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Membership List | Publications | Research | Specialist Area List | Braided Learning Ejournal

Learning Parents

Benjamin Semwayo

Year of posting: 2010


We are living in an age where, more than ever before, adults are called upon to learn for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the sheer rapidity with which changes are taking place. Toffler says, ‘most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope' with the pace of change and ‘mass disorientation' will be the result (1970:14). Cross (1981), echoing the same sentiments, says,

‘The learning society is growing because it must. It would be difficult to think of a way to live in a society changing as rapidly as ours without constantly learning new things.'

This means that we have moved from the time when learning was the province of children and young people, to a time when it is a must for all people, adults included - a time when life-long learning is fully relevant, for we must indeed learn all our lives if we are to function in today's world.

Maguire et al report that quite a number of adults are registering for education (1993:5). Adults have many reasons for returning to study, the chief of which is an awareness of missed opportunities in the past and changes in life circumstances (ACACE, 1982:82; Centre for Educational Research and Innovation 1987:110). Some parents take up study for reasons associated with helping their children learn. (Lift Missouri, undated)

It is clear from the information above that there is a huge challenge for parents to learn, and some have taken up that challenge. Indeed a massive awareness campaign needs to be mounted to get as many adults as possible improving their lives through learning, although parents have numerous responsibilities and may not have much time (Forster et al, 1997:28).

This article is an evidence-based discussion of the participation of parents in the learning of their children. Citing evidence from researchers and academics, it argues the value of parental contribution towards the education of their children. It goes further to contend that while many parents may be willing to play a role in the education of their children, their own lack of knowledge is a major limitation. It then shows that some parents are going back to school to learn in order to bridge the skills gap. It establishes that there are numerous programs that they can exploit, actively supported by governments. Finally, it recommends that parents should be given every help so as to realize their goal of playing a role in the education of their children.



The literature asserts the positive correlation between parental support, educationally, and children's scholastic success (Hoover-Dempsey and Sander, 1995). Epstein, (1996), and Safran, (1996), cited in Jones and Allebone (undated) say the role of parents in their children's education has long been recognized as a significant factor in educational success. Clarke, (2004), Bird, (2001) Rambold (1990) and Hardy et al (2002) all agree, as does Teachernet (undated). Brown, P.C. (undated) advocates that parents should be encouraged to participate in their children's education.  Hornby, G. (2000) says the positive effect of their contribution is beyond dispute. Heinrich (1995) suggests that parents who understand computers can question the equipment used in schools and contribute useful inputs.

Interest and involvement in a child's learning entail active participation by the parents. It takes place at all levels of the child's learning. Naturally the earliest stages are the easiest. Almost all parents can assist their children with pre-school tasks, but the nature of the assistance that the parent gives becomes more complex as the learning materials become more advanced. For example, when my daughter Yolanda was younger my wife and I were able to assist her with all her subjects, but when she was doing ‘O' levels my help was confined to English Language and Literature. Fortunately my wife teaches mathematics and science, so she helped her with these subjects, but neither of us could teach her geography or history. From this experience I can understand the nightmare faced by parents who are not subject specialists but wish to assist their children. Their role is limited to some kind of demonstration of interest in the child's work, rather like a fan. This is what my wife and I had to do with Neville, our first son who was reading for an Accounting degree. There was no way we could explain to him difficult concepts of accounting, so our role was limited to encouraging him to work hard and to rest assured that we would do everything to supply whatever resources were in our power to supply. That showed the depth of our interest in his work, and that was about all we could do.

DfES (Every Child Matters, 2003) also subscribes to the view that parents are crucial in the educational success of their child. DfES (Every Parent Matters 2007) supports this position, as does NIDIRECT (undated). Parents are, indeed, naturally the child's first teacher as they teach the child the first things in life. This relationship continues seamlessly into the early years of formal education and is maintained until the parents begin to falter for lack of adequate knowledge themselves. Parents who are more educated are able to assist their children for longer, while those who are less educated may decide to enroll for education with a view to being more effective in helping their child learn. Those who are not so motivated leave it all up to the teacher, with the result that their child loses out on the benefits of parental involvement.

In the USA, Lift Missouri views parents' role as teachers very highly. Quoting Popkin (1995), Garrett, (1998) accentuates the importance of parent's role.DFEE (1998) confirms the findings. Dubois et al (1994) found that parental assistance promoted learning and Desforges and Abouchaar (2003), Debord (2005), Bloir (2002) and Ohioline (undated) all agree.

