It’s the beginning of a new school year and for many parents, the return of…
A key aspect of secondary school is to help your child learn how to become more independent. They begin to take control of their own education, building interpersonal relationships with their teachers, managing their own time, and pursuing their own interests. As your child specialises at GCSE or A-level, their work may extend beyond your own areas of expertise and homework may cease to be something you can actively help with. Often, your involvement is no longer desired by your child. So, how can you remain engaged with your child’s education without overstepping their independence?
Toeing the line
Time and again, research has shown that parental involvement is one of the most influential factors in a child’s education and academic success, regardless of income or background. It has been linked to better behaviour, greater confidence, higher attendance rates, improved attainment, and increased wellbeing. Educator John Hattie even went as far as to say…
The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding two or three years to that student’s education.
…which sounds pretty impressive! If participating in your child’s education brings so many benefits, there seems to be no reason to hold back.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. We’ve all seen those articles about the insane measures parents have taken to ensure their child’s success. No one wants to become the dreaded “pushy parent”. Putting too much pressure on your child comes with its fair share of health warnings, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
To summarise: being invested in your child’s education is good, but being too invested is (quantifiably) bad. What, then, is the right balance?
In this article, we’ll walk you through how to effectively support your child as they navigate secondary school. We’ll give you some practical activities you can do to stay involved, plus some broader tips about how to show your support without overstepping boundaries. Obviously, everyone is different. Our advice aims to guide you, rather than prescribe the “perfect amount” of parental involvement. You know your child best and you’ll know what balance suits your relationship the most.
1. Give feedback
Reading over work such as an essay or personal statement allows you to show interest and offer guidance without grabbing the reins: you’re suggesting edits or small changes, but the main work is still in their control. It’s also a fun way to learn about what they’re up to in class and where their interests lie. When offering feedback, be sure to point out what they’ve done well before offering constructive feedback.
2. Be a willing participant in revision
Offer to go through flashcards with your child or to quiz them on parts of their textbook or notes. You don’t have to be an expert on the subject. Ask your child to teach you about a topic; research shows that teaching a concept to someone else is a very effective revision tool. If exams are coming up, you could carry out “mock tests” for your child: recreate exam conditions and act as an invigilator while they complete a past paper. Revising is stressful, so this way you’re offering moral support during a tricky time, as well as doing something productive.
3. Help them plan for the future
Do your own research into universities, degrees, and alternative options (check out our articles on T-levels and alternatives to A-levels if you need a starting point!). Find out about financial help and how student loans work, develop your understanding of the UCAS process, and note down key dates. For starters, all this research will help you better understand what’s going on. It will help alleviate any concerns you may have, and, if you’re not stressed, this will help your child relax too.
Being prepared for any questions your child may present to you shows that you care about them and take an active interest in their future prospects. If you’re able to respond and reassure them the first time they come to you with a question or worry, then it’s more likely that they’ll come back to you for advice in the future.
4. Take part in school events
Like we said before, you don’t need to understand your child’s schoolwork in order to support them. Having a genuine interest in their education is enough, and being physically present goes a long way to demonstrate that. Attending parents’ evenings is important, of course, but it doesn’t stop there. If your child is choosing a sixth form, college, or university, attend open days with them. Go to school plays, concerts, or sporting events if your child is participating. If the school is running an information evening for parents, go along.
5. Follow, don’t lead
It’s important to recognise your child’s own agency and autonomy, especially as they begin to strike out on their own. Respond to their emotional cues and give them space when needed, so they don’t feel claustrophobic. If they seem anxious or withdrawn, it’s probably not the time to ask, “So when are you going to finish that homework?”.
Mostly, this comes down to how you talk about their schoolwork. Ask them about their plans rather than telling them what they need to do. Give subtle prompts or check in on how their workload is looking, in a way that puts their own decisions at the fore.
Showing an interest and wanting your child to do well is great, but at the end of the day, make sure that they are the ones making the decisions. Following their lead will help wean them off the structure you used to provide. See how the land lies and react accordingly.
6. Be on the lookout for warning signs
You may want to show an interest in your child’s education, but make sure that doesn’t mean you stop paying attention to other aspects of their life. Secondary school, with all the exams, coursework and revision, can become all-consuming. As a parent, it’s important to look out for your child’s wellbeing and identify any signs and struggles which might be missed by school staff. Familiarise yourself with warning signs for potential health problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, or disordered eating (YoungMinds have a handy A-Z guide for parents). If it looks like things are going downhill, it’s time to step in.
7. Let them make their own mistakes
If you’re allowing your child to make their own decisions, then you also need to accept that they must make their own mistakes. These could be mistakes in their behaviour or discipline, such as handing in homework late, or it could be homework questions they’ve answered incorrectly. If you don’t approve of something they’ve done (or not done), you can let them know, but try not to overrule them. Ultimately, accept that they will need to face the consequences themselves. If you spot some incorrect ‘workings’ on a homework assignment, you can guide them to the right answer, but don’t give it to them. Teachers can’t identify what your child is struggling with if they don’t see the mistakes.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly:
8. Remember it’s their education, not yours
It’s only natural to see your child as an extension of yourself, to feel their successes and failures as your own. The problem comes when you start trying to live your dreams through your child, and in doing so, neglect their own wants and desires. Be sure to listen with empathy to what your child wants. Nurture their interests and encourage them, even if it’s not your cup of tea.
There is a fine balance between supporting your child and becoming over involved. Take an interest in their work, give support and encouragement where necessary, but be respectful of their boundaries and allow them the freedom to make their own decisions.