"Use everyday activities such as cooking or gardening as fun opportunities to learn"

Teaching and Talking

6th October 2017

More than anything else, parental engagement in a child’s education is the biggest factor determining future success. Lisa Botwright finds out more…

When it comes to education, parents will generally move mountains to get their children into the right school. We’ll question them about their day (the familiar ‘what did you do at school darling?’… ‘nothing!’) and we’ll nag them to do their homework until we’re blue in the face. And it’s just as well, because research shows that the overriding factor for future success is parents being actively engaged in their child’s learning. ‘Such engagement can boost children’s self-esteem, increase motivation and engagement with learning and can lead to increased learning outcomes,’ offers Dr Janet Goodall, a lecturer in Educational Leadership at the University of Bath and author of Narrowing the Achievement Gap. ‘Specific examples,’ she goes on to offer, ‘include parents providing learning opportunities for their children, whether related to school (extra tuition) or other forms of learning…such as music lessons, scouting or guiding, or membership of sports clubs.’

But with so much criticism levelled at so-called ‘tiger-mums’ or ‘helicopter-parents’, aren’t there too many mixed messages about what constitutes the right level of engagement? Is it possible for our children to have too much of a good thing?

New research from Arizona State University found that children whose parents place the greatest emphasis on academic success – typically seen as ‘tiger-mother behaviour’ – are more likely to be anxious and depressed. ‘A fixation on grades and involvement in excessive activities can work against helping kids become well-adjusted and successful later in life,’ the study proposes.

“It’s so important for children not to be over-scheduled,” Shirley Drummond, Head of St Helen’s College in Hillingdon, tells me. “Parents need to give their offspring space to reflect and relax, and also to model that behaviour by enjoying family down-time in a really positive way.” And those parents who hover protectively (helicopter-style) can inadvertently affect their child’s ability to build independence and resilience. “Do try and give your children the same level of independence at home as they are given at school: simple things like allowing them to pack their own school bag from an early age.”

So how else should we engage with our children’s learning in the most productive way? According to Janet Goodall, it’s all about the attitude to learning that we present to our children: all the myriad of signals we give off, conveying our values, aspirations and expectations regarding education. ‘To be most effective, parental engagement needs to be rooted in the home, in an attitude that fosters learning in the home, as this has shown to be most positively related to children’s achievements.’ Learning, as Janet points out, is a very broad term, not just including ‘schooling’, but everything parents do to teach their children how to be successful adults from the moment they’re born – from tying their shoe-laces and telling the time, to saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to how to behave on a play-date.

This includes talking to them. A lot. Conversation really matters, according to researchers at the University of Winchester, who highlight the fact that ‘the more parents and children talk to each other, the better students achieve.’ They suggest using mealtimes as an opportunity to talk, and creating space for a child to tell parents if they’re stressed to worried.

Actively cultivating a positive atmosphere for learning at home is vitally important: ‘Notice what your child loves doing and provide hands-on experiences where possible,’ the study advises. ‘Find things to do together and use everyday activities such as cooking or gardening as fun opportunities to learn’.

There should also be room for children to be allowed to make mistakes. ‘Learning to fail’ may seem counter-productive, but when children understand that as long as they try their best and learn from their mistakes, they are more likely to challenge themselves. In Dr Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, she argues that hard work should be valued over innate ability. Children who are taught to believe they’re naturally talented in a particular area may be less resilient, she contends – their confidence and sense-of-self can be eroded by a poor test score, for example. Instead, parents should make it clear that learning takes lots of effort and involves being prepared to brush yourself down and start again in the face of adversity.

This idea is gaining currency in many schools, including Northwood College, where the Head of Junior School, Zara Hubble, has banned erasers in the classroom, so that the girls recognise that it is the process of learning that is important, not just the outcome. “I encourage parents to recognise this and not just celebrate top marks,” she tells me.

