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Study: Parents Support Low- and High-Achieving Children Differently

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Parents direct more academic and homework help to their children who struggle in the early years of school, but those kids miss out on broader parent connections and investment that go to academically superior children, according to a new Indiana University study.

The study, "When Children Affect Parents: Children's Academic Performance and Parental Investment," previewed at the American Sociological Association meeting held here this week, tracked the academic achievement of more than 11,600 students in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study from 1st through 3rd grades, and then followed more than 7,800 of them as far as 8th grade. Study author Natasha Yurk, a sociology doctoral student at Indiana University, Bloomington, tracked students' reading test scores in grades 1, 3, 5, and 8, and compared it to an array of ways parents reported "investing" in the child, including academic, economic, cultural, and social resources.

The upshot? After controlling for the family's socio-economic status, race, number of siblings, age of the child, and parents' previous investments, "as early school achievement improves, parents invest more. High achieving children represent a more certain investment," Yurk said. Academically advanced siblings in a family were more likely to receive a broad array of support, including:
• Attending a private school;
• Participating in extracurricular activities and clubs;
• Being given their own computer and additional books;
• Parents eating dinner with the child regularly; and
• Parents organizing "play dates" with other children for the child.

Children struggling academically were less likely to receive these supports. That's not to say low-performing students were ignored. As one might expect, struggling students received more targeted academic help than high-achieving children do, including help with homework and reading or math activities, such as tutoring.

Over the elementary years, the resources built on one another; as academically successful students grew from grade to grade, they continued to get broader perks, while low-achieving siblings got support more targeted to bring them up to par academically. By 5th grade, the parents of high-achieving children were also more likely to volunteer at and be involved in the child's school than the parents of low-performing children. Only in 8th grade were there no significant differences in parent support between high- and low-performing students—possibly, Yurk said, because middle school parents are starting to become less involved generally in secondary school. Moreover, she said it's possible that middle school students are starting to "actively resist" parent supports, by choosing to eat dinner away from home, for example, and so parents become less of a factor for them.

While the study suggests parents do try to compensate and help "bring their kids up" academically, Yurk said the lack of broader parental supports may keep lower-achieving students at a disadvantage, because they aren't exposed to broader social and cultural experiences.

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