Low-achieving children benefit when moms help with schoolwork

April 30, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Teachers constantly call on parents to be more involved with their children's schoolwork. In the case of struggling students, that plea is right on target, because parental help levels the academic playing field, a University of Illinois study has found.

The study looked closely at what makes parents - in this case moms - get more involved with children's homework, in particular monitoring and helping their children. The results showed that low-achieving elementary students raised both their daily and long-term performance when their mothers got involved, said Eva M. Pomerantz, a professor of psychology.

The study was detailed in April during the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. It also appeared in the March issue of Developmental Psychology.

For 18 months, Pomerantz and Missa Murry Eaton, a doctoral student in psychology, examined 166 fourth, fifth and sixth graders and their mothers on both a daily and long-term basis. They analyzed the children's grades in English, math, reading, science, social studies and spelling. They asked the pupils how unsure they were about their ability to meet academic standards. Moms rated their standards for grades and their level of worry about their children's ability to meet them.

Perhaps expectedly, children who were doing poorly and were uncertain about how to do better had more worried mothers. In response to their worries, many mothers became more intrusive regarding homework. Without waiting for an invitation to help, they either simply monitored daily assignments to assure they were done correctly, or they helped children through the problem-solving process. Researchers label these forms of taking charge as intrusive support.

The conclusion, Pomerantz said, was that both responses did more good than harm. "These practices increase children's achievement," she said. "We find this both for the next day at school and for six months down the road. However, while these practices do appear to increase children's achievement, they do not bring children's grades up above the level of kids who already are doing well in school. That is, when mothers monitor and help their kids without being requested to do so, they do not turn their low-achieving kids into high-achieving kids, but rather average-achieving kids."

Past research has suggested that such controlling tactics by parents can promote poor achievement in children by undermining their motivation and sense of autonomy. Such a conclusion may be true for children who are meeting or exceeding standards, but not for low-achieving kids, Pomerantz said.

"When parents are helping their low-achieving children with their homework or just checking it over, they are indicating to their children that it is important to do well at school," she said. "They are teaching them the skills that are necessary to do well. Even though this controlling approach may not foster a love of school, it is making kids work harder to meet the standards."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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