• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 14th July, 2008

It’s what you do that counts, not who or what you are

Certain kinds of families and certain kinds of schools tend to foster good students. Even when researchers take into account children’s genetic makeup, they have found that parents and educators can make a difference to how a child performs in school. Most studies on the topic, however, don’t consider the difference between the basic characteristics of families and schools and what types of interactions occur within them. This is an important distinction, according to authors of a recent article in Developmental Psychology, because it’s easier to change how you behave than it is who – or what – you are. For example, it would be easier for a school to focus on making students feel they belong than to change the size of their enrollment or the ratio of teachers to students. The authors of the report in question, a US research team headed by Aprile D. Benner of University of Texas, wanted to see if certain kinds of families and schools tended to promote certain types of interactions with children and if such interactions, in turn, affected children’s feelings. They examined data collected from 1,120 ninth-grade students living in Los Angeles as well as their teachers and school records. This group of students, who tended to live in low-income/working-class neighborhoods, participated in a larger study from the time they were in sixth grade until they reached tenth grade.Analyses of the data largely supported their predictions. The evidence suggests that while certain kinds of schools and parents tended to foster certain interactions with students, it was the quality of the interaction that ultimately affected children’s behavior.Benner and company argue that their findings point to the benefits of focusing on “processes” (what happens inside a school or family) rather than “structures” (the basic traits of a school or family). For example, they suggest that educators try to boost students' sense of belonging at school through extracurricular activities such as sports and school clubs. As for parents, they recommend (as have many before them) that schools find ways to involve parents in the life of the school. Here again, the authors emphasize that it’s easier to change the behavior of parents than basic traits such as how educated they are. Additionally, and most importantly, when parents change their behavior, it seems to lead to behavior changes in their children.• Summary of “Discerning Direct and Mediated Effects of Ecological Structures and Processes on Adolescents' Educational Outcomes” by Aprile D. Benner, Sandra Graham, and Rashmita S. Mistry in Developmental Psychology, May 2008, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp 840–854.

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