Back when your kids were in elementary school, parents were constantly being asked to help with field trips, craft activities, homework projects—just about any activity that needed an extra pair of hands. Teachers were appreciative and your kids liked having you around.

But once students hit middle school, parental involvement takes on a new role and often a less visible one. Middle school kids are becoming more independent and although they still need guidance from parents, they may not want you around so much. Parents quickly discover the same type of involvement that worked in the early grades isn’t as effective in middle school.

A Harvard researcher set out to learn exactly what type of parental involvement works best for middle school students. Nancy E. Hill, PhD, a developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard University, examined 50 parental involvement studies over a 21-year period. The findings revealed that talking to your children about the link between school and their future had the strongest relation to achievement.

“We found that parental involvement strategies that reflect ‘Academic Socialization’ were most strongly and positively related to adolescents’ academic achievement,” said Hill, who co-authored the analysis with Diana F. Tyson, PhD, Duke University.

What exactly is academic socialization? According to Hill, its communicating parental expectations for education and the value of education, linking schoolwork to current events, fostering educational and occupational aspirations, discussing learning strategies with children, and preparing and planning for the future.

Hill said when parents talk about educational goals, teens see the value and usefulness of their education, and they are more likely to pursue and master the material. Most surprising about the findings was that homework help and school-based involvement (the two other types of parental involvement identified in the research) took a backseat to this idea of academic socialization.

School-based involvement – parent-teacher conferences, volunteering and being present at the school through activities and events– had a moderate impact on achievement, while assisting and supervising homework had the least impact on achievement. “Based on our focus groups with middle school aged teens and their parents and teachers, we found that teens want assistance with organization, reminders about when assignments are due, and with identifying resources to assist them with their assignments,” said Hill.  “All of these strategies help students become more independent and responsible for their own work and learning.”

According to Hill, there are a few reasons why traditional homework help is not as effective in improving academic outcomes. “First, parents often get involved in homework only after students start performing poorly,” she said, adding “an increase in homework assistance is associated with decreasing performance, although homework help is not causing the decline.”

Parents may have learned a subject differently, especially in math and they may end up trying to teach their kids the way they learned. “Parents are not in the classroom hearing how the subject matter is taught, their help may not be consistent with the teachers’ instruction,” Hill added. “Such differences may result in increased confusion for the teen.”

Students also might view their parents’ help as overbearing and micromanaging, “which can undermine students sense of autonomy and responsibility around homework completion.” 

Beth Lorenz, a middle school math teacher in Cedar Park, Texas, agrees that helping too much with homework can actually hinder students’ achievement. “I’ve seen some cases where mom and dad have done most of the homework and the kids just sit there and observe,” said Lorenz. “And when it comes time for the tests, the kids fail because they didn’t get the practice they needed.”

Lorenz notes it’s often these same parents who are constantly calling and emailing wondering why their child isn’t performing well in school. “A certain amount of following up with the teacher is important,” she added. “But parents need to let their kids take ownership for the problem. They need to step back and the students need to step up.”

Parents do have an influential role when it comes to homework by providing structure and the appropriate environment. Hill said parents can make sure that their adolescents understand their expectations about the completion of homework, make sure that teens have a set time to complete their homework, and that they have a designated space that is organized, well lit, and has the needed supplies.

As students adjust to middle school, it’s also a learning curve for parents, as they have to navigate an entirely different system, a larger campus and more teachers. Parents find they need to refocus their efforts and determine how best they can have an impact.

Opportunities to volunteer in middle school do exist, but differ from the hands-on approach in elementary school to more of a behind the scenes or guiding role. Parents can help out at PTA fundraising events, working in the library, chaperoning and helping with extracurricular activities. “It’s still important that middle school kids see that their parents are part of the community and their school,” added Lorenz.

Another vital role for parents involves ongoing conversations about the importance of education and the value of academic performance. But getting kids to talk about what is going in school can be an ongoing challenge for any parent. Amy Leykam, a middle school psychologist in Palo Alto, said that often parents find it difficult to know how their middle school kids are doing, as they don’t share as much as they did in elementary school. “Kids will say everything is fine but when the report card comes out, it tells a different story,” she added.

She said that parents who had open communications with their children in elementary school are better able to maintain the same level of communications in middle school.

Leykam explained that the kids who can verbalize what is not going well for them do better because they have a better sense of themselves. “I think that comes from having an open communications with their parents, because they are always talking about what’s going well, what’s not going well, how you learn and how you think,” she said. “The more information kids have about themselves, the better off they are.”

School involvement and homework help have their place, but the most important task for parents is linking school performance to future aspirations.