The future of parent involvement: Nagging other people’s children about school work

One of the key ingredients to student success is engaged parents. While there is considerable debate on just how much parent engagement influences student outcomes, there is significant research to suggest that parents who consistently and “positively nag” their children to complete their academic work and give maximum effort, supplement school instruction with own activities (e.g. reading to their child), and communicate and partner well with teachers are more likely to promote student success than parents who do not offer these supports. 

If we agree with this research, it follows then that children who do not benefit from these types of parent engagement are at a disadvantage. There are a host of legitimate, practical reasons that this level of parent engagement is missing. Many children live in single-parent households where the parent has to have to work long hours. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of single parent families has increased from 19 percent of all families in 1980 to 34 percent of all families in 2013. Parents may also not understand their child’s homework assignments, especially new approaches to math learning. Or they may not be equipped with the strategies (e.g. dialectic reading) and resources (e.g. appropriately leveled books) to support academic skill-building. 

Of course, one solution is to help more parents become further engaged with their children’s academic lives. And there are great efforts underway, such as home-visiting programs like 1647, and parent skills, and knowledge and skill building efforts, such as Boston Public School’s Parent University.

Virtual coaches check-in for positive nagging

Yet, in the case where parents struggle to find time and resources to consistently support their children’s learning, there may be other ways to offer support. I propose a novel solution: enlisting other adults to positively nag children about their school work, engage them in supplemental skill-building activities, and communicate with their teachers.   

For example, let’s say a retired school teacher from Newton completes a 10 to 15 minute Skype “check-in” every school night with a Boston 5th grader to review her homework assignments, answer questions, and compete a five-minute vocabulary building exercise. If necessary, the retired teacher might complete a quick, five-minute loop-back call to see how the student is progressing.  Prior to that week/ on Sunday night, the retired teacher receives a 5 minute online briefing through an academic coaching software platform from the 5th grader’s teacher that outlines all the homework and learning concepts for the upcoming week. In addition, the retired teacher has access to an online library of academic strategies and resources. At the end of the week, the retired teacher sends the teacher a brief report on how the nightly sessions went. The retired teacher might include in this report a recommendation for extra help with a topic the student struggled with that week.

There are two trends that make this scenario both viable and scalable. The first trend is the onward march of technology. More families have smartphones and tablets, and schools could provide tablets to families who do not have them or a consistent wireless plan. Face-to-face communication tools and online academic coaching platforms are affordable and accessible. New apps are emerging, such as SchoolCNXT, that offer simple, intuitive platforms for facilitating school-family communication and hosting a range of learning resources. Further, children today are comfortable and facile with digital communication and learning.    

The second trend is the massive baby boomer retirement. The Social Security Administration projects that 10,000 baby boomers retire each day. Thus retirees offer a large, potential resource of educated, caring adults who have free time. Many of these speak multiple languages. With online technology, they could offer targeted support for 30 minutes a day to a large number of students–including English Language Learners–from the convenience of their home. Of course, other adults could be enlisted as well, from college students, AmeriCorps members, to other relatives of families (aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, etc.). All of these recruited adults, or “virtual homework parents” would be required to complete a background screening and training as school and homework coaches—training that would include cultural competency (as necessary). 

Districts and education reform partners might pilot and evaluate this type of approach with a few high-need schools. Then, with success in fostering parent engagement and academic outcomes, technology and the growing number of retirees could allow for rapid expansion. Families, especially the rising number of single-parent families, could use extra hands. Enlisting committed adults to positively nag other people’s children about their school work could offer a practical solution. At the same time, it could create a community of support for children in the form of other adults who care about them, know their parents and teachers, “show up” every night, and hold them accountable. 

And it may be that this consistent 5 to 10 minutes contact with a caring, engaged adult every night is the transformative experience many children need to not only succeed academically, but also to foster other key qualities, such as trust, resilience, and self-advocacy, that will be key to their success in school and beyond.