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Parents can help students in many ways

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on April 5, 2012)

On Education

We know that teachers, schools and principals create climates for students’ academic success, but what about parents?

As a mother to seven children (now grown), I don’t need a research study to tell me that parents are important. I still recall how challenging it was to get to all those conferences, open houses, PTA meetings, sports events and other extracurricular activities.

But a growing body of research indicates that parent engagement takes many different forms and that parents help students achieve. At Peabody College, professors Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler have shown that parent educational involvement happens at home, at school, in parent-teacher-school communications and through the values, goals, expectations and aspirations that parents share with their children. Work by Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler also suggests that the hallmark of a good school is one that is welcoming and hospitable to parents.

When parents encourage their children, model the learning behaviors they want them to adopt, reinforce their efforts or instruct them directly — and when children perceive these actions positively — children learn that they can be academically successful. They become more motivated, ask questions and develop the social skills and self-confidence to ask their teachers for help. When everything falls into place, the end result is better grades, SAT or ACT scores and success in other school activities.

I asked Hoover-Dempsey what one piece of advice she would give to parents, and she said, “Even parents who can’t be at school can be clear in showing their interest. I would encourage them to be as actively involved in their students’ education as possible — supporting them, encouraging them, and telling them that what and how they are doing in school really matters.”

My own experience taught me that parents should consider themselves advocates both to and for their children. We should make it clear to our children that we value education and that we expect them to put in the effort to be successful at it.

But there are also times when we need to advocate on their behalf. For me, this meant pushing for one gifted child to receive extra academic challenges, while pushing for another with learning disabilities to receive extra help. Sometimes it just meant keeping teachers and schools informed about events at home so that they could be supportive if called for.

Advocacy, however, is not the same as helicopter parenting. As an educator, I have seen too many instances in which a student’s personal development has been hurt by parents who refuse to let a child succeed or fail on his or her own. When it comes to learning the value of persistence, a setback can be the best teacher.

Parents need to know that they play a critical role in their children’s education and that they can help their children succeed.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.