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Study: Middle-Class Students Are Better at Asking for Academic Help

It's advice as old as the Bible: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Yet a new University of Pennsylvania study suggests children's social class changes whether and how they seek help from their teachers, in ways that can affect their academic progress.

In a study released today in the American Sociological Review, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco found that while working-class students were more likely to wait for help, middle-class students approached or called for help on their own, and more frequently.

"Unlike their working-class counterparts, middle-class parents explicitly encourage children to feel comfortable asking for help from teachers, and also deliberately coach children on the language and strategies to use in making these requests," Calarco said of the study. "What that means is that middle-class kids' help-seeking skills and strategies effectively become a form of 'cultural capital' in the classroom—by activating those resources, middle-class kids can secure their own advantages in the classroom."

Calarco followed 56 white working- and middle-class students from 3rd through 5th grade in a large public elementary school, using classroom observations, teacher interviews, surveys and reviews of student work. She found that middle-class children asked teachers for help more directly and for a wider range of issues, from clarifying a problem to checking work. Meanwhile, working-class students more frequently struggled through problems on their own or listened at the side of a group of other children asking for help on the same problem.

The middle-class students' more frequent questions often frustrated their teachers—Calarco noted one teacher who called the students "cry-babies who don't wanna do the work"—but overall, Calarco found assertive middle-class students still received more and faster academic help than their more-reticent classmates, and ultimately were able to complete assignments more quickly.

This study seems to offer interesting lessons for educators. Across the board, Calarco found teachers did not give clear directions for what students should do if they ran into trouble or how they should seek help. That seemed to lead to less-advantaged students having less opportunity to get help and better-off students perhaps not trying hard enough to grapple with problems on their own.

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