Out-of-School Influences and Academic Success

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From birth to age eighteen, children spend just a fraction of their lives in school. Thus it is not surprising that many factors outside the school environment can significantly influence students' prospects for academic success in school. These factors are in play both during the years before children begin formal schooling and while they are actually enrolled in elementary and secondary school.

A diverse array of issues, including (but not limited to) parents' beliefs and expectations about education; the availability and quality of child care; family economic status; the persistence, or absence, of violence in a child's life; access to social services; physical and mental health issues; opportunities for constructive, healthy activities outside of school; and the nature and strength of school-community connections, can make a difference in a child's opportunities to do well in school.


Much of the work concerning out-of-school influences on students' prospects for academic success stems from James Coleman's 1966 study of racial and ethnic segregation, student and family characteristics, and student achievement. In Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), prepared for the United States Department of Education, Coleman found that family factors such as household composition, socioeconomic status, and parents' level of education were stronger predictors of students' educational attainment than were direct school-related factors.

The Coleman study gave rise to decades of research and writing, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, on so-called family effects on students' academic achievement. These studies generally concluded that the factors Coleman identified do exert enormous influence on students' achievement, though they are not necessarily deterministic of it. Students who come from backgrounds that would seem to doom them to school failure often find a way to beat the odds and achieve at high academic levels. And some students who hail from seemingly ideal life situations never thrive academically.

During the 1990s, as the United States education system was focused intensely on raising academic achievement across the board under the banner "All Students Can Learn," many educators, researchers, and policymakers began to adopt the no excuses philosophy. Regardless of a child's life circumstances, they asserted, an effective education environment can overcome other challenges and enable all children to achieve at high levels.

As is the case with most complicated issues, both points of view have considerable merit. All (or nearly all) students can learn. But the circumstances of a child's life, the social indicators that paint a cumulative picture of a child's total environment, are important signposts pinpointing conditions that either make learning possible or present challenges that must be overcome to pave the way for learning.

Parental Influence

A commonly used phrase, but one that has the ring of substantial truth, is that parents are their children's first teachers. The home environment shapes a child's initial views of learning. Parents' beliefs, expectations, and attitudes about education and their children's achievement have a profound early impact on students' conceptions of the place of education in their lives. What parents think about the importance (or unimportance) of doing well in school is often mirrored in student results. A study by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company found that nearly all students (97%) who earned mostly A's and B's on their report cards reported that their parents encouraged them to do well in school. Among students who earned mostly C's, nearly half (49%) said they received little parental encouragement.

Some families clearly have more resources to devote to their children and can more easily find time to spend nurturing and encouraging them. When both parents work (an increasingly common phenomenon) or when a child is being raised by a single parent, finding time to read to the child, to encourage the completion of homework, or to participate in school functionsall known to have a salutary effect on student success in schoolbecome more difficult. The problem is often compounded for parents who speak limited or no English.

However, regardless of family composition or circumstance, the research is clear. Children whose families provide supervision and support, and who have aspirations for their children, tend to multiply those children's chances of being successful students.

Family Economic Status

Many children grow up in homes with an abundance of fiscal and material resources. But not all do. As of 1998, 13 million children in the United States (19% of children age eighteen or younger) lived below the federally established poverty line. Children eighteen and under make up just 26 percent of the total U.S. population, but they represent 40 percent of the population living in poverty. Stated more starkly, the United States, the richest nation in the world, ranks highest in childhood poverty among all the industrialized nations of the world.

Poverty takes a toll on students' school performance. Poor children are twice as likely as their more affluent counterparts to repeat a grade; to be suspended, expelled, or drop out of high school; and to be placed in special education classes.

Family composition and economic circumstance are often intertwined. More than half of the poor families in the United States are headed by an unmarried mother who must balance employment issues (these women are often trapped in low-wage jobs) with child care and parenting responsibilities. In sum, children from more economically affluent home circumstances have a leg up in many areas of life, including education.

