Academic Achievement

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Academic Achievement

It is generally accepted that the quality of family interactions has important associations with children's and adolescents' academic motivation and achievement, and with young adults' eventual educational and occupational attainments. Thomas Kellaghan and his colleagues (1993) claim, for example, that the family environment is the most powerful influence in determining students' school achievement, academic motivation, and the number of years of schooling they will receive. Similarly, James S. Coleman (1991) states that parents' involvement in learning activities has substantial emotional and intellectual benefits for children. He observes, however, that because supportive and strong families are significant for school success, teachers confront increasing challenges as many children experience severe family disruption and upheaval. Although it is acknowledged that families are perhaps the most substantial influence on children's school success, it is not always clear which family influences are the most important. In addition, research findings are inconclusive about the extent to which relationships between family interactions and academic performance are independent of a child's family background and family structure.

Family Influences

Coleman (1997) proposes that family influences can be separated into components such as economic, human, and social capital. Economic capital refers to the financial resources and assets available to families, whereas human capital provides parents with the knowledge resources necessary to create supportive learning environments for their children. In contrast, family social capital is defined by the relationships that develop between family members. It is through these relationships that children gain access to the economic, human, and cultural resources of their families. Similarly, Pierre Bourdieu (1998) suggests that children in families from various social status and ethnic/racial groups have differing degrees of access to those forms of cultural capital that support academic success. Bourdieu claims that within social groups, parents provide experiences that result in children developing similar tastes, preferences, academic motivation, and preferences. Eventually, these attributes are related to social status and ethnic/racial group differences in academic and occupational outcomes. A number of theories have been developed to examine those parent-child interactions that provide children with differential access to family resources.

Steinberg's family model. In a set of investigations, Laurence Steinberg (1996) proposes that to understand family influences, it is important to disentangle three different aspects of parenting. These include: (1) parenting style, which provides the emotional context in which parent-child interactions occur; (2) the goals that parents establish for their children; and (3) the practices adopted by parents to help children attain those goals. It has been shown, for example, that a parenting style defined as authoritative is related to positive academic motivation and successful academic achievement (Darling and Steinberg 1993). Such a style creates a context in which parents encourage their children's independence and individuality, provide opportunities for children to be involved in family decision making, expect high standards for their children, and have warm relationships with their children.

Family achievement syndrome. In one of the most significant attempts to construct a framework for the study of family influences, Bernard C. Rosen (1959, 1973) developed the concept of the family achievement syndrome. He proposes that achievement-oriented families can be characterized by variations in the interrelated components of: achievement training, independence training, achievement-value orientations, and educationaloccupational aspirations. Whereas achievement training aims at getting children to do things well, independence training attempts to teach children to do things on their own. Rosen indicates that achievement and independence training act together to generate achievement motivation, which provides children with the impetus to excel in situations involving standards of excellence. In the achievement syndrome, it is proposed that achievement values help to shape children's behavior so that achievement motivation can be translated into successful academic achievement. Rosen states, however, that unless parents express high aspirations for their children, other family influences may not necessarily be associated with academic success. In analyses of social mobility, it has been shown that families from various social status and ethnic/racial groups place different emphases on the dimensions of the family achievement syndrome, and that variations in mobility are related to these group differences in family-achievement orientations.

Bloom's subenvironment model. It was not until Benjamin S. Bloom (1964) and a number of his students examined the family correlates of children's affective and academic outcomes, that a school of research emerged to investigate the relationships between family influences and academic outcomes. Bloom defines family environments as the conditions, forces, and external stimuli that impinge on children. He proposes that these forces, which may be physical or social as well as intellectual, provide a network that surrounds, engulfs, and plays on the child. The Bloom model suggests that the total family context surrounding a child may be considered as being composed of a number of subenvironments. If the development of particular characteristics, such as academic motivation and academic achievement, are to be understood, then it is necessary to identify those subenvironments that are potentially related to the characteristics. The analyses guided by the subenvironment model indicate that it is possible to measure family influences that, when combined, have medium associations with children's academic motivation and large associations with their academic achievement.

Alterable family influences. In an extension of his family model, Bloom (1980) proposes that the objective of family research should be to search for those variables that can be altered, and therefore make a difference in children's learning. The findings from family learning environment research suggest that children's academic success is influenced by the interrelationships among high parental educational and occupational aspirations; a language environment that is characterized by strong reading habits and rich parent-child verbal interactions; academic involvement and support, where parents become actively involved in their children's schooling; an intellectually stimulating home setting, in which parents provide opportunities for children to explore ideas and encourage their children to become involved in imaginationprovoking activities; and parent-child interactions that support the pursuit of excellence in academic and cultural experiences, and that allow independent-oriented behavior. It is important, therefore, that when attempts are made to help families develop more enriched learning environments, the strategies adopted acknowledge the significance of the interrelationships among such influences.

Family Background and Family Structure

Investigations that have adopted refined measures of family influences have tended to show that they are related more strongly to academic outcomes than are more global measures of family background. Kellaghan and this colleagues (1993) conclude, for example, that family social status or cultural background need not determine a child's achievement at school. They propose that for academic success, it is what parents do in the home, and not children's family background, that is significant. Similarly, Sam Redding (1999) indicates that in relation to academic outcomes, the potential limitations associated with poor economic circumstances can be overcome by parents who provide stimulating, supportive, and language-rich experiences for their children.

It is important, however, to recognize the nature of the interrelationships between family background characteristics and more refined family influences. In the development of a model of human development, for example, Stephen J. Ceci and his colleagues (1997) propose that the efficacy of a family influence for academic success is determined to a large degree by a child's family background. They observe that parent-child interactions are the forces that lead to academic performance. In addition, they claim that academic success is achieved only if family background resources can be accessed to maximize the association between family influences and outcomes: relationships between family influences and academic achievement need to take into account the potentially constraining or expanding opportunities provided by children's family backgrounds. Analyses of the relations between families and academic achievement also need to consider children's family structures, such as the influence of single-parent families and the effect of sibling structures.

