How parents influence their children’s school performance

Parents can play an important role in their children's success in school. I

Parents can play an important role in their children's success in school. Image: Julia M Cameron / Pexels

Educational expectations have a positive impact Parents can have a strong impact on the performance and motivation of their children by communicating positive expectations and taking part in school activities. By contrast, parental involvement in learning activities at home has relatively little effect and, in the case of homework monitoring, can actually be harmful. These are some of the results of the largest-ever synthesis of research on parental influence, incorporating numerous meta-studies. It offers many ideas on how schools can encourage parental involvement and thus improve the performance of disadvantaged children.

Many scientific investigations, including the PISA studies, have shown that pupils’ performance is closely linked to family factors. Their influence can even outweigh such factors as class size or educational spending. Success at school depends, on the one hand, on the socioeconomic background, parental education and whether families have a migrant background. However, it is also affected by specific parental behaviors. "Providing parents with support in their behavior is a promising approach to reducing educational inequality. It is easier for them to change their behavior than their income or language skills," says Doris Holzberger , who holds the Professorship for Research on Learning and Instruction at the Technical University of Munich (TUM).

Consequently, the Centre for International Student Assessment (ZIB) at TUM has produced the most comprehensive synthesis of research on parental involvement in their children’s schooling ever conducted. The team analyzed 18 meta-studies that in turn had analyzed around 1700 individual studies.

The research synthesis shows that the most obvious parental activity - involvement in learning at home - actually does relatively little to improve pupils’ results, but can help to boost motivation. Children develop a more positive attitude to learning when they are encouraged to work independently, for example by trying out their own problem-solving approaches. Parents can facilitate good performances by creating a home atmosphere that is suitable for learning. Help with the homework of children can have a negative impact, however, if it is limited to checking and supervision. This is the case especially with pupils in the middle age groups. It is more beneficial when parents set rules on when and where their children do homework, offer help, and give feedback on how carefully the work is done.

Parents have a bigger impact when they communicate positive expectations on education than when they monitor homework and grades. By talking with their children about possible achievements, school certificates or vocational paths, discussing learning strategies or relating praise and criticism whenever possible to specific tasks and results, they can boost children’s confidence on how well they can do in the various subjects and influence how hard they work at school. This effect becomes more pronounced as children get older. By contrast, general discussions on the importance of education are less impactful.

It can also have a positive effect when parents get involved in their children’s school. Pupils whose parents volunteer and participate in decision making, for example in parental advisory committees, perform better. Children also show greater motivation when their parents attend events such as school plays. However, the studies under review only demonstrated correlations, and not causation. That means that it is also quite possible that parents are simply more likely to get involved when their children are already motivated and doing well at school. Meanwhile, communications between teachers and parents have very little effect on children’s performance.

Few meta-studies to date have examined whether the effects of parental involvement differ between families of high and low socioeconomic status. Even less research has been done on the impact of a migrant background. It has been seen, however, that families with a migrant background have relatively high educational expectations. For children in families with low educational attainment and economic status and with a migrant background, support with homework can be particularly beneficial. By contrast, discussions between teachers and parents are more likely to influence the performance of pupils in families with high socioeconomic status.

"The results show that parental involvement can improve the performance and motivation of pupils across all age groups, regardless of socioeconomic status," says study leader Doris Holzberger. "That makes it even more important to have a positive and ongoing working relationship between schools and parents. When teachers can reach fathers and mothers, they can also help children outside the classroom in families where a beneficial parental role cannot be taken for granted. Major potential for reducing educational inequalities is also present in case of parents with migrant background who tend to have high educational expectations, but cannot utilize all options for involvement due to cultural and language barriers."

From the synthesis of meta-studies, the authors have identified ways for schools to promote everyday parental involvement:

  • Schools can raise parents’ awareness of how their involvement can help their children achieve better results.
  • Teachers can support parents in arriving at ambitious but achievable educational expectations for their children. As adolescents become older, teachers can give parents detailed explanations of possible educational goals and vocational paths.
  • Schools can train teachers on how to interact with parents who belong to different status groups or have different cultural backgrounds than the teachers. This can help to lower barriers for parents with migrant backgrounds or low socioeconomic status and eliminate possible prejudices on the part of teachers.
  • To enable parents to effectively support their children with homework and in developing learning strategies, schools can offer individual advice or courses.
  • Teachers can approach parents who seem less involved to suggest participation in school committees. Parents should have opportunities on a regular basis to get involved in school events despite language barriers.

The Centre for International Student Assessment has made the research synthesis available in a special brochure for school administrators, teachers and all parties with an interest in school practice:
Hillmayr, D, Täschner, J., Brockmann, L., Holzberger, D. (2021). ). Elternbeteiligung im schulischen Kontext - Potenzial zur Förderung des schulischen Erfolgs von Schülerinnen und Schülern. Münster: Waxmann (Wissenschaft macht Schule, Band 3) The brochure is available online The working methodology is explained in greater detail here.

The scientific publication is in preparation.

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