Is More Always Better? The Role of Increased Parental Involvement in Children’s Learning

The closure of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic offered a window of both challenges and opportunities for parents to take on pedagogical roles in supporting their children’s learning process.

There are several ways in which parents can support their children’s learning. One of the main ways is through home-based parental involvement where parent and children interact. This home-based parental support has become increasingly important because of the shift to online learning due to the pandemic. Parents are expected to help teachers monitor and navigate children’s educational activities through homeschooling resources.

Given the huge responsibility the pandemic has placed on the shoulders of parents, it is worth asking three questions to disentangle the effects of parental involvement on children’s learning outcomes:  

  1. Does providing information to parents on ways to support their children’s learning increase parental involvement? 
  2. Does providing information to parents on ways to support their children’s learning increase children’s learning outcomes? 
  3. When does information provision, such as providing leaflets and community group sessions on how to support their children’s learning, improve children’s educational outcomes, and when does it not? 

Two RISE studies from Indonesia and Mexico, entitled “Does Higher Parental Involvement Lead to Learning Gains? Experimental Evidence from Indonesia” and “Promoting Parental Involvement in Schools: Evidence from Two Randomized Experiments”, address these three questions through randomised experiments.  

In the first study, Florischa Ayu Tresnatri, Asep Kurniawan, Daniel Suryadarma, Shintia Revina, and Niken Rarasati conducted a randomised experiment in 130 primary schools in Central Java, Indonesia, during Covid-19 school closures. Two interventions were implemented. The first provided parents with learning progress letters that were specifically tailored to each student by their teacher. The second provided leaflets with concrete suggestions on how to support children’s learning from home, how to communicate with teachers, and how to focus on learning progress as compared to final exam scores.  

Similarly, the study conducted by Felipe Barrera-Osorio, Paul Gertler, Nozomi Nakajima, and Harry Patrinos examines the effects of a parental involvement program in Mexico. The intervention provided information to parents through group sessions about ways parents can be more involved in school activities and decision-making processes. So, what do these papers say about parental involvement? 

Question #1: Does giving more information on ways to support children’s learning increase parental involvement?

The RISE Indonesia paper found that providing parents with clear and actionable guidelines in the form of leaflets increased parents’ direct support for their children’s education at home. This increase is shown in the increased time allocated by parents to help their children with their homework, read books, and create a conducive home learning environment. Similar results were also obtained in the randomised experiment in Mexico. After the intervention took place, parents supported their children’s learning by becoming more aware of and helpful in their children’s homework.  

Aside from supporting children’s learning processes at home, providing more information to parents on how to be more engaged in school activities induced parents and parent associations to communicate more with schools. However, in the case of Mexico, most of the gain in involvement was driven by parents who were already members of the associations, rather than by parents who were newly recruited to be members.  

Interestingly, both papers also found positive effects of the intervention on marginalised groups (indigenous parents in Mexico and low-educated and low-income parents in Indonesia). The results were promising. In Mexico, the intervention improved indigenous parents’ behavior by a larger amount compared to non-indigenous parents (1.6 percentage points more) even though this difference was not statistically significant. In Indonesia, the impact of the intervention was greater for parents coming from low educational and income levels compared to parents from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Question #2: Does giving more information on ways to support children’s learning at home increase children’s learning outcomes?

Despite improvements in parental support for children’s learning both at home and at school, both the papers conclude that there was no evidence of improved student learning outcome. In Indonesia, a small but statistically insignificant increase in numeracy test scores was observed. Similarly, the study in Mexico found that even though changes in parenting behavior played a role in marginally reducing student behaviours that required school disciplinary action, it did not translate to increased learning outcomes. 

To further understand why increased parental involvement did not translate well into learning outcomes, the Indonesia team conducted an in-depth phone interview and found several reasons underlying this result: 

  • Parents did not have the capacity to fully be a “teacher” for their children during the period of learning at home. Parents with low educational backgrounds had limited capability to understand the objective of tasks given to their children. Instead of focusing on children’s mastery of the concept, parents often focused on administrative issues such as on-time submission of homework.
  • The support given by teachers might not be the appropriate support needed by students and parents. Remote learning and lack of offline interaction is exacerbated by unequal internet access and electronic gadget ownership across students. As a result, teachers relied mostly on assignment scores, which were not reflective of the children’s learning progress since most parents helped their children with their homework. Without an accurate measure of children’s learning progress, it is difficult for teachers to provide parents with accurate and useful support that might have improved children’s learning outcomes.

To address the contrasting results between improved parental involvement and unchanged children’s learning outcomes, the paper from Mexico explored a different angle: trust dynamics between parents and teachers. It concluded that in order for parental involvement to achieve its intended goal, clear institutional rules regarding parents and teachers’ expectations are needed.  

Question #3: When does information provision improve children’s educational outcomes, and when does it not?

Reflecting on the results above, one might then discredit the role of parental involvement in children’s learning outcomes. However, it is important to have a wider and systemic perspective.  

In a study on the role of informational interventions in improving rural governance and service delivery, Katrina Kosec and Leonard Wantchekon offer a plausible framework for understanding when giving more information to parents works and when it does not. As summarised in a RISE blog by Jason Silberstein, the paper proposes three main conditions for information provision to be effective. These three conditions, adapted to the case of providing parents with information, are: 

  • Parents must deem the information to be relevant to them.
  • Parents must have the power to act on the information.
  • Parents must also have appropriate incentives to act on it.

These three conditions provide a framework to further explain the study on “Does higher parental involvement lead to learning gains? Experimental evidence from Indonesia”. 

  • Was the information relevant to parents? No. Parents may not have obtained accurate information about their children’s education quality because teachers observed imperfect information about students’ learning due to remote learning. Additionally, parents with low educational attainment struggled to comprehend their children’s learning materials. As a result, parents only reinforced activities that are poorly adapted to children’s learning needs.
  • Did parents have the power to act on the information? Yes. Parents had the power to make their children do more homework and spend more time studying. Direct supervision was more fostered during the learning at home period.
  • Did parents have appropriate incentives? Yes. Parents wanted their children to succeed at school. Equipping parents with ways to create a conducive environment for their children to study at home nudged parents to be more involved not only through direct support at home but also through increased financial investment, shown by registering their children to private tutoring.

Given that only two out of the three conditions were met, perhaps it is unsurprising that the informational intervention did not result in improved student learning. 

Another plausible explanation of why increased parental involvement following information provision sometimes fails to be translated into higher learning outcomes is explained by Silberstein in the aforementioned blog as: 

… the system is also an important determinant of a context. Even a perfectly designed and executed program will fail if other system determinants of success are not in place. 

This means that even if we provide parents with relevant information that can activate their role and increase their involvement, this may not improve learning outcomes unless other factors such as classroom conditions, teachers’ roles, and school support are already interacting as a good learning system to begin with.  

In short, providing parents with a low-cost yet relevant intervention has the power to trigger relatively big changes in parents’ behavior, both at home and school. Even though these two studies indicate that it is not an instant recipe for improving learning outcomes, these types of interventions offer great promise in channeling parents’ energy toward improving children’s learning outcomes. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of parental involvement in children’s learning—and perhaps informational interventions that fulfill the conditions of power, incentives, and relevance, and that are coherent with the wider system, can help to improve not only parental involvement, but also its impact on student outcomes. 

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.