How do I support my child in school?

Mathias Maurer

Parents always want the best for their children. They want their children to be involved in school, to be happy learners and do well in exams. That, in principle, is also what the teachers want, otherwise they would be in the wrong profession; but they are not quite as existentially involved, and shouldn’t be because they have to maintain a certain professional distance, an obligation to be neutral.

Parents, on the other hand, are driven by worry. They want to avoid even the smallest life or career chance passing their children by because they know all too well the mantra which is recited up and down the country: the better the child performs in school, the higher the exam marks and the better the future career opportunities and more promising the prospects of a happy and fulfilled life. Such concerns are fully justified and are confirmed by numerous studies about the connection between education and career. The fear of social descent, the concern of parents about the future of their children is reinforced by the fact that the German education system is selective and reproduces social conditions. So, keep all options open and go for the university entrance exams – just in case.

A selective and entitlement system demands sacrifices, criteria and standards which – justified by equal opportunity – lumps all pupils together. That creates pressure – unmistakeably attested by the PISA and IGLU studies. It was also noted that success in school and learning, and thus subsequent career opportunities, stands or falls with parental engagement in school and at home. Schools are dependent on functioning collaboration with parents. The spectrum ranges from helping with homework to involvement on school bodies. That demands commitment and time. But the latter are increasingly short in supply and pressure is increasing because support at home is getting less; and it is getting less because the increasing number of mothers going out to work has meant that “the education system ... has lost an army of millions of unpaid helpers”.

On the other hand, in response to the growing expectations of school that parents should support it in managing school tasks, parents have the feeling with increasing frequency that they are being asked to do things which are actually the job of the school. The same reproach is made in reverse. The different views of who is responsible for what become even more contradictory through findings which show that it is above all well-educated parental homes which are dissatisfied with the school system because the increasing focus on the university entrance exams as the sole educational measure places a strain on everyday family life.

Parents are torn between their wish that the personality and individual potential of their child should be allowed to unfold and the expectation that – as they grow older – their children should come home with good marks, reports and school leaving exams although in general they reject performance pressure and the fixation on marks. Parents must thus be clear in their mind what is more important: discovering the individual development potential of their child or training them to pass the university entrance exams – something which, if well done, need not be mutually exclusive but, if not well done, is. Furthermore, parental influence is limited: the extent to which the atmosphere at school is conducive to learning equally influences successful learning.

Not all support is the same

The so-called Markus study has shown that support does not always equal support. The successful learning of children does not increase when stressed parents force themselves to make time and unwillingly help their children with the homework. It is not the quantity or time devoted to the task which leads to success. Effective support comes from the “intrinsic motivation”, in plain words the enthusiasm of the parents for the subject matter. In education studies this is referred to as the connection between processes of self-efficacy and motivation.

Thus a study by the University of Tübingen identified parental motivation and regard for the subject matter (in this case mathematics) as the crucial factor in learning-related support – independently of the realisation and intensity of the help given. Therefore the good or bad performance of children cannot be reduced to whether or not the parents actually help them with their tasks. As many of us have experienced: despite hours spent on homework and expensive tutoring, the marks don’t improve.

This phenomenon can be taken one step further: it was noted that over-anxious helicopter parents can even hinder their children in developing their potential if the parents themselves are not interested in what their children are learning. Indeed, blind parental commitment and too high expectations lead to controlling behaviour which frustrates the children, undermines their self-confidence in their own abilities and reduces their performance. This connection was, incidentally, also noted in relation to the choice of secondary school pathway: the crucial factor is not the concrete performance and marks of the pupil but the emotional support and interest in the subject matter in the parental home and the resulting “concept which the pupil has of their own abilities”.

And there is another factor which is mostly not thought about sufficiently: parental commitment rises with their “economic and cultural capital”. Accordingly parents with a higher income and greater social or cultural recognition are more committed to helping their children. As a consequence the children of these parents receive greater positive focus from school and teachers and recognition of their potential.

The key element of successful parental support is the enthusiasm for the subject matter to be learnt which is transmitted to the learners.