Parents play a large role in their children’s views about education and their school outcomes. But what can parents say or do that will be most helpful? And how can schools improve parents’ ability to boost their kids’ academic outcomes?

Research led by Mindset Scholar Mesmin Destin, an associate professor of psychology and education at Northwestern University, sought answers to these questions.

As he described in a recent video for the Mindset Scholars Network, Mesmin is currently studying how parent practices affect children’s motivation and academic outcomes.



In a paper recently published in The Journal of Adolescence, Mesmin and Ryan Svoboda, a graduate student at Northwestern, reported on the effects of an intervention they hoped would help improve grades of eighth grade students by changing parents’ interactions with their children.

First, the researchers recruited six parents whose children had already completed eighth grade to lead a 45-minute panel presentation about how they helped their kids think about college opportunities and ways they responded positively when their children experienced academic difficulty. These parents met with the research team and developed scripted answers to the questions they would be asked during the panel based on their own experiences. The scripted answers focused on the importance of having challenging, early conversations about the future with their children and that academic struggles during adolescence are normal and should be interpreted as a sign to provide continued support to their children.

The researchers then recruited 45 parents of current eighth grade students to attend either the parent panel (26 parents) or a control, (19 parents) “get to know you” discussion.

Directly after the program, all of the parents completed a survey. It included questions about parents’ plans to talk to their children about the future (i.e., “When is the next time that you plan to talk with your child about college?”), and parents’ strategies to respond to their children’s future academic challenges (i.e., “When my child is working on a school task that feels difficult, it means that the task is important.”).

Participants in the parent panel indicated that they planned to discuss college with their children sooner than those in the control group. They also responded more positively to hypothetical experiences of academic difficulty for their children.

The parent panel affected children’s academic outcomes. The grades of children whose parents attended the parent panel increased throughout the year; at the end of the school year, these students’ grades rose approximately a half letter grade higher than students whose parents attended the “get to know you” discussion.

Although this first study worked with a small sample, it provides promising evidence that it is possible to use light-touch approaches to positively influence how parents talk to their kids about the future and academic challenges in ways that improve their children’s grades. Continued research on this topic could provide additional insights into the ways parenting practices can positively affect adolescent behavior and outcomes.

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