In graduate school, study after study I read linked parental involvement with school success. So shouldn’t more parental involvement lead to even more school success? Not necessarily. Consider the following two situations I experienced this semester:
A fourteen-year-old girl is failing all her classes. She has a language-based learning disability that is so severe, she couldn’t figure out how an apple and banana were similar. Yet in class, they were studying the foundations of democracy. It was no wonder she hadn’t turned in any work. At the assessment, I found that she was strong in nonverbal/visual learning, and recommended a more restrictive, yet more intervention-rich environment that could support her learning. I rarely lay it on super thick for parents, but in this case I presented the situation as dire, because it was. This girl was on the track to illiteracy because she couldn’t make any sense of the material given to her. After my impassioned speech for changing this girl’s placement to a special class with trained staff to support her, the mom, who has another kid at the school, said, “I don’t really feel like driving to two different schools, so I’ll keep her here.”
A seven-year-old girl is struggling in reading sight words. The school is providing her with a reading specialist three days a week, just to make sure her skills are strong. After assessing her, it turns out she is average in all areas of reading, including her sight words. She is above average in everything else. I think its time to celebrate the power of early intervention and keep her in the school program just to reinforce the skills. Parent is worried child will never get into Harvard, where both parents attended, if she does not get ahead now. Parent elects to pay a hojillion dollars to send her to an outside specialist for intensive intervention after school every day. Parents decide to sue the school to get her into special education with a one-on-one teacher aide in the classroom to support her and challenge the results of my assessment with an expensive outside evaluation. Additionally, the parents change the name of the family dog to a sight word she is struggling with, so she can really learn how it looks—on a collar, on a dog bowl, on the dog’s jacket—etc etc.
Talk about a tale of two parents. Surely there is a happy medium, no? I saw my role with parent #1 to educate her about the class, help her tour the class to feel comfortable sending her daughter there, and to try to problem solve the transportation issue, if indeed that was the real issue. I also get the inclination for parent #2 to do absolutely everything humanly possible to help her child. I do. Every child is someone’s precious baby and they want the best for them. But can there be too much parent involvement? I would think that “Once” the dog would say yes.
I often see too much parent involvement backfire not in the early elementary years, but in the middle and high school years, when teenagers are striving for independence and autonomy and they have the opposite. I have parents who know every assignment, every detail, and everything about their teenager’s schooling. I shudder to think of my parents, when I was in high school, knowing when my Great Gatsby essay rough draft was due, or if I had finished math homework 2.7, problems 35-52. I would have been so annoyed. Sure, did I stay up way too late reading the cliffs notes for the Great Gatsby in high school and suffer through a bad grade as a result? Did I spell his name “Gatspy” throughout the essay? Yes. Did I scramble to finish problems 35-53 in the passing period before math class? Yes. Did I learn from my procrastination? Yes. Big time. If my mom was hounding me to read the book and start my outline, I may have finished the book and done better on my essay, but would I have learned how to manage my time better?*
I have also seen parents give too much independence to teenagers who still need parent support, because they shift their focus to helping younger siblings. I don’t have the answer about what is the “just right” level of parent involvement, but I do know the extremes. I also know that the way kids interpret parent monitoring—as either caring or controlling—can make a difference in motivation.** I have sat across from teens complaining their parents are too controlling and then later sat across from the parents saying they monitor because they care. Both parties are correct in their feelings. I help the kids understand the motivation behind monitoring and help the parents understand that their role should change in high school from monitor to facilitator. I wrote an article about homework across the ages, that gives specific tips for parents, if you haven’t seen it yet.
As for the tale of two parents, I hope each achieves a balance that serves the children best. As it usually is in this profession, I stay tuned to find out. One encouraging email did come to me this week from a parent of a teen I worked with a year ago that read: “Thank you for helping us figure out our role as “facilitators” with Jamie. We are doing our best to support him when needed, but let him stumble sometimes so he learns his own homework routine.” Yes, sometimes victories come years later. Plant the seeds and wait. That’s how school psychologists roll.
*Oh the shame. I still haven’t read the Great Gatsby to this day. Maybe my mom should have pushed me? I hear it’s a great book. Perhaps over break, I shall finally finish it.
**Courtesy of my dissertation, read by two people: my dad and my advisor. Thanks, dad.