Middle Class Parents Teaching Kids to be Squeaky Wheels?


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Middle class parents are more involved at school. (Photo by Jose Kevo).

Middle class parents are more involved at school. Photo by Jose Kevo.

Students, school teachers and administrators, and parents all need to communicate to ensure education takes place, but are parents and kids communicating differently based on social class?

Recent research by Jessica McCrory Calarco of the Indiana University Department of Sociology investigated how parents taught children to handle interactions at school, and found that the way kids and parents approached conflict (Is it more important to ask for help or to avoid making a teacher angry?) varied by social class.

These differing approaches may help explain continuing social inequality in education.

Self-Advocacy Skills: A Longitudinal Look

Calarco followed 59 white students and their families from a suburban school district for two years.

According to the author, other racial and ethnic groups were excluded due to their low representation in the school district, which was 82% white.

The researcher classified the families as either middle or working class, with both educational achievement and type of work factoring into the classification. Middle class families had at least one parent with a four year degree, and one parent who worked as a professional or in management. In contrast, those families labeled working class had high school diplomas or less, and tended to work in service jobs, as clerks, or as transportation or daycare providers. By using field notes and interviews, the author studied how parents taught self-advocacy skills and evaluated the information using a computer program.

Avoiding Bias in Interpretation

Decoded Science asked the author how the team avoided bias in interpreting the field notes. Calarco responded that using Atlas.ti software, “helps to discourage bias by encouraging consistency in the analysis of qualitative data: after developing a list of themes (and associated codes), researchers can then apply those codes to all of the fieldnotes or interview transcripts in a uniform way. The software also makes it very easy to “call up” all of the quotes or examples around a given theme, and also to identify gaps in the argument (by checking, for example, whether there were any middle-class students who rarely asked for help) and to look for disconfirming evidence (i.e., evidence that does not fit the general pattern).”

Middle Class Kids and Asking For Help

How do middle class kids deal with situations requiring assistance? Calarco told Decoded Science that don’t expect teachers to come to them if there’s a problem. “[M]iddle-class children instead believe that it is their responsibility to alert teachers to any problems or questions that they have, and that doing so is not only appropriate, but expected. They also learn to recognize the potential benefits of help-seeking, and to feel comfortable approaching teachers with requests.

Calarco’s research found that middle class parents were determined to train their children to interact appropriately with authority figures, and understood that “ensuring children’s well-being—particularly in the long term—requires more than just intervening or advocating on their behalf,” and that middle class parents “also insist that children learn to advocate for themselves by asserting their needs and asking for help from teachers and other institutional authorities.”

According to the research, middle class parents not only encouraged their children to be self-advocates, but also coached them relentlessly, tailoring  “coaching efforts to align with their children’s individual needs” such as learning disabilities or shyness.  When children resist, Calarco states that “parents often intensify their training efforts.”  The author refers to this individualized coaching as “critical” in obtaining the desired outcome: good communications skills.

Middle class children, writes Calarco, are “squeaky wheels in training,” learning to request assistance until they receive it.

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