Preparing for School

Children begin learning from the time they are born. Where children spend their time before they enter kindergarten has an effect on both their readiness for school and their chances for good long-term achievement results.

Six in ten children in the United States, or nearly 12 million children younger than age five, spend part of their waking hours being cared for by someone other than their parents. There are a variety of care circumstances. Sometimes young children are looked after by a relative, such as a grandmother or an aunt. Some young children spend part of their day in the care of a licensed provider who may watch over several children at the same time. Some preschoolers attend organized preschool or early childhood education programs.

Studies show that early childhood care and education make a difference. The quality of care young children receive establishes the foundation for their future academic success. Young children who are exposed to high-quality care settings, geared to their social, emotional, and intellectual development, exhibit better language and mathematics skills, better cognitive and social skills, and better relationships with classmates than do children in low-quality care.

The nature of quality of early care has been shown to have lasting impacts. Children in high-quality care environments are less likely than children in low-quality care circumstances to repeat a grade, require special education services, drop out of school, or find themselves in future trouble with the law.

For many families, the childcare issue revolves around two central concerns: cost and access. Even if quality care is available, many families cannot afford to pay for it. And for many families, quality care is simply not available.

Physical and Mental Health

Overall, children's health improved substantially during the last decades of the twentieth century. Infant mortality rates went down, and many childhood diseases once thought incurable attained high cure rates or became preventable altogether.

Healthboth physical and mental well-beinghas obvious links to students' prospects for doing well in school. Children who are physically ill fail to attend school regularly, and when they do attend they are often unable to focus on their schoolwork. Children with untreated mental health problems experience a range of school-related difficulties, from acting-out behavior in the classroom to an inability to make friends and develop collegial attachments.

Research shows that attention to children's health is important even before a child is born. Low-birthweight babies, often born to mothers who smoke, drink, or eat unhealthy diets during pregnancy, are at greater risk of becoming children with a host of developmental difficulties.

Despite the compelling importance of robust physical and mental health to students' prospects for academic success, large numbers of American children have inadequate access to appropriate health care services. Not surprisingly, access to quality services is often a function of family income. The less financially stable the child's family, the less likely the child is to have regular medical care.

Children covered by health insurance are more likely to have better access to health care than are children not covered by such insurance. As of 1999, 10 million children in the United States (14% of the child population) were uninsured.

Other significant risk factors, particularly for adolescents, are drugs and alcohol. Drinking, smoking cigarettes, and using harder drugs, from marijuana to cocaine, can cause substantial long-term physical and mental health problems. In the short-term, use of many of these substances can cause reduced school attendance and general inattention to school studies.

The Impact of Violence

Violence in children's lives can come in many forms. Sometimes it is violence children witness, such as violence between their parents or caregivers, or violence in the communities in which they live. Sometimes children themselves are the victims of violence, whether it be abuse by a parent or relative, or physical (or verbal) attacks in their neighborhoods. These kinds of violence have long-term impacts on children, affecting their expectations about life and their views of the world.

Violence outside of school can shape students' attitudes about school. A child surrounded by a violent environment who does not expect to live to adulthood may see little purpose in completing an education. Violence in the home increases the likelihood that a student will spend at least part of childhood and/or adolescence in the child protective services system, perhaps in foster care. For children who live with violence, the situation is quite often just one of a constellation of challenging circumstances. Violence is often a partner to poverty and an unstable home life.

One of the most prevalent contemporary milieus for youth violence is gangs. Gang activity exists in all fifty states. Membership in gangsoften seen by adolescents as a kind of badge of honor or admission to a privileged clubincreases the likelihood of involvement in criminal activities. Effective anti-gang programs have been shown to include intervention by police and officers of the juvenile justice system, family and youth education programs, and providing alternative outlets for youths' time and energy.

