What is the Role of Parents in Education?

By Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

When a parent comes into a classroom in the morning with a student of any age and says: “We had a little trouble with our homework last night,” a little warning light should go on in everyone’s head. The parent is taking too much responsibility for the student’s education, and thus inadvertently compromising the child’s performance.

The engine of high performance is self-determination, and self-determination is fueled by responsibility. If a parent cares more about something than the child, it absolves the child of responsibility.

But is there a way for parents to be involved in their children’s education that increases their responsibility and ownership of their learning? Yes.


Here are some ways parents can be involved without interfering with self-determination:

  1. Build intellectual curiosity into the life of the family before the children are old enough to go to school. The message of the home environment is: “around here we read; we discuss; we look things up; adults enjoy knowledge work.” Maybe, interesting topics are discussed at dinnertime. Maybe, after dinner is reading time. If children see their parents working for some time in the evening, it lessens the sense that they are stuck off in the corner with “work,” while mom and dad are having “fun” watching TV.

  2. When students are five to seven, they will enjoy playing school with you.  You can have them “teach” the homework to you, as they get older.  This way the parents aren’t  “checking” it. Usually kids love teaching their parents. The work usually improves afterwards.

  3. Asking “dumb” questions is a great technique, when the child asks for help.  (This works particularly well when the parent is actually ignorant—AP Physics, perhaps?) “How come you could figure out that problem, but you can’t figure out this one?”  In explaining the difference, the child discovers her mistake—like the way you help someone find something they have misplaced: “Where did you last see it?”  

  4. In many homes the kitchen table is the perfect work place. Here people of all ages read, write, solve problems, create stuff, make art, do research, and talk together about interesting issues. (Half an hour before dinner, for instance, the parent heads for the stove. Twenty minutes later the parent asks the child to stop working and set the table. Telling your child to stop working on his homework is a nice piece of reverse psychology.)

  5. With parents and children working together in the same room parents can both connect and help with homework without taking over. But get into the ritual when they are five. Instituting something when they are 13 it is probably too late. Kids are smart enough to detect a manipulative technique and resist.

These tried and true examples have worked with some children at some times. However, all children are different, and parents need to be creative in inventing ways that work for them.

Don’t go it alone. Form a partnership with the teacher and decide collaboratively what role, if any, you will play in the homework. Depending on the age of the child the student should be in on this discussion, and even lead it. If you and your spouse disagree, get that sorted out ahead of time. Use the school. After all, you are doing this to help them do their job.

parent helping homeworkBefore attempting this at home go through six mental steps:

Step one: Ask: “Who is responsible to whom for what?” (Ans: The child is responsible to the teacher for the homework.)

Step two: Recite: “I will not interfere with my child taking responsibility for his/her homework.”

Step three: Watch out: Pursuing the short-term goal of academic success can interfere with the goal of them taking responsibility for their own education. Choose the long-term goal.

Step four: Lead your children into intellectual activity; don’t send them.

Step five: Check for hypocrisy: “Do I like to work at home in the evening?”

Step six: At least do no harm. A parent’s primary responsibility is to let nothing—not even school—interfere with your home life. School can be oppressive to some kids. It is the teacher’s job to get the child to love schoolwork, not yours.

With these mental orientations firmly in place here’s the bottom line:

1) Be there to help, but don’t interfere. If they struggle help them think things through.

2) No rescuing. Don’t interfere with the consequences of unfinished homework.




Posted on October 31, 2012 by Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

Rick Ackerly is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with forty-five years of experience working in schools. He has served as head of four independent schools, speaks to parent and school groups across the country and presents at numerous education conferences. Rick is the author of The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children and lives in Decatur, Illinois. Visit his blog, The Genius in Children, or follow him on Facebook and  Twitter.

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