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Parents are the greatest influence on children’s learning, but how can this influence be harnessed?

Parents are the greatest influence on children’s learning, but how can this influence be harnessed?

Demonstrate to your children the value of education – that’s one of the most important ways a parent can encourage their learning. This is true the world over, although parents have various ways to highlight this value. If parents succeed in convincing their children of the importance of education and can mobilize the resources to provide support, children typically stay in school and do well.

Many of the important contributions from parents do not require money or qualifications. Support can begin with a simple question: “What are you learning about at school?” Parents can bring an extra perspective to what children are studying: “I don’t know if you have heard about this…?” can open a discussion. For example, parents might mention climate change and ask how it fits in with, say, science at school. They can extend what the child is doing in class and bring it home: “What do you think we can do? Can we recycle?” These conversations express that parents value education and support their children.


Parents also set an example. They can let children see them reading for themselves, so parents are not always on their phones and do not leave a television on constantly in the background. Reading with children, especially in the early years, is highly beneficial. But if parents have low literacy skills, just talking with children and telling them stories, even if not from a book, help build language skills.

Parental involvement varies globally

Parental involvement in children’s education is important in every country. However, the way that involvement takes place varies greatly. In some low-income countries, where even low school fees for uniforms, books, or transport can break the family budget, parents show their commitment to their children’s learning by making considerable sacrifices to meet the costs. Sometimes, they manage it only for some members of the family: Perhaps the younger siblings are sent to school while the older ones work to pay the expenses. In Kenya, the best schools tend to be boarding, with children living away from home for many months. If they can, parents show how they value education by paying the fees even though that means losing out on face-to-face childrearing.

In the United States, one of the most important parental contributions to children’s learning is choosing where the family lives. There are thousands of individual school systems, with different books, curricula, and pedagogical strategies; Americans with financial resources often decide where to make their homes based on the school system they want for their children. The location of a school matters much less in China, where schools are more standardized, and where there is a national curriculum and national pedagogical strategies and textbooks. Parents in China and other Asian countries such as the Philippines and Thailand tend to focus more on home support, helping with homework and making sure that children have a designated time and place to study.


Mobilizing parents’ educational input

How can formal education use parents effectively – harness their social capital – for learning? Cultural norms vary. In some places, such as the United States, parents are  expected to volunteer in their children’s classrooms, work at book fairs or other events, or help with fundraising. Jordan has mandatory parents’ councils, which involve parents directly with administrators and teachers. Many countries have variations of this concept. Sometimes the goal is for teachers to communicate what is happening in the classroom and guide parents on how they can support their children’s learning. These initiatives generally work better if they are universally available and non-stigmatizing, rather than focusing solely on parents of children who are struggling. However, some countries (e.g., China) have eschewed these models and generally, parents are not seen in classrooms or at schools there.

Few models harness the support fathers can bring to their children’s education – in fact, much of the research and practice related to parental involvement focuses on mothers. But some countries have recognized the potential of involving fathers. In Jordan, when organizers of a parenting program saw that success mainly involved mothers, imams were recruited to spread messages about parenting to dads at Friday prayers.

The greatest influence is at home 

Home is typically where parents make the most difference in their children’s education. Parents often ask how much help they should give with homework. It is good to lend a hand if children are struggling at school, with the parent acting like a tutor to help children understand or practice reading with text support. But some parents go too far and take over, making children feel that they cannot do it on their own. Children need to feel efficacious.

School learning systems can clash with family and cultural systems. This is true where schools adopt, for example, English or French as the language of instruction, when children are fluent in different mother tongues and much less able to communicate in these other languages. In the Philippines, for example, new laws require instruction during primary school in mother tongue languages because many parents were uncomfortable with the main languages being English or Filipino, which prevented them from being involved in their children’s education. In many countries, language policy has disconnected learning at school from interactions at home and hindered parents’ ability to be involved in their children’s education.


Parents can support mental health

A major issue in education – which parents can influence considerably – is maintaining children’s mental health and well-being. Placing a high emphasis on academic achievement can lead to anxiety and symptoms of depression in children. This often occurs where high-stakes examinations provide a narrow gateway to further opportunities, perhaps because a country has limited resources for funding education or elite institutions cherry-pick students.

High-stakes testing, particularly in Asian countries, fosters concerns that academic success is achieved at the expense of children’s mental health. Sweden offers a contrasting example, thanks partly to its wealth, with a good intersection between family values and the school system: Both support students having varied paths of study that reflect their individual interests. And Sweden does not have the barriers to higher education found in some countries, which generate so much examination anxiety.

It is much easier to highlight parental practices – such as physical punishment – that are universally bad for children than it is to identify evidence on which practices are universally good. But the level of variation suggests that parents and education systems should look elsewhere and ask: “Should we try that here?”


Sorbring E & Lansford JE (Eds.) (2019), School systems, parent behavior, and academic achievement: An international perspective, Springer