An important research finding is that gang activity, or at least attraction to it, begins early. As early as the third or fourth grade, students (particularly boys) can be lured into believing that becoming a member of a gang is an important social goal. Thus, programs to prevent students from joining gangs need to begin in elementary school.

Out-of-School Activities: Recreation and Employment

How students spend their time when they are not in school can have a significant impact on their opportunity to succeed in school.

Youth organizations. Research suggests that participation in various kinds of youth organizations contributes to better behavior in school, improved social skills, more self-confidence, and higher academic expectations. Organizations such as the YMCA and YWCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H, and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts often provide academic support as a complement to activities designed to foster social and emotional development. Athletic programs, such as Little League and those organized by local recreation and parks departments, offer healthy outlets for children's and adolescents' energy, while also building skills such as personal responsibility and teamwork.

Mentoring relationships can ensure that a caring adult is part of a child's life, and they have been shown to offer important benefits. Research has shown that programs such as the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America contribute to lower rates of drug and alcohol use, reduced violence, and better school attendance, performance, and attitudes.

Youth employment. As many as 76 percent of youth in the United States are working, or have worked, in paid employment by age sixteen. Researchers differ regarding the impact of work on adolescents' academic achievement. Some studies conclude that work provides students with useful skills and attributes, among them instilling a sense of responsibility and heightening students' sense of self-efficacy, and that these have a positive spillover effect in school. However, other research concludes that work is just a distraction for most students, in that it competes with school for students' time and attention.

Of course, students work for different reasons. Some students are significant breadwinners for their families. Their earnings represent an important part of the families' income. Some students work specifically to save money for college. Most studies, however, show that the vast majority of students who work do so to earn spending money for things they want to buy.

Research has shown that the amount of time a student works is a factor in determining employment's impact on educational performance. For students working twenty or fewer hours per week, few problems seem to arise. But for students working more than twenty hours per week, work can present education-related problems where the job takes precedence over school.

Connecting Schools, Families, and Neighborhoods

For most students, school creates an important community settinga safe place where time is structured (which children and teens do crave, even if they do not always appreciate it) and friends are present. Families and neighborhoods complete a student's community, and consciously connecting schools, families, and neighborhoods offers significant advantages for students, particularly those at academic risk.

Students who are struggling in school are often plagued by a host of problems outside of school. Offering students the best opportunity to succeed in school may require helping not just the student, but also treating the student's entire family.

Among the systems devised for this purpose are school-linked and school-based programs of social services. The goal of these programs is to directly connect family support servicessuch as health care, income support, English language acquisition, and job trainingwith schools as a way of increasing families' access to these services. Located either on school grounds (school-based) or nearby in the surrounding neighborhood (school-linked), these efforts foster partnerships between schools and social services agencies, ideally giving each a chance to do what it does best.

Despite the promise of such programs, they have not been problem-free. Difficulties arise around allocation of resources, turf (who is in charge of what?), and misunderstandings about the roles and responsibilities of various involved professionals. Research has shown that for school-based or school-linked programs to produce the desired results, social services need not just to be linked to schools, but must be integrated into schools' activities and functions, creating new pressures for schools regarding what they are expected to do and under what circumstances. Whatever kind of program is employed, what is important is for services to reach students and their families so that education can be a student's primary responsibility.


Schools do not exist in a vacuum. A host of factors contribute to students' prospects for academic success. Some students come to school with all they need: stable and supportive families, adequate financial resources, and good health. For students who do not enjoy these advantages, making provision to help them meet outside-of-school challenges can provide just the boost they need to succeed in school.

See also: Coleman, James S.; Family Composition and Circumstance; Family, School, and Community Connections; Health and Education; Parenting; Violence, Children's Exposure to.


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internet resource

Schwartz, Wendy. 1996. "An Overview of Strategies to Reduce School Violence." ERIC Identifier ED 410321. New York: Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education. <www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed410321.html>.

Julia E. Koppich