Academic success, work for parents…


Talking about academic success means above all talking about the students, their work, their difficulties, and also their projects, their teachers, their programs… We often neglect the essential role of parents. However, whatever the level of their child, in all social environments, they seek to push them in their school careers.

In “Intelligence can be learned” , published in April 2024 by Université Grenoble Alpes Éditions, Marie Duru-Bellat, professor emeritus at Sciences Po, and Sébastien Goudeux, lecturer in social psychology at the University of Poitiers, decipher the current making of intelligence, the popularity of IQ tests, the excesses of these measurements and the inequalities they cover. On this occasion, they return to the links between parental involvement and academic success, as the extract below illustrates.

The link is far from automatic between “intelligence”, academic success and career. Constant mobilization of parents (and young people themselves) is necessary, in a context of competition for the “best” sectors leading to the “best” jobs. Families approach this competition with both unequal material and cultural assets, and ambitions that are themselves unequal. A specific job awaits them: no child inherits by osmosis cultural capital that would guarantee their success.

School careers require, in order to proceed in accordance with plans, constant vigilance from parents: monitoring of work, insider behavior to make adequate choices, not to mention, a partly random factor but which some will seek to control, the hazards relating to the teachers or establishments attended.

Parents will already mobilize to help their child succeed. But if the time spent helping your child is important in all social environments, this help takes different forms. While in families from working-class backgrounds, we focus on controlling the work to be done, not without difficulty, sometimes, in understanding the often implicit expectations of school, parents from privileged backgrounds or the middle classes are often, at first glance, less directive. Like the extreme case of parent teachers, they will help the child to focus his attention, to seek relevant information , to self-evaluate his work, to justify his answers, to understand the reasons for his successes or failures, so many cognitively stimulating approaches.

The decisive nature of parents’ vigilant behavior is particularly evident when the child encounters difficulties: not only do advantaged families not hesitate to subcontract this help outside, but they more frequently resort to the educational tools available on the market, or even invest themselves in learning. Not without success: while early academic difficulties seriously hamper the pursuit of long studies, some children initially in this case ultimately do quite well; the majority of children from advantaged backgrounds experiencing difficulties in first grade access a second cycle while this is only the case for the minority of their peers belonging to disadvantaged backgrounds .

Likewise, a British study shows that if cognitive performance at the age of 22 months is indeed correlated with academic performance at the age of 10 , certain children who were at young ages at the bottom of the distribution manage to be in the leading group at 10 years old.

Proof of the impact of the family environment, these upward reclassifications are much more often the result of children from advantaged backgrounds, while the less advantaged struggle to remain at a good level over the long term, when they were at 22 months. Children from advantaged backgrounds therefore manage to “compensate” for early academic failures and consequently, even less than their peers from less advantaged social backgrounds, their academic career does not reflect their intelligence.

It is with a more or less solid educational background that students then approach the different choices of orientation (or options), and at all levels, the influence of social origin is significant: all The choices which determine the educational career are socially marked, with in particular insider choices to access the so-called sectors of excellence which require intimate knowledge of the system. Consequently, the course of schooling will not be a pure reflection of the child’s skills.

Academic success itself is part of an entire functioning of the school which is only very imperfectly meritocratic and everything does not come down to a question of academic value: the expectations and strategies of parents are crucial and moreover school resources are not always of equal quality; This is evidenced, for example, by the weight of novice teachers, on average less effective than their more experienced colleagues, in the most popular schools.

The role of parents is particularly evident regarding students labeled as HPI (high intellectual potential). Because it is in this global context of academic competition that certain parents (much more often endowed with high qualifications than the general population) strive to provide their child with special treatment, making it possible to optimize their education. and his academic success.

The diagnosis of precocity, made by a psychologist, most often at primary school level, follows the request of parents convinced that their child has particular needs and qualities poorly understood by teachers.

These parents, who have access to psychological culture, feel entitled to challenge the educational institution. Armed with an IQ test allowing the verdict of “high potential” (from an IQ of 130), they do not hesitate to exert pressure to force teachers to comply with their wishes, concretely, to obtain for their child a class skip or schooling adjustments.

The educational institution allows this, having gradually integrated the notion of precocity (euphemized expression of intellectual superiority). In the law “For the future of school” of 2005 , it is written that “appropriate arrangements are provided for the benefit of intellectually precocious students or those displaying particular aptitudes, in order to enable them to fully develop their potential” (article L.321-4).

Today, some parents truly defend, not without material means because you have to pay to have your child tested, a “cause” of intelligence ( according to Lignier’s formula ), based on the school use of psychological diagnosis. It is in fact, thanks to this resource presented as indisputable a high IQ, a strategy of distinction, justified by the crucial nature of academic success. We defend the need for specific care for these children by arguing that these “gifted” children are often suffering, even if in reality the vast majority of students thus labeled will experience excellent schooling.

These observations made on a very particular segment of the population support the conclusion according to which the school career largely reflects the active mobilization of parents, not only to train their child in the intelligence of the schoolchild but to optimize his or her support. charged by the institution.

Author Bios: Marie Duru-Bellat is Emeritus University Professor in Sociology, Center for Research on Social Inequalities (CRIS) at Sciences Po and Sébastien Goudeau is a Lecturer in Social Psychology at the University of Poitiers