Last week, I attended a meeting full of college instructors discussing helicopter parents. Enough of us had experienced parental interference in college courses that we debated the most effective way to detect whether writing assignments were completed by our students or their parents.
The conversation was a complete disconnect from my playground experience the day before, where I sat several feet from the action while my 4-year-old climbed ropes, tested new ways to use the bars, and fell. A lot. Of course she is 4 and the stakes are low, but her experience is something teachers need to consider as we work with our own students. An increasingly high-stakes world where parenting is a verb as well as a noun has led to a parental fixation on achievement that doesn’t allow children to learn on their own because they might fail.
Recent articles about young people tend to focus on a few important themes. Our students are parented more aggressively than ever before. Not surprisingly, their academic anxiety is higher, too. First-grade dioramas carry an air of slick professionalism; in response, teacher expectations for out-of-classroom projects rise. At the same time, specialists measure student learning and wonder why students aren’t showing the significant growth we would expect given the investment being made in their education.
The result is a feedback loop where expectations outpace ability and parents get over-involved in their child’s daily homework and take-home projects. Privileging high grades over application of skills and effective failure undermines a student’s ability to transfer learning.
As Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure,” recently said on National Public Radio, “As long as we continue to worship grades over learning, scores over intellectual bravery and testable facts over the application of knowledge, kids will never believe us when we tell them that learning is valuable in and of itself.” Ultimately, teachers, parents, students, and the education system as a whole are suffering from this current scenario.
Overparenting isn’t something that can be solved overnight. However, educators can use a variety of techniques to help ensure a student’s work is their own and that homework isn’t a helicoptered process.
Teachers should encourage students to speak out for themselves and learn to self-advocate, rather than having parents do it for them. Furthermore, clearly communicating an openness and expectation that students will bring questions, frustrations, and concerns to you can help support the parents who are taking a more decidedly student-driven autonomous approach as it reinforces the parental decision to let go.
Teachers can focus on applied learning in class by incorporating aspects of the flipped classroom. In this framework, homework time is used to view streaming lectures, complete active reading via annotation assignments, and watch, listen to or read related video, podcast or print content. This helps avoid the issue of parental over-involvement because written assignments and other projects are created by the student during class time.
Working this way also ensures that students routinely experience their own or classmates’ mistakes and use them as teachable moments. In doing so, students see that failure is not the end. Rather than struggling at home alone, they can work together.
Flipping the script on failure is another technique for ensuring that students (and parents) see messing up as an integral part of the education process. Encouraging students to share their unsuccessful efforts as a part of the learning process can give teachers valuable insight into how and where misunderstandings exist and, in turn, how to fix them.
In a recent presentation from Jon Landis, Apple’s education development executive, I learned about a classroom where failure was one of the key focuses of teaching. Students explained math problems using whiteboard software and teachers were able to share, listen, and correct misunderstandings in something close to real-time scenarios with the entire classroom.
This process, often called “effective failure,” is a key piece of checking student learning in action. Rewarding effective failure can help disinvest parents from homework, because they and their children will not interpret homework as a high-stakes event. Viewing failure as a part of the process of mastery also encourages students to take risks, which ultimately results in the critical thinking and skills transfer that leads to lasting learning.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult,” points out that schools can be an important part of the solution to overparenting. Some schools have specific policies against parents doing homework or projects for students.
If there isn’t a schoolwide rule, this can be a matter of simply setting expectations for parents on student work and effective failure. Communicating to parents that autonomy and self-sufficiency are critical skills for your students can help them release their grip a bit on student performance.
Finally, it is important to remember that parents often intervene on behalf of their children because they find this to be an essential act of parenting. As such, we need to develop ways to both encourage and support parents as they step back and have their children take the lead. According to Lahey, embracing effective failure and disinvesting parents from the grades on individual assignments can help them understand that the long-term job of parenting is imbuing children with self-sufficiency in education and life.
Increased communication between teachers, students and parents — along with embracing failure as part of the learning process — help to address overparenting and the high levels of student anxiety triggered by fear of making a mistake. These strategies also result in close-knit learning communities with true educational success and deep skills transfer, a lesson with far greater importance than any high-stakes homework assignment.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.