There could be confusion about an approach such as this, though, unless parents take time to understand and support the ethos of their child’s school. Schools in England now have to prove to their inspectorate body (whether that’s Ofsted for state schools, or the ISI for independent schools) that they involve parents effectively, and this is a good thing. With learning and schooling so closely intertwined, the ideal scenario is when parents work in partnership with their child’s teachers and actively support each other.

But while it’s a school’s responsibility to reach out to parents to break down their teaching approach, particularly the role that parents can play to facilitate this – it’s a two-way street. A survey carried out by PTA UK (www.pta.org.uk) found that two of the biggest barriers to developing an effective home-school partnership is ‘lack of time for both teachers and parents, and difficulty getting parents interested/involved.’ After all, with today’s busy lifestyles, often with both parents working, it’s a continual juggling act for most adults to attend every Information Evening, and to read all the letters that come home. Schools are doing their best to modernise their communications systems and reduce their paper-trail by using online parents’ portals, social media or even apps; and to schedule events at more convenient working-parent-friendly times.

At St Helen’s College, Shirley assures me that her pupils’ parents are very supportive, and make every effort to get in tune with how their school teaches. “Maths methodology, for example, has really changed,” she points out. When it comes to homework, the tricky skill is in parents striking a balance between being on hand to offer help, while developing their child’s all-important self-sufficiency and autonomy. “We call it the four Bs… Brain, Book, Buddy (i.e. their peers) and Boss.” Even when children exhaust the first three options and call on a parent (the Boss) for help, Shirley cautions that “sometimes it’s better to take a step back, and simply note in the homework diary that it was a particularly tricky piece of work. Keep it real, keep it age-appropriate and definitely don’t make your child work any longer than necessary,” she advises.

The University of Winchester research points out that ‘as yet, there is no handbook of parent engagement’, but concludes that ‘in the educational development of children, [parental engagement] improves attainment more than any other single factor’. That includes taking things like social background and quality of schools into account. This is powerful stuff, but perhaps unsurprising when it’s estimated that between 75% and 85% of a child’s waking hours are spent outside the influence of school. And while that responsibility seems pretty daunting to me, as a parent – I can see that all it really boils down to is making sure they know we’re rooting for them, and that we value their hard work.

And that frustrating answer ‘nothing’ when we do take an interest in their day? “Och, they can’t remember what they’ve done because they’ve done so much!” laughs Shirley.

Practical Ideas for Parents:
(From: The Impact of Parent Engagement on Learner Success: A Digest of Research for Teachers and Parents, University of Winchester)

1. EXPECTATIONS
• Be clear about their high-expectations
• Look ahead and help their child to set goals
• Teach that children can get smarter and learn more effectively through effort and positive thinking
• Show affection and warmth while at the same time maintaining consistent boundaries

2. ROUTINES
• Set clear routines and encourage your child to be involved in a reasonable amount of regular extracurricular activity
• Use mealtimes as opportunities to talk
• Set aside time to read with their child and to look at their school and home work
• Create space for their child to tell them when s/he is under stress or worried

3. OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN
• Ensure their home has lots of games, puzzles and books
• Make sure that their child has a quiet place to study
• Find things to learn together regularly, sometimes creating special one-to-one time with each child
• Use everyday activities, cooking, gardening, making things, reading the newspaper to do things together

4. SUPPORT
• Celebrate effort and hard work whenever possible
• Tune in to the way their child learns, providing hands-on experiences and opportunities to reflect
• Teach their child to practise – setting aside time, setting goals, repeating the hard bits, watching experts etc
• Make it clear that learning involves making mistakes and requires effort

5. CULTURE
• Encourage their child’s questioning!
• Notice what their child loves doing and be on the lookout for their emerging passions
• Talk about times when they are finding something difficult and what they are doing to cope

6. ROLE MODELLING
• Talk about their own learning, successes, frustrations, times they have had to persist at something
• Take the opportunity to share their passions and show how they make time to do things that matter to them
• Talk about people they admire.

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