The sources above make it abundantly clear that children who are given assistance at home perform better in their school tasks than those who are not. Such a practice ensures that the child continues to interact with his or her learning materials long after leaving the school grounds. The idea of participating in study activities with family members is significant in itself. This is true not only because family members are the people that the child spends the most time with, but also because they are the ones that he or she has bonded with the most. There is usually the most trusting relationship and the most relaxed atmosphere among people belonging to the same family, making it easy for the child to be who he or she is, without any pretence for the purpose of impressing other people, or fear of asking questions that might give other people a low opinion of the learner. This gives the child more confidence to try difficult tasks and ask questions, self-assured that the people from whom assistance is sought are genuinely on his or her side. That self-assurance is a very important factor in any learning situation.

Literature that asserts the positive effect of parental assistance abounds. Many textbooks on education devote a section to the role of parents in the learning of their children, even if it means that this is mentioned only in passing. While there is this plethora of evidence, a few voices of dissent have been recorded. Scanty though the literature on this position is, it is worthwhile looking at it to consider the arguments set forth by the protagonists of this school.

A study by Lemmer revealed that some teachers argue that parents should not assist their children, leaving it for qualified people like themselves (2002:5). Feuerstein reports similar findings (2000:43), as does Epstein et al (1995:3). Van Wyk reports that some teachers believe that illiterate parents do not care (2001:122).

Bandura (1997) found that less educated parents leave their children's education entirely to teachers. A study by Bernard Levey, an educational psychologist from Hull, found that some parents ‘are intimidated by academia, while others feel guilty for failing to meet their children's expectations' (National Literacy Trust, 2009). A study by Mc Dermott et al (1984) observed the homework procedures of two families and found that one family's procedure led to success while the other confused the child. A report by Sulsby et al (1996) says the results of extensive research have consistently shown that the story book reading of high socio-economic status mothers is associated with the development of productive vocabulary, while that of low socio-economic-status mothers is not. Feuerstein reports that as a result of these views some teachers do not regularly use parents to assist in the completion of homework (2000:43). Epstein, (1995) says administrators may need special training to help them develop the skills needed to promote family-school partnership.' Davies concurs (1991:382).  Izzo et al (1999) say there is need for further study of the teachers and parents' perspectives of the role parents can play. Peters et al (2007) also suggest further research on how to get parents more involved.

The anti-parents reactions shown above should not just be dismissed as an over-reaction, because challenges in this area do exist. By far the greatest obstacle to parents assisting their children with their academic work is the low educational attainment of the parents themselves. Bird (2001) says most parents have poor basic skills, and Jones et al (undated) confirm this deficit of parental skills, adding that it is most pronounced in numeracy or mathematics. Reynolds and Farrell (1996) confirm that U.K. children are having difficulties with mathematics. The Scottish government Publications (2005) reports that parents do not know the subjects well enough and that they lack skills or guidance about teaching methodology. Education is dynamic: its face is constantly changing as it is adapted to society's shifting needs. The dilemma that parents find themselves in, caused by the dynamic nature of education is described by Kilpatrick J. et al (2001:1). They say the nature of mathematics taught changes from generation to generation. There is need therefore to address the specific problems associated with the learning of mathematics.

These reports leave us in no doubt that most parents need to be equipped with skills for helping their children learn. Many have the desire to assist their children and make sure they do well in school, but they do not have the requisite skills. They have fears about everything associated with teaching their own children, from the content to the teaching approaches to use. Specially developed courses would impart the correct skills to them and instill them with the confidence to carry out this valuable task.

Apart from the problem of mathematics, the problem of parents' generally low literacy levels is further documented by McNicol and Dalton (2002). They give as a case study the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, where most of the parents have low literacy skills. They also suggest ways of redressing the anomaly. There are many other parents in many other parts of the U.K. who could benefit from interventions such as the proposed adult literacy program for Barking and Dagenham.

Another area where parents face difficulties is that of computers. Porteous (2004) reports about a pilot study in which primary school pupils taught their own parents computers. This shows that in the area of computers there is usually not much parents can do to teach their children, who are savvier than they.

The foregoing discussion shows us that parental involvement in their children's education is crucial. This has been confirmed by numerous studies. It has also been noted that some educationists and academics have reservations about the involvement of parents in the education of their children. It has further been established that these reservations are not unfounded as the literature has well-documented information to the effect that many parents do not posses the skills required for meaningfully assisting their children.


