It's become common for educators to tout the value of parent and family involvement in student learning. Arguing that parents are children's "first teachers," they often urge parental support for the work teachers do in the classroom. Consequently, many large school districts have administrative staff devoted to just that — finding ways to engage families in student learning.

However, a recent study suggests that a different approach to involving families could have an even greater impact on education. The Minneapolis-based Search Institute found that while educators often ask parents to reinforce classroom work, they should also help them build stronger relationships with their children.

"Don't Forget the Families'' is a report based on a national survey of parents with 3- to 13-year-olds. Responses hold evidence of the powerful impact that strong parent-child relationships have on child learning and development. The report says those relationships can be 10 times more predictive of child development than demographic factors such as income, race or ethnicity, and family structure.

Search Institute President and CEO Kent Pekel said that at a time when much of the national discussion suggests that "demography is destiny'' for kids, knowing that strong parental relationships can overcome obstacles offers hope.

The study identifies five elements of parent-child relationships that influence the social and emotional development of young people: expressing care, challenging growth (helping kids continuously improve and stretch), providing support (helping them complete tasks and achieve goals), sharing power (listening and allowing them to share in decisions), and expanding possibilities (broadening horizons by exposing children to new people and opportunities).

About 83 percent of parents said they express care, but the percentages drop significantly in the other areas. For example, only 36 percent of the parents said they help expand their children's possibilities.

Though it may seem like a "blinding flash of the obvious,'' Pekel said parents should be encouraged to "turn off, unplug, move away from the screens'' and focus attention on their children — even if only for a few minutes at a time. The study points out that there are age-appropriate ways to allow children to participate in decisions. Giving a 3–year-old options about what to eat or wear, for example, can help build decisionmaking skills and stimulate brain development.

The research wisely recommends that when school and community organizations invest in parental involvement, they should consider strategies that do not always require new programs or spending. Through parent conferences, for example, they can encourage parents to build the kind of relationships with their kids that also build strong foundations for learning.

For more ideas about relationship-building, see this Search Institute website: