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Academic Achievement

Family Background And Family Structure

Investigations that have adopted refined measures of family influences have tended to show that they are related more strongly to academic outcomes than are more global measures of family background. Kellaghan and this colleagues (1993) conclude, for example, that family social status or cultural background need not determine a child's achievement at school. They propose that for academic success, it is what parents do in the home, and not children's family background, that is significant. Similarly, Sam Redding (1999) indicates that in relation to academic outcomes, the potential limitations associated with poor economic circumstances can be overcome by parents who provide stimulating, supportive, and language-rich experiences for their children.

It is important, however, to recognize the nature of the interrelationships between family background characteristics and more refined family influences. In the development of a model of human development, for example, Stephen J. Ceci and his colleagues (1997) propose that the efficacy of a family influence for academic success is determined to a large degree by a child's family background. They observe that parent-child interactions are the forces that lead to academic performance. In addition, they claim that academic success is achieved only if family background resources can be accessed to maximize the association between family influences and outcomes: relationships between family influences and academic achievement need to take into account the potentially constraining or expanding opportunities provided by children's family backgrounds. Analyses of the relations between families and academic achievement also need to consider children's family structures, A mother does homework with her children. It is generally acknowledged that family environment is the most powerful influence in determining a child's academic motivation and achievement. HUREWITZ CREATIVE/CORBIS such as the influence of single-parent families and the effect of sibling structures.

Single-parent families. Research that has examined relationships between changing family structures and students' school-related outcomes, has tended to show that in relation to two-parent families, children in single-parent families have lower academic performance, are more susceptible to peer pressure to engage in deviant behavior, have higher dropout rates from high school, and have greater social and psychological problems. Although the differences are generally small, a number of theories have been proposed to explain the variations. The no-impact perspective claims, for example, that the association between changing family structures and children's academic outcomes can be attributed to a combination of family background factors such as parents' education and incomes and the ethnicity/race of the family. Further, some researchers propose that much family structure research is inconclusive because it has failed to differentiate among various types of single-parent families such as whether they result from marital disruption (divorce or separation), parental death, or a never-married parent. In addition, it is suggested that many studies fail to take into account the timing in a child's life of a family disruption, the duration of the effects of that disruption, and whether the lone parent is the father, mother, or a guardian. An economic deprivation theory suggests that economic hardship in single-parent families is likely to require adolescents to work long hours and to take greater responsibility for younger brothers and/or sisters. As a result, these time-consuming activities are likely to be related to lower school achievement. In a family socialization perspective, it is proposed that the absence of a parent is probably associated with a decrease in total parental involvement, which in turn is related to poorer school outcomes. It is often claimed that the absence of fathers has particularly negative socialization influences, which may be especially detrimental for boys.

In general, research suggests that differences in the academic achievement of children from single- and two-parent families can be related to changes in the economic circumstances of families and to variations in the quality of parent-child interactions in the different family structures.


Sibling structure. There has been a long-standing fascination with exploring associations between sibling variables, such as the number of children in a family and a child's birth-order position in the family, and children's academic achievement. Typically, these sibling variables have small but significant inverse associations with academic outcomes, especially verbal measures of achievement. A number of theoretical perspectives have been proposed to explain these relationships, including the resource dilution hypothesis and the confluence model.

The resource dilution hypothesis proposes that sibling variables are related to the quality and quantity of parent-child interaction in families, and that such variations in parent resources are associated with sibling differences in academic achievement. That is, the greater the number of children in a family or the later the birth-order position, the more those children have to share family resources. As a result, children have lower scores on those academic outcomes affected by the diluted family influences. An alternate perspective is the confluence model which proposes that children's academic development is affected by the number of children in families, the age-spacing among children, and whether children are only, first, or last born in families. The model claims, for example, that with short birth intervals between children, increasing birth order is related to lower academic performance. In contrast, with sufficiently large intervals, the birth-order pattern may be mitigated or even reversed.

Generally, sibling research suggests that relationships between sibling structure variables and children's academic performance can be attributed to differences in family background, variations in family economic resources, and variations in the quality of parent-child interactions.


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodAcademic Achievement - Family Influences, Family Background And Family Structure, International Research, Future Family Research