How Home Shapes Children’s School Experience

Children’s educational success begins at home. Mothers’ care, parental involvement, and the intact family appear to affect a range of educational outcomes from school readiness to college admission. In turn, children who do well in school are less likely to engage in risky behavior.

  • Children’s school readiness is affected by maternal employment during the first months of life. Full-time maternal employment before a child’s ninth month significantly predicted lower school readiness scores at 36 months even when controlling for both quality of care at home and quality of child care.1
  • Parental support can influence children’s ability to cope with failure and pressure, which affects their classroom behavior. There was a positive association between seventh graders’ frustration tolerance scores (“ability to cope with failure and other social pressures”) and the levels of support from their mothers and fathers, and a negative association between fourth graders’ frustration tolerance scores and the levels of support from their fathers. No significant association was found between fourth graders’ frustration tolerance scores and the levels of support from their mothers. Fourth and seventh graders, both boys and girls, described by their teachers as having higher levels of frustration tolerance were less likely to show internalized classroom problems (“withdrawn, somatic complaints, and anxious depressed behaviors”) and externalized classroom problems (“delinquent and aggressive classroom behavior”).2
  • Parental divorce has a negative impact on children’s academic performance. Compared withtheir peers from intact families, students who had experienced parental marital disruptions scored lower on academic tests and had lower educational aspirations both before and after the disruptions.3
  • Children of responsive and involved parents are more likely to perform better in school. Youth who described their parents as being highly responsive (e.g., were willing to help with their problems) were more likely to have higher levels of academic achievement and psychosocial development and lower levels of deviant behavior and psychological problems than peers who did not rate their parents as being highly responsive.4
  • Students who report doing well in school are less likely to smoke, drink, or use drugs. Among students who reported doing well in school, 59.8 percent used cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs compared with 79.6 percent of their classmates who believed they performed poorly in school. Specifically, the differences between the students who regard themselves as academic achievers and those who did not were: 16.3 percent vs. 33.8 percent for cigarettes; 58.6 percent vs. 76.9 percent for alcohol; and 12.2 percent vs. 31.5 percent for illicit drugs.5
  • Teens who do well in school are less likely to become sexually active. Teens were less likely to become sexually active if they came from two-parent families, had a higher socioeconomic standing, lived in a rural area, performed better academically, were more religious, did not have suicidal thoughts, believed that their parents or other adults cared about their behavior, and had parents who had high expectations of them.6
  • Adolescents who attend church regularly tend to complete more years of schooling. The respondents who never attended church in 1979 (19 percent of the sample) completed .52 fewer years of schooling compared to those who attended at least once per week (37 percent of the sample).7
  • Students from intact families are more likely to apply and to be admitted to college. Students from intact families were nine percent more likely to apply to college than students from disrupted families. Students from intact families were also more likely to be admitted to college (as a proportion of those who applied, 92 percent compared with 89 percent), more likely to attend a four-year college immediately after high-school graduation (as a proportion of those who were admitted, 62 percent compared with 52 percent), and more likely to ever attend a four-year college (as a proportion of those who ever attended college, 51 percent compared with 37 percent) than those who did not live with their biological parents.8
  • Students from two-parent families tend to get greater benefit from additional years of education. Each additional year of school improved children’s future socioeconomic status, but the gains varied according to family structure. For each additional year of school, children from two-parent families scored a gain of four points on a socioeconomic index scale; their peers from stepfamilies scored three points, peers from single-mother families scored three points, and peers from single-father families scored 3.5 points.9


  1. J. Brooks–Gunn, W. Han, and J. Waldfogel “Maternal Employment and Child Cognitive Outcomes in the First Three Years of Life: The NICHD Study of Early Child Care,” Child Development 73, No. 4 (July/August 2002): 1052–1072.
  2. Maria Ketsetzis, Bruce A. Ryan and Gerald R. Adams, “Family Process, Parent-Child Interactions, and Child Characteristics Influencing School-Based Social Adjustment,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (May 1998): 374-387.
  3. Yongmin Sun and Yuanzhang Li, “Children’s Well-Being During Parents’ Marital Disruption Process: A Pooled Time-Series Analysis,” Journal of Marriage and Family 64 (May 2002): 472-488.
  4. Anne C. Fletcher, Laurence Steinberg, and Elizabeth B. Sellers, “Adolescents’ Well-Being as a Function of Perceived Interparental Consistency,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (August 1999): 599-610.
  5. I. Sutherland and J. P. Shepherd, “Social Dimensions of Adolescent Substance Use. Research Report,” Addiction 96 (2001): 445-458.
  6. Cristina Lammers et al., “Influences on Adolescents’ Decision to Postpone Onset of Sexual Intercourse: A Survival Analysis of Virginity Among Youths Aged 13 to 18 Years,” Journal of Adolescent Health 26, No. 1 (2000): 42-48.
  7. Linda D. Loury, “Does Church Attendance Really Increase Schooling?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43, No. 1 (March 2004): 119-127.
  8. Dean Lillard and Jennifer Gerner, “Getting to the Ivy League: How Family Composition Affects College Choice,” The Journal of Higher Education 70, No. 6 (1999): 706-730.
  9. Timothy J. Biblarz and Adrian E. Raftery, “Family Structure, Educational Attainment, and Socioeconomic Success: Rethinking the “Pathology of Matriarchy,” American Journal of Sociology 105, No. 2 (September 1999): 321-65.