suggests that kind of school involvement doesn’t actually make much of a difference for kids’ success in school. In fact, some of the things we normally think of an “involved parent” doing, like puzzling through algebra homework with a child after dinner, may actually hurt as much as they help.
So what does matter? If you want to support your child’s education, what should you do? Recent studies point towards a few important but simple things:
1. Read with your kids as much as possible
We've said it before and we'll say it again: Reading really matters. Start early, when your kids are young, and make reading a regular habit as they grow older. Kids who love reading are more likely to thrive in school. Check out our advice for how to raise a reader.
2. Set high expectations
Tell your kids you expect them to work hard and do well in school, and celebrate when they do. Researchers at the University of Texas-Austin and Duke University found that simply expecting your child to go to college (and telling them that, over and over again) was one of a very short list of parental activities that seemed to be connected to greater student success. (Just don’t go overboard.)
3. Talk about school with your kids regularly
Asking questions about what your children are doing and learning at school not only helps you be aware of what’s going on, but also shows them that you care and are paying attention. Plus, talking with kids a lot plays a critical role in vocabulary and language development in general. Not sure what to ask? Try Understood.org’s list of conversation starters.
4. Don’t be a bystander
Review report cards carefully. Ask questions of teachers. Be actively involved in decisions that affect your child’s education, even if no one’s asked your opinion. The same researchers who found that expecting your child to go to college is important also found that students whose parents requested specific teachers seemed to do better in school—regardless of whether they got the teacher they wanted or not. It’s not clear why, but it may reflect that parents who know what they want and aren’t afraid to ask for it have more success, or that it sends a clear message to schools that such parents are watching and ready to act.
Does this mean none of the other stuff matters? Of course not. Volunteering at school and participating in school events may still have an impact in other meaningful ways, from strengthening the school community to supporting individual teachers and classrooms. That’s good for everyone. But if you don’t have a lot of extra time and aren’t sure where to focus first, start with the list above.