The Key To Smarter Kids: Talking To Them The Right Way

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When it comes to children’s learning, are we focusing too much on schools—and not enough on parents?

“There is, quite rightly, a cacophonous debate on how to reform schools, open up colleges, and widen access to pre-K learning,” notes a new article, “Parenting, Politics, and Social Mobility,” published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But too little attention is paid to another divide affecting social mobility—the parenting gap.”

Given all the roiling debates about how America’s children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15% of their time in school. While there’s no doubt that school is important, a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement—checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home—has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.

Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement (not likely in this stretched economic era).

So parents matter—a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families. But this research also reveals something else: that parents, of all backgrounds, don’t need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don’t need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses. What they need to do with their children is much simpler: talk.

But not just any talk. Although well-known research by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley has shown that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents—a lot more, resulting in a 30 million “word gap” by the time children reach age three—more recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children’s success at school. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics found that two-way adult-child conversations were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking. Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter. As they grow older, this feeling helps middle- and upper-class kids develop into assertive advocates for their own interests, while working-class students tend to avoid asking for help or arguing their own case with teachers, according to research presented at American Sociological Association conference last year.

The content of parents’ conversations with kids matters, too. Children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge, report researchers from the University of Chicago—knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject. Psychologist Susan Levine, who led the study on number words, has also found that the amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world—how big or small or round or sharp objects are—predicts kids’ problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten.

While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong. And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Research by Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, finds that parents play an important role in what Hill calls “academic socialization”—setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job).

Engaging in these sorts of conversations, Hill reports, has a greater impact on educational accomplishment than volunteering at a child’s school or going to PTA meetings, or even taking children to libraries and museums. When it comes to fostering students’ success, it seems, it’s not so much what parents do as what they say.

How can parents support the “academic socialization” of their children? Please share your thoughts below . . .

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14 Responses to “The Key To Smarter Kids: Talking To Them The Right Way”

  1. Fran says:

    Certainly parents make a difference when they have the resources and the opportunity, but let’s not downplay the role that great teacher play. I found this recent post on professional development very convincing about the role of teachers.


  2. Take a look at this blog post in Brain Pickings: http://brainpickings.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=13eb080d8a315477042e0d5b1&id=ffdc28b99c&e=35cbeec2d5. It puts your topic at another level. I was especially struck by what was shared about Amadeus Mozart and how his father’s upbringing reminded me of Michael Jackson’s upbringing.

  3. We also find that there are similar studies supporting the powerful impacts of parents on student achievement is in the studies of psychological resilience.

    What is resilience? “The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune”http://www.thefreedictionary.com/resilience. Also, another resource states: Commonly used terms, which are closely related within psychology, are “psychological resilience”, “emotional resilience”, “hardiness”, “resourcefulness”, and “mental toughness”. The earlier focus on individual capacity which Anthony[16] described as the “invulnerable child” has evolved into a more multilevel ecological perspective that builds on theory developed by Uri Bronfenbrenner (1979), and more recently discussed in the work of Michael Ungar (2004, 2008), Ann Masten (2001), and Michael Rutter (1987, 2008). The focus in research has shifted from “protective factors” toward protective “processes”; trying to understand how different factors are involved in both promoting well-being and protecting against risk.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_resilience. There is a great deal of research into resilience as protective factors and protective processes. The message is the same though.

    We’ve always known that teachers who care make a difference. We also know that parents need to support their children beyond elementary school, but that the parental involvement generally decreases with each year beyond 5th grade. But for all the change that occurs, for all the new challenges and new technologies and new mindsets, resilience is the one necessity that we need more than ever.

    The Search Institute conducted a study and found these conditions and needs: 40 developmental assets http://www.search-institute.org/content/40-developmental-assets-adolescents-ages-12-18. Here’s what needs to be taught what conditions in our environments need to be in place: Strengthening Protective Factors and Developmental Assetshttp://pubs.cde.ca.gov/tcsii/ch8/resilience.aspx

  4. Jill Barshay says:

    I always enjoy your pieces. Delighted that to read that those annoyingly loud monologuing parents are not doing their kids all that much good. I’ve been thinking a lot about parent involvement with homework and how it’s become conventional wisdom that parents should check that a child’s homework has been done. Is there really research to show this is good parenting? Sounds like helicopter parenting to me. Of course, I would want to be available for homework questions. But it’s fine with me if my child suffers consequences at school for incomplete homework. Perhaps he’ll learn to do it on his own initiative and not because his mother nagged him.

  5. Another brilliant post! I cannot remember where I read it or who wrote it, but a linguist wrote an article about his concern of so many mothers strolling the park immersed in smartphones. He made the point that mothers used to stroll around the park talking to children about this and that. However, today’s kids are missing out while mom engaging with her phone while pushing the stroller. I am a mother and I find myself stuck in my phone from time to time. Reading that article was helpful, and I am much more mindful of such habits.