Single-parent families. Research that has examined relationships between changing family structures and students' school-related outcomes, has tended to show that in relation to two-parent families, children in single-parent families have lower academic performance, are more susceptible to peer pressure to engage in deviant behavior, have higher dropout rates from high school, and have greater social and psychological problems. Although the differences are generally small, a number of theories have been proposed to explain the variations. The no-impact perspective claims, for example, that the association between changing family structures and children's academic outcomes can be attributed to a combination of family background factors such as parents' education and incomes and the ethnicity/race of the family. Further, some researchers propose that much family structure research is inconclusive because it has failed to differentiate among various types of single-parent families such as whether they result from marital disruption (divorce or separation), parental death, or a never-married parent. In addition, it is suggested that many studies fail to take into account the timing in a child's life of a family disruption, the duration of the effects of that disruption, and whether the lone parent is the father, mother, or a guardian. An economic deprivation theory suggests that economic hardship in single-parent families is likely to require adolescents to work long hours and to take greater responsibility for younger brothers and/or sisters. As a result, these time-consuming activities are likely to be related to lower school achievement. In a family socialization perspective, it is proposed that the absence of a parent is probably associated with a decrease in total parental involvement, which in turn is related to poorer school outcomes. It is often claimed that the absence of fathers has particularly negative socialization influences, which may be especially detrimental for boys.

In general, research suggests that differences in the academic achievement of children from single- and two-parent families can be related to changes in the economic circumstances of families and to variations in the quality of parent-child interactions in the different family structures.

Sibling structure. There has been a long-standing fascination with exploring associations between sibling variables, such as the number of children in a family and a child's birth-order position in the family, and children's academic achievement. Typically, these sibling variables have small but significant inverse associations with academic outcomes, especially verbal measures of achievement. A number of theoretical perspectives have been proposed to explain these relationships, including the resource dilution hypothesis and the confluence model.

The resource dilution hypothesis proposes that sibling variables are related to the quality and quantity of parent-child interaction in families, and that such variations in parent resources are associated with sibling differences in academic achievement. That is, the greater the number of children in a family or the later the birth-order position, the more those children have to share family resources. As a result, children have lower scores on those academic outcomes affected by the diluted family influences. An alternate perspective is the confluence model which proposes that children's academic development is affected by the number of children in families, the age-spacing among children, and whether children are only, first, or last born in families. The model claims, for example, that with short birth intervals between children, increasing birth order is related to lower academic performance. In contrast, with sufficiently large intervals, the birth-order pattern may be mitigated or even reversed.

Generally, sibling research suggests that relationships between sibling structure variables and children's academic performance can be attributed to differences in family background, variations in family economic resources, and variations in the quality of parent-child interactions.

International Research

International research is increasingly examining relationships among family background, family influences, and children's academic outcomes. Kevin Marjoribanks (1996), for example, adopted the Steinberg family model and indicated that measures of family human capital, independent-oriented parenting styles, and parental involvement in children's learning accounted for ethnic group differences in Australian adolescents' academic achievement. In an investigation of U.S. students, Vincent J. Roscigno and James W. Ainsworth-Darnell (1999) show that in relation to academic performance, low social status and African-American students receive less return for family investment in cultural trips and educational resources than do their higher social status and white counterparts. In the Netherlands, Nan Dirk De Graaf and his colleagues (2000) examined associations between parental cultural capital and academic performance. They demonstrate that parents' reading behavior is particularly important in low social status families if their children are to be academically successful. In an analysis in the former Czechoslovakia, Raymond S-K. Wong (1998) concludes that parents use a combination of family resources to affect their children's academic outcomes. As a result, he suggests that it is necessary to include both family background and refined family influence measures when attempting to explain differences in children's achievement outcomes. Kevin Marjoribanks and Mzobanzi Mboya (2000) used such a combination of family measures to examine differences in the academic goal orientations of African students in South Africa. The findings indicate that while measures of refined family influences are related to goal orientations, there continue to be unmediated differences for students from various social status backgrounds and from urban-rural locations. In an examination of differences in the academic performance of U.S. children from immigrant families, Lingxin Hao and Melissa Bonstead-Bruns (1998) investigated within- and between-family influences. They demonstrate that parents in immigrant groups provide differing within-family opportunities and support for their children. In addition, families in some groups are able to use the economic and educational resources of their communities. These between-family factors can have a large impact on children's achievement, even when parents within families are unable to provide appropriate support. These studies reflect the diversity of family research in various international settings, and emphasize the complex nature of the relations between families and academic outcomes.

Future Family Research

The complexity of relationships between family background, family structure, parent-child interactions, and academic achievement indicates the difficult task confronting parents and teachers when attempting to design and implement programs to enhance children's academic outcomes. Parents and teachers may, for example, construct what they consider to be supportive and harmonious learning environments. Children's perceptions of those environments, however, may be affected adversely by experiences related to their family backgrounds and family structures. What is needed are investigations that examine how refined measures of within- and between-family cultural and social capital are related to the academic motivation and achievement of children with different family structures and from various social status and ethnic/racial group backgrounds. Only after such inclusive studies are completed—including a number of international contexts—will there be an advance in understanding of the relationships between families and academic achievement.

See also:Birth Order; Children of Alcoholics; Communication: Parent-Child Relationships; Development: Cognitive; Family Literacy; Gifted and Talented Children; Homeschooling; Learning Disorders; Only Children; Parenting Styles; School; School Phobia and School Refusal; Sibling Relationships; Single-Parent Families; Socioeconomic Status


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