Learning: Why parents are so important

What parents say and do have a critical impact on academic achievement, writes Sivanes Phillipson.

What impact do parents have on the academic achievement of their children?

My research over the past decade shows that parents play a critical role, using what’s called a ‘learning language’ – what parents say and do, and how they express their expectations and aspirations.

Part of my research work has involved investigation of the issue in Hong Kong, between 2004 and 2011. In three major research projects, there was a common key finding – amongst all parental actions, parental expectations were the most important factor influencing Hong Kong students’ academic achievement.

These expectations are communicated not only through parents telling their children what they expect them to achieve, but also through their actions in ensuring better resources and an environment that facilitates educational success.

In a study commissioned by the Australian Scholarships Group (ASG) known as the Parent Report Card, parents from Australia and New Zealand were asked about the capacity of the current educational environment to meet the educational needs of their children.

They overwhelmingly demonstrated high aspirations for their child. Out of 1900 Australian parents, 94 per cent agreed that higher education was important.

In looking at the relationship between aspirations versus educational and learning resources, interestingly the research found that parental aspirations for their children’s education is the glue that holds everything together.

These aspirations optimise and underpin all other resources and influences that support their children’s educational needs, and help them to fulfil their learning potential.

Parental aspirations, when communicated through their everyday interaction with their children, translates into the learning language that is needed for their children’s success. Hence it is important for parents to become aware of their inherent learning language – which is simply the language of expectations, aspirations and actions.

Finding Time

In this year’s Parent Report Card survey, around 3800 parents responded to what they thought were the challenges to their children’s learning. Initial analysis has shown that one of the key challenges is time. Some parents said:

‘Trying to complete set tasks for homework (for different subjects) every evening after school, plus project work over the weekend. No time for sport or other extra curricular activities.’

‘Very committed to school work, sport, paid work and social/free time. Time for balanced life is biggest challenge.’

Core skills – reading/spelling/phonics and maths don’t seem to be a heavy focus of the curriculum. Time dictates that much of this learning is done at home.’

‘Time to travel to school and home takes away time for study and relaxing at home.’

Since time can be a challenge to many Australian families, the importance of managing the limited time we have becomes even more vital in negotiating what is best for children’s educational success.

How parents prioritise their children’s learning activities is part of their optimising their own learning language. The prioritising includes how parents think, act and communicate with their children in shaping their schooling motivation and academic goals.

What parents think is important and how they parent their children with the resources they have ultimately affects how their children perceive schooling and its social context.

When parents lament that their child is not interested in going to school, some of the underlying causes can be a result of parental influence.

My colleague, Laura McFarland and I examined the data from 1926 boys and 1850 girls, with average age of 12.41 years, from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. We looked at their perceptions of parenting and family climate, in relations to how they perceive connectedness to peers and their school.

Girls generally receive ‘warmer’ parenting and boys generally receive ‘angrier’ parenting, and thus there could be some feedback effect on girls’ and boys’ feeling of belonging at school.

Warm and angry parenting may perhaps form the learning language that I speak about. More interestingly, adolescents’ perception of parenting, and their sense of school belonging, are important in influencing how parenting behaviours impact their children’s confidence and motivation in relations to positive academic performance.

All of this research shows that how parents think, act and interact with their children is articulated through their own learning language that impacts on their children’s educational outcomes.

Hence, it is important for parents to be aware of the types of learning language they need for their children’s success – after all, parents are the first educators of their children.

Associate Professor Dr Sivanes Phillipson is from the Faculty of Education at Monash University. She spoke on Family Research: Why it Matters for Education as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series.