Researchers leading meta-analysis on parental engagement in education

Susan Sheridan (left) and Elizabeth Moorman Kim
Susan Sheridan (left) and Elizabeth Moorman Kim

If research studies represent the jigsaw pieces to complex puzzles, meta-analyses assemble them into cohesive pictures that help resolve important questions.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools is currently gathering those pieces to clarify the impacts of two intervention-based approaches for engaging parents in their children's education.

CYFS postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth Moorman Kim and director Susan Sheridan have earned a two-year, $700,000, U.S. Department of Education grant that will allow them to collect, analyze and draw conclusions from several decades' worth of investigations into how parents influence K-12 student outcomes. Though many studies have suggested that parental participation can improve academic achievement, inconsistencies and oversights in definitions, methodologies and results have left lingering questions and a lack of consensus.

The researchers will address a number of these issues to offer the most comprehensive and specific conclusions to date. Unlike its predecessors, the meta-analysis will distinguish between parent-involvement and family-school partnership models of intervention. While the former encourage activities such as helping with homework and reading to children, the latter focus on fostering two-way communication and joint decision-making between parents and teachers.

"In the literature, we use a lot of words interchangeably, but they don't necessarily mean the same thing," Moorman Kim said. "I think there's been a growing focus on how we get parents and schools to establish relationships with one another, beyond just getting them involved with activities at the school. We're trying to tease apart these different concepts that are often lumped together under one umbrella. We're trying to say, 'How are the effects of these approaches distinct?'"

The meta-analysis will also be the first to examine which specific components of each approach most benefit students.

"It can help inform how parent involvement and family-school partnerships are related to children's optimal functioning," Moorman Kim said. "And it will highlight not only what efforts work, but when they work best."

The meta-analysis will encapsulate how differences in students, families and schools alter the effectiveness of parent-involvement and family-school partnership efforts. It will specifically examine the influences of students' age and grade; families' socioeconomic status and primary language; and schools' geographic context and socioeconomic composition.

The meta-analysis will also break new ground by summarizing impacts not only on academic achievement, but also student behavior and social-emotional development.

"One reason we're really interested in looking at these kinds of outcomes is that they help us develop models for understanding the process of parents' involvement," Moorman Kim said. "It could be that when we help parents get more involved or forge partnerships, this improves children's behavior and social functioning, which, in turn, helps them achieve better in the classroom."

Moorman Kim said findings from the meta-analysis should generate recommendations for policymakers and practitioners -- specifically teachers, principals and superintendents -- seeking the best ways to engage parents and, by extension, improve student development. At the same time, she said she anticipates learning just as much about the issues that researchers may have overlooked.

"In addition to summarizing what we know from the literature, the meta-analysis also helps us to highlight what we don't know," Moorman Kim said. "It could help foster more research when we see that there are not very many -- or even no -- studies addressing what could be really important factors."

Sheridan, who is also a professor of educational psychology, said the research demonstrates the university's leadership and expertise in parental engagement and the role of families in children’s learning.

"All of our center's research emphasizes methods for supporting the environment for children to achieve educational, behavioral and emotional health by strengthening their opportunities within schools and homes," she said.

The project will result in the country's largest database of research associated with family connections and family-school partnerships. The grant will fund graduate student assistantships and support for the project faculty.

- Scott Schrage, Media/Communications Specialist, CYFS

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