Research Abstract: Fathers’ and Mothers’ Involvement in Their Children’s Schools According to Family Type and Resident Status


tree11The following is an abstract of the report on Fathers’ and Mothers’ Involvement in Their Children’s Schools by Family Type and Resident Status, by Christine Winquist Nord and Jerry West of the U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics.

With the increasing prevalence of divorce and births outside of a marriage, nearly half of all American children are likely to spend at least part of their childhood living apart from one or both of their biological parents.

Multiple studies suggest these children perform poorer in school and experience more behaviorial problems than children living with both parents, although the exact reasons are not fully understood.

One possible explanation for the different outcomes between children living in traditional and non-traditional families is the amount of parental involvement in their children’s education. Several studies support this notion, indicating that parents in stepparent and in single-parent families tend to be less involved in their children’s education than parents in two-biological-parent families.

However, a limitation of most prior studies examining parental involvement by living arrangement is that they consider parental involvement as a whole without distinguishing between the involvement of stepparents from that of biological parents.

This approach implies that involvement will produce the same effects no matter what the source. It is not clear, though, whether high involvement by a stepparent has the same positive influence on student outcomes as high involvement by a biological parent.

This report sheds light on why students from non-traditional families experience more difficulties in school than students living with both their parents by exploring three major research lines:

  1. the effects of family structure on children’s well-being,
  2. the importance of parental involvement to student outcomes, and
  3. the effects of non-resident parents’ involvement on children’s well-being.

• School Involvement of Resident Parents
In this report, a high level of school involvement is defined as participating in at least three of four school activities that most schools typically offer, which typically include:

  1. attending a general school meeting
  2. attending a regularly scheduled parent-teacher conference
  3. attending a school or class event
  4. volunteering at school.

A low level of school involvement is participating in none or only one such activity.

Results suggest that fathers’ involvement is particularly important for academic achievement, as measured by getting mostly A’s and not having repeated a grade. In general, there is no difference in the association between fathers’ involvement and student outcomes among students living in the different types of two-parent families. However, there appears to be no association between fathers’ involvement in stepmother families and the odds that students get mostly A’s.

• School Involvement of Non-resident Fathers
For non-resident fathers, the first measure of involvement, participation in school activities, is strongly correlated with students’ better school performance. Likewise, the second form of parental involvement, payment of child support, is consistently important for the students across the three outcomes. Students whose non-resident fathers paid any child support in the last year are more likely to get mostly A’s and are less likely to have ever repeated a grade or ever been suspended or expelled than students whose non-resident fathers paid no child support.

The third measure of parental involvement, amount of contact, is less consistently related to each of the three outcomes than is the non-resident fathers’ level of school involvement. This pattern of results suggests that students are more successful in school when their fathers are actively engaged in their lives through contact with them and involvement in their schools than when their fathers merely have contact with them.

Although non-resident mothers are significantly more likely to be involved in their children’s schools than non-resident fathers, the benefits of their involvement are not as apparent. The data suggests that students who have had no contact with their non-resident mothers in the last year are less likely to have ever repeated a grade than are students who have seen their non-resident mothers, but whose mothers are not involved in their school.

A similar pattern is seen for non-resident fathers and the odds that students have ever been suspended or expelled, which hints at the possibility that a little contact without real engagement in the children’s lives may be more difficult for children than no contact at all.

Summary and Discussion

This report has examined the school involvement of American mothers and fathers, both those who live with their children and those who live apart from their children. It illuminates the school involvement not only of biological mothers and fathers but also of stepmothers and stepfathers, and examines the relationship of parental school involvement against three measures of how children are doing in school.

Stepparents tend to be less involved than biological parents in their children’s schools, but their involvement can be associated with better outcomes for students. After adjusting for student and family characteristics, students living with stepmothers are significantly less likely than those living with two biological parents or in mother-only families to have a mother who is highly involved in their schools.

Similarly, students living with stepfathers are significantly less likely than students living with both biological parents or in father-only families to have a father who is highly involved in their schools.

In general, the association between the school involvement of stepparents and student outcomes is the same as that of biological parents in traditional families. The study explored whether the association between maternal and paternal involvement and student outcomes varied by family type. For most of the outcomes, the association between stepparents’ involvement and the outcomes was not significantly different from that of parents in two biological-parent families.

It was found that single parents who were involved in their children’s schools were more likely to have children with better school outcomes. Non-resident mothers are more likely than non-resident fathers to maintain contact with their children and to be involved in their children’s schools. However, the association between their school involvement and students’ outcomes is weaker than that of non-resident fathers’ involvement.

The results presented in this report suggest that parental involvement in school generally predicts favourable school outcomes for students living in different types of families. It is noteworthy that fathers’ involvement is generally important regardless of whether they are biological parents or stepparents or whether they live with the students or not.

Resident mothers’ involvement also seems to matter to students, but non-resident mothers’ school involvement is only weakly associated with one of the student outcomes, getting mostly A’s. Parents in both traditional and non-traditional families should recognise that school involvement appears to benefit their children, at least with respect to their school progress.

Methodology and Data Reliability

The NHES:96 has several strengths for studying parental involvement. First, it contains a large, nationally representative sample of students in grades one through 12. Second, it collects information about the school involvement of both resident and non-resident mothers and fathers.

However, because this study collects data at a single point in time, it cannot be used to establish causal connections between parental involvement and student outcomes. It can only suggest such connections and leave it to studies based on longitudinal data to examine the associations more closely.

Moreover, the household respondent is the one who reports on the school involvement of the resident and non-resident parents. In most cases, mothers are the respondents and they are the ones reporting on the involvement of the resident and non-resident fathers.

  1. U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Fathers’ and Mothers’ Involvement in Their Children’s Schools by Family Type and Resident Status, NCES 2001–032, by Christine Winquist Nord and Jerry West. Washington, DC: 2001.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 24-05-2011.