At this point we shall take a snapshot view of literature that illustrates three important points: that some parents are learning, that there are many initiatives supporting adult education, and that the government supports these initiatives. No attempt to elaborate these points shall be made for lack of space.

There is strong evidence to suggest that there are parents who are studying specifically for the purpose of helping their children. A Review by HMI (1991:10) identifies keeping ‘pace with children's learning' as one of the motivations for learning. Imison and Taylor (2001:133) run computer lessons for parents.

The need for support for learning adults has given rise to the creation of numerous agencies to offer such support. Wlks, (2008) writing in the NIACE report, quotes Paul Mackney, NIACE Associate Director, as saying that CALL has brought together over 40 organizations into a movement committed to adult education. Field, in the same NIACE report, adds that NIACE has launched Skills for Grandparents (2008: 6). Writing about a program to improve children's computer skills that she took part in, McDougall (1995:282) says, 'Generally parents have been supportive of these initiatives.'

Preston (1998:197) cites Heppel, who suggests that children are better able to use and benefit from computers than was previously thought. This suggests that there are some concerns about children's computer skills, which stem from the fact that the parents themselves have poor computer skills. If parents learn computer skills they can then teach their children and in that way raise the computer literacy levels of their children.

In the U.S.A. Edgov (1997) reports that there are programs to make parental involvement effective. Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library (2006) says many parents do not know about useful intervention programs and therefore efforts must be made to expand outreach programs. Education for Children and Young People Cabinet Committee mentions Family Plus, which identifies ways in which schools can work more closely with families. DfES (2003: Every Child Matters) says the government is encouraging primary schools to offer study support. John-Brooks (1997) says governments are aware that parental involvement can be a lever for raising standards. Smith (2006) delivering a DfES speech on behalf of the government, encourages parental participation. Lord Leitch, writing about what the government is doing to raise the literacy standards of adults, says the government is seeking sharply to cut the number of adults without at least level 2 skills. (p16) The Metro (2010) reports that the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has unequivocally registered his support for parental involvement in the learning of children and has pledged 270 000 free laptops for low-income families to facilitate learning. These reports make it clear that governments are enthusiastic about supporting adult education

The section above leaves us in no doubt that parents have an impressive level of support from both their governments and interested organizations. There is so much support that one wonders why more parents are not involved. This is particularly true of the U.K.


It is clear from the foregoing literature review that parental involvement in their `children's education is crucial as it increases children's educational attainment (Hoover-Dempsey and Sander, 1995; Epstein, 1996; Clarke, 2004; Bird, 2001; Rambold, 1990 and Hardy et al, 2002). Many parents find it difficult to help their own children because they lack the required skills themselves. (Bird, 2001; The Scottish government Publications 2005; McNicol and Dalton , 2002). Some parents are taking the extra step of enrolling for studies for the purpose of teaching their children, (HMI Review, 1991; Imison and Taylor, 2001; Wlks, 2008; Field, J. 2008; McDougall, 1995) but unfortunately this cannot be said of all parents.  For parents to go to such lengths it must mean that they regard their children's education as crucial. Ways need to be found, therefore, for making all parents attach the same importance to their children's education. It can only be hoped that more parents will awaken to this reality.  The government supports parents who want to learn (Lord Leitch 2005; DfES, 2003: Every Child Matters; Metro, 2010)

The following are recommendations that stem from this literature review. The U.K. government should maintain the support that it has shown and should aim at implementing the programs it supports as effectively as possible (John-Brooks, 1997; Smith, J., 2006). It should endeavour to get more parents involved by selling the idea (Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, 2006). It should have an easily accessible, comprehensive database of all relevant programs for parents to choose from. The government should also consider other methods of involving parents, even some that are used in other countries and are seen to be effective (Brown, P.C., Undated). There should also be more research into areas that need clarification, such as the reasons why many parents do not study for the purpose of participating in their children's education even when there are so many free programs to choose from (Van Wyk, 2001; Izzo et al, 1999; Peters et al, 2007). There should also be research into the suggestion that parents should not be allowed to teach their children with a view to resolving the problems associated with their involvement (Feuerstein, 2000; Izzo et al 1999). Educators should also be trained in working with parents, encouraging them, boosting their confidence and supporting them in acquiring new skills (Davies 1991; Epstein, 1995).

These suggestions, if implemented, should significantly improve the quality and effectiveness of parents' participation in the learning of their children.

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