    On a related note, I wrote a blog last night for parents of children who have not yet reached kindergarten.

    “You are your child’s first teacher. Here are three simple ways to enable your young reader. 1) Practice nursery rhymes. 2) Teach letter sounds with lowercase letters 3) Read to your child.”

    The website linked with my information above will take you to the complete posting. It’s a short piece synthesizing years of practice, reading and research.

  6. Yes, I lived in West Palm Beach with the sons and daughters of doctors lawyers and engineers and also in a housing project with so many anxieties and very little knowledge. I know how much more anxiety; little knowledge/skill base; and much less stable, versatile, social vocabulary is in the lower socioeconomic areas. I have seen how the combination of higher average layers of stress and the socially acquired ill from that anxiety created high tensioned dynamics of approaching mental work that raised much higher the total average stress when performing mental work. I saw the modeling of this and the virtual learned helplessness for more complex thinking and more reliance on more physical and less complex and less long-term solutions to problems.
    I have seen how the more stable, knowledge rich environment creates lower layers of average stress that allows much more mental energy to think, learn, reflect (plan), and perform more complex mental work. I have seen how the same lower average stress allows for more correct reflection time or more correct dynamic of approaching newer mental work more slowly. I have seen how the lower average stress created lower muscle tension that allowed for much better handwriting and motivation to write. I have seen how reading is much more improved from the combination of lower average layers of stress and high social vocabulary that allows for the abstract work of reading and the ability to reach into social vocabulary for new words in print. I have seen how the much larger array of more fluent parents, siblings, and peers creates much social vocabulary, ideas, more complex mental/emotional/social/academic knowledge and skills.
    I have seen how both in lower and higher socioeconomic environments, the more aggressive treatment of Male children is creating more social/emotional distance, much less social vocabulary, higher average stress, higher muscle tension hurting handwriting, and lags in maturation of mental/emotional/social skills in general. While this is occurring even in nice, middle class environments, it is greatly amplified in lower socioeconomic environments with those Males receiving the bulk of catharsis of stress from others. I have seen how even the Females in lower socioeconomic environments are receiving much of the same kind, stable, verbal interaction as do Females in higher socioeconomic environments. I feel this differential treatment is creating an ever growing Male Crisis in society both in lower and higher socioeconomic environments.

  7. John Bennett says:

    Right on target as usual!!! I would add however that there are circumstances (in ALL neighborhoods, though maybe more frequent in poorer neighborhoods) that work against parent / student conversation. Therefore I believe the critical need is for what I call Local Education Communities or LECs . I discuss this at length in my Education Week “Finding Common Ground” guest post.

  8. Barbara says:

    It looks like there is a study that would support any hypothesis… I agree that parents are important, and especially their expectations. However, whereas we cannot mandate certain behaviors in parents, we can mandate what happens in schools; therefore, we should be putting more energy into what we can control. Ripley’s research shows that in the most successful school system in the world, Finland, parents rarely participate in anything at school. They trust the teachers to do their jobs. However, Finnish teachers are well paid and highly trained and inspire trust and respect in parents and in students. So while it is nice to know that talking to one’s kids is important, we should focus on improving schools to give all kids a better chance of acquiring a good education.

  9. Bill Kuhl says:

    I struggle with why the standardized test scores in the city I live in our always so much below state average. From what I have been told teachers in this school system are some of the highest paid and most educated in the state. Of course that does not guarantee they are great teachers. To me it just has to indicate that some of the problem has to be in the parenting.

  10. Hana says:

    An excellent synthesis, as always. One more bit of “talk” to add to this mix is Carol Dweck’s notion of “Mindset.” Helping our kids understand that being open to learning & having a “growth” mindset is more important than being merely smart. This means teaching them to persever in the face of challenging material. We can do this by being careful to praise them for for putting in the effort, not for simply being smart.

  11. Mark says:

    They can homeschool. My wife & I have been having these kinds of conversations with our four children their entire lives – uninterrupted by time wasted in school.

  12. Matt Karlsen says:

    I think this post not only has relevance for parent-child discussions but also teacher-child conversations (which, combined, influence the super-important conversations amongst children themselves.) Too many class “discussions” are really just fishing expeditions for pre-determined answers: This research illustrates the importance of a pedagogy of listening and relationships.

  13. Roxanne says:

    Thank you for publishing this well-written report. It reminds me that the Common Core also promotes lots of dialog.

  14. jj says:

    Great teachers only help when there are good to great parents. Full stop. Let’s stop talking about teachers as if they can turn kids who aren’t at grade level when they start into superstars. They can’t and don’t.

    Parents first. Let’s all just get that in our heads.

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