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What does it take for a child to succeed at school?


Q: How do I explain to parents that the success of their children often hinges on parental participation? I’m asking for a friend in education.

A: You should have seen my face when I read this question. It might best be described as “yikes.” My reaction isn’t because you’re right or wrong about parental participation; it’s because there are some sweeping generalizations in this question that hurt children, teachers and parents. As I respond, please know that I still think it’s a valid question, and one that is asked by parents and educators alike.

The first thing we have to tackle is the idea of a child’s “success.” Depending on your country, culture and family, your child’s success will look vastly different. Even within the United States, we have differing ideas of what success looks like. Maybe success for a child is achieving straight A’s, being an athlete or good citizen, or being kind, obedient or compassionate. I could go on and on.

I am assuming that, because you’re asking for a friend in education, the typical proof of a child’s success is good grades and obedient behavior in school, but success could also be a child’s creativity, thoughtfulness, critical thinking, athleticism, musicality, compassion, leadership or other characteristic.

Here’s where your question comes in: You want me to tell you how to explain to families that all of these successes, all of these traits, often hinge on children’s parents being involved in their schooling, homework, studying and more. The ability for a child to succeed doesn’t also depend on the school environment, the teachers, the administration, the counselors, the coaches and the music or art instructors, to name a few? It just depends on parental participation? We can all agree this is patently incorrect, yes?

There is no doubt that children can thrive in school when their home environment is safe, their parents are interested in their learning and there is good food and solid routines. But what about the students who have all of that and still aren’t “successful” in school? And what about the students who have chaotic homes, filled with addiction, poverty and fear, yet still succeed in school? According to your theory, only the children who have parental participation have a shot at succeeding. And, well, that simply isn’t true.

I was reminded of the fabulous book by W. Thomas Boyce, “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.” In this book, Boyce makes a case for two different types of children: orchids and dandelions. The dandelions are resilient and seem to cope with most stressors in their lives, while the orchids are more sensitive and appear to struggle more in bad situations, but they thrive more in good situations.

According to Boyce’s work, it would seem as if parental participation might be helpful, but ultimately, most children are going to come out okay. Even though parental participation might be strong in a sensitive child’s life, this might not lead to success. And extra support might still be needed to help sensitive children, which could come from loving teachers, compassionate counselors, skilled school specialists or school psychologists.

Explaining to parents that their children’s success hinges on parental participation feels incomplete, shortsighted and shame-based. I would instead use a pie chart, and add as many slices as you need. You could have parental support and participation, teachers, administration, food/sleep/exercise, in-school and out-of-school routines, and playtime. This way, everyone has a vested interest in helping children reach their full potential, whatever that may be.

When communities come together, that participation looks different for various parents. The single parent who was diagnosed with cancer? They need more support, because their ability to engage has been compromised. The family with the new baby? They may need additional help. The teacher who’s out with a sick parent? Students’ parents can participate more to support that teacher.

I cannot tell you how to explain to parents that their participation is what their children’s success hinges upon, because it isn’t true. It shames parents and undermines teachers. Parents are important, but everyone owns a piece of the pie. Explain that to the parents and the school community, and watch children’s success grow. Good luck.

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