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The Informed Parent

The Effect of Beliefs on Achievement

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Feb. 14, 2000

One might imagine that how students feel about their abilities makes a difference on their achievements. One could further guess that if children believe they can affect their achievement in some way, they will feel more control over their learning experience and become more involved in their school work.

Educational research often looks at what appears to be obvious and develops a study to lend credence to the concept by formalizing and standardizing conditions.

This month I am going to share some information from such a study reported in the article "Increasing At-risk Students' Achievement" appearing in the September 1999 EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH NEWSLETTER. Then I will indicate several ways that I believe parents can assist their children in seeing themselves as successful learners.

Research Review

The study report states that the way children view success and failure has a significant impact on their motivation and achievement. Previous research has indicated that students who believe that their success or failure depends on their ability and effort tend to do better in school than those who believe that their success is a result of luck or external factors. Past research has also shown that children who see ability as changeable tend to put effort into challenging tasks. They face failure by increasing their efforts.

The article continued by citing current research on success and failure among minority and poor populations who were considered at-risk for school failure. The research data were gathered from students' achievement on a computational math test and a questionnaire about parent involvement.

Results showed that all students believe that ability was a factor in success. Low achievers tended to believe, however, that external factors played a large role in both their success and failure. Good or bad luck, test difficulty, and teacher favoritism were seen as factors influencing performance. They did not believe they, personally, had the necessary ability to achieve.

In contrast, high achievers were more likely to take personal responsibility for their performance. They tended to see their success or failure as within their control.

Interestingly, low achieving students attending parochial schools tended to hold beliefs similar to the high achievers regarding their abilities. They believed that they could succeed, which motivated them to put greater effort into their studies.

Research Conclusions

One conclusion the researcher drew was that adults in the studied parochial schools tended to hold high expectations and standards for all students regardless of achievement level. The adults also held the belief that all children can succeed if they put in the necessary effort. The researcher further concluded that adults' attitudes (parents and teachers alike) about children's abilities profoundly influence the children's evaluations of their own ability, their beliefs about why they succeed or fail, and their attitudes (in this study) toward mathematics.

Although this study focused on children's ability in mathematics, I am taking the liberty of saying that more than likely, the results can be generalized to all aspects of school. When students do not feel that they have the ability to achieve and when they believe that success lies beyond their control, they see no reason to put effort into their school work.

What is important for us as parents is recognizing that what we say and how we feel about our children and their abilities does have a strong affect on their achievement. I offer the following suggestions to assist you in supporting your children's investment in learning.

Supporting Children's Achievement

Children tend to incorporate the attitudes and beliefs that parents hold about their abilities. Observation shows us that they also reflect our attitudes about school personnel and policy. Have you ever heard your children mimic your tone of voice when speaking about a teacher or about school policies? They may even use your words. Some children actually report their parents' beliefs. "My mother thinks wearing uniforms to school is a stupid idea," a little girl said to me recently. "She also doesn't like our new principal," she continued. You might guess how this child also feels about her school's new policy about uniforms and the principal.

Words have a powerful effect on children. Talking positively about school, class work, tests, and homework go a long way in assisting our children in developing positive attitudes. The following phrases may be helpful if your child is having difficulty in school.

  1. I know that this (insert a specific word, i.e., math, spelling etc.) is hard for you. I also know that you will do your best.
  2. Sometimes we don't do as well as we'd like. Spelling (or whatever) is hard for you. And I notice that you spelled more works correctly than not.
  3. Let's work out a homework schedule together that will make it easier for you to get it finished.
  4. I can see that you are disappointed in your test results. Let's look at what you did correctly first, then see where you had problems.
  5. Sometimes kids like to have some tutoring to help them with hard work. Maybe that's something you'd like to consider.
  6. How can I help?
  7. Would you like to talk about it?
  8. I know you don't want to go to school, and it's your job. What might make it easier for you to get up and out in the mornings?
  9. Look at that! You really put effort into your work!
  10. I can see how hard you're working on that project.

Parents become discouraged when their children experience difficulties. Talking about your discouragement with a friend, a counselor, or the child's pediatrician helps you so that you don't pass your discouragement on to your child. Keeping positive and hopeful yourself assists your child.

As well as giving positive verbal statements to our children about their ability and achievement, it is wise to structure the home environment in such a way that they recognize that their schooling is a priority.

  1. Develop a homework schedule with the child and be available to supervise and assist. Too much intervention indicates to the child that you do not have confidence in his ability. Use of a timer (see "Avoid Those Homework Hassles" in THE INFORMED PARENT archives) is valuable.
  2. Limit outside activities: if children have to fit school work into a too-busy schedule, they do not believe that school is the priority. While outside activities enrich children's lives, they need to be kept within sensible limits. Usually two outside activities are all a child can handle successfully while still having school as the primary focus.
  3. Keep household chores within reasonable limits: children need to have chores and responsibilities within the family. As long as a child is a student, however, that needs to be the highest priority. If children need to baby sit younger siblings after school and fix dinner for the family at night, for example, they do not have energy left for attending to school work. How you arrange your family structure lets children know your priorities muchstronger than words alone.
  4. Attend parent conferences.
  5. Attend school functions and performances.
  6. Show interest in your child's school activities by listening to what they want to share with you.
  7. Be enthusiastic about school.

Sometimes just knowing the impact we have on our children in certain situations assists us in considering different ways of interacting with them. Knowing that children can change their attitudes about their abilities and achievement when adults have faith in their success serves to motivate us toward continual and positive support.

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