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Influence On Child's Educational Aspirations And Attainment

A considerable body of research conducted within the United States and across countries has over-whelmingly demonstrated the profound influence of parents' beliefs and behaviors on children's educational aspirations and academic achievement. What remains unclear is how parental belief systems are transmitted to and manifested in children, and how belief systems function among families of varied socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

Effects of Socialization

Many theorists and researchers regard the development of student beliefs and behaviors conducive to achievement (e.g., belief in one's ability, effective learning strategy use, motivation for academic tasks, strong work orientation) as the product of socialization processes. In a 1996 study, Manuel Martinez-Pons tested a theoretical model indicating that parental belief and behavior systems induce their children's educational aspirations–through parental modeling of attitudes and strategies, encouragement and facilitation of academically related goals and activities, and reinforcement or rewarding of student achievement.

Examples of specific parental behaviors that may influence children's educational aspirations can be found in recent reviews of parental involvement in homework. This literature suggests that parents use a wide array of cognitive and social strategies to facilitate their children's learning. These strategies range from simple efforts such as creating a physical space for completing homework and providing general oversight and encouragement of the homework process to interacting with the child's school or teacher about homework and engaging in homework tasks with the child. Parents also appear to use more sophisticated strategies that are designed to create a "fit" between a particular task and the child's abilities (e.g., breaking tasks into discrete, manageable parts), support children's understanding of specific homework tasks (e.g., helping the child organize personal thinking about the assignment), and support their understanding of strategies conducive to achievement (e.g., developing problem-solving skills).

Parenting Styles

In addition to their involvement in specific aspects of their children's education, styles of parenting also affect children's attitudes toward academic achievement. For example, adolescents who described their parents as "warm, democratic, and firm" (i.e., a parenting style characterized as authoritative parenting) were more likely than their peers to develop positive attitudes toward and beliefs about their achievement. These results, however, were true for a predominantly white middle-class to upper-middle-class population. Investigation of links between parenting practices and academic achievement among varied ethnic groups have suggested that the relationship between parenting style and achievement is more complex.

Students' educational aspirations appear to be influenced not only by parents, but also by peers. For example, Laurence Steinberg, Sanford Dornbusch, and B. Bradford Brown (1992) found that high-achieving white students benefited from the combination of authoritative parenting and peer support for achievement, while lower-achieving Hispanic students suffered from a combination of authoritarian parenting (characterized by high demands and low warmth) and low peer support. For African-American students, the benefits of authoritative parenting appeared to be offset by low peer support for achievement, while the negative consequences on Asian-American students of authoritarian parenting were tempered by peer support.

Theories of Influence

The combined influence of parents and peers supports theorists who argue that parents' educational aspirations for their children, and children's own aspirations, stem from socially constructed roles. Role theory suggests that beliefs are derived from expectations held by groups for the behavior of its individual members (e.g., a family's expectations for a child's academic achievement). Roles are also sets of behaviors characteristic of specific kinds of group members (e.g., minority elementary-school students). As such, role construction involves three interactive processes: (1) structural demands (i.e., What do others expect of me?), (2) personal role conceptions (i.e., What do I expect of myself?), and (3) role behavior (i.e., What do I/should I do?). Put simply, role can be characterized by two components: beliefs individuals hold and actions that individuals take.

Because it accounts for interactions among varied psychological and sociological factors experienced by members of different races, social classes, and ethnicities, role theory is a valuable tool for explaining the conflicting evidence surrounding parents' influence on children's educational aspirations. Further, some researchers speculate that understanding how parental roles are constructed may enhance educators' abilities to effectively involve parents in their children's education, and thus enhance student outcomes.

Another useful theoretical tool for disentangling differential patterns of parental belief and behavior systems is John U. Ogbu's cultural ecological theory. From this perspective, within minority groups, students' choice of strategies for succeeding in school are believed to stem from their desire to take the path of least resistance to the dominant social group, and to improve their status within their own peer group. Further, Ogbu characterizes minority groups' status as voluntary (i.e., immigrant families) and involuntary (i.e., native-born families), and he contends that voluntary minorities have more social pressure to do well in school than involuntary minorities. His argument is supported by a collection of ethnographies and other qualitative studies describing the combined influence of self, peer, and parental expectations and valuing of education among immigrant students and their native-born peers.

Specifically, these studies have noted that while many immigrant students invest personal time and energy in studying and seeking extra help, what appears to drive these self-regulatory efforts is a constellation of self, peer, and parental values that place great importance on the role of education. Moreover, when voluntary and involuntary minority families are compared, the children of immigrant families appear to have higher educational aspirations and academic achievement than their native-born peers.

Compounding the difficulty in understanding how parental aspirations influence children's ability beliefs and learning behaviors is the fact that children receive and require differing levels of support and guidance from parents and peers according to their cognitive, social, and emotional development. In general, educational psychologists view the development of beliefs and behaviors conducive to achievement as a movement from largely socially regulated experiences in the early grades to more self-regulated learning experiences in middle and high school. Thus, the quality and quantity of parental influence on students' positive aspirations for achievement differ as children move from elementary to high school.


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