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Interactions between mothers and their elementary school-aged children


Let go, kids will do better in school

What can parents do to help children who are doing poorly in school? To investigate this question, we conducted two studies examining interactions between mothers and their elementary school-aged children over simulated schoolwork and after real-life failures.

In the first study, we evaluated 110 mothers’ use of control and their support of autonomy as they assisted their children with a simulated homework task. When the mothers assisted in a controlling manner, such as directing their children’s behavior, children who initially did poorly at the tasks became disengaged, showing a lack of concentration. In contrast, when mothers supported their child’s autonomy, such as offering nods of approval for their children’s independent work, the struggling child’s performance improved.

Such an "autonomy-support" approach allows children to explore their environment independently. For instance, parents may discuss a situation, but the children must decide for themselves what is important and generate their own problem-solving strategies. Such experiences may be especially likely to benefit children who are struggling.

In the second study, we examined the mothers’ use of control and autonomy support when they responded to their children’s real life failures. Here, 121 mothers reported every night for two weeks on whether their children did poorly on something that day--such as struggling with a school assignment, fighting at school, or not doing chores at home--and how they (the mothers) responded.

When mothers used controlling responses, such as punishing children or saying they were disappointed, children doing poorly in school performed poorly again the next day, and their grades declined six months later. When mothers used the autonomy-supportive response of discussing failures with their children, children doing poorly in school improved the next day and their grades improved six months later.

The findings send a poignant message: If parents intervene in a controlling way by issuing commands, doing assigned tasks for their kids, or rushing their children, struggling children become disengaged. They may then do even more poorly at school over time. It appears that when mothers respond to their children in a manner that supports autonomy, it results in increases in the children’s performance immediately. Perhaps most importantly, children’s school grades improve over time.

These two studies suggest that if parents want to help their low-achieving children improve their school performance, taking an autonomy-supportive approach rather than a controlling approach is vital. This may be of particular importance when interacting with low-achieving children because they already receive feedback in school that they lack competence.

As a consequence, children may look to their parents to help them feel more competent. When parents are controlling, they may inhibit children from developing important abilities and convey to children that they lack competence. In contrast, when parents are autonomy-supportive, they may aid children in building their competencies while also letting them know that they are capable of independent work.

In both studies, we found that mothers’ responses made no difference in children who were doing well, regardless of the approach. However, we emphasize that parents of high-achieving children should not avoid involvement in their children’s lives. Current work suggests that when mothers are present to assist high-achieving children, it results in fewer negative emotions, such as depression.

Karen Melnyk | EurekAlert!
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