"What we see typically is, often those parents had problems themselves in school," said Sherri Wilson, the National PTA's senior manager of family and community engagement. As a result, "they are reluctant to ask for help from school themselves, and also they do not encourage their children to ask for help because they don't want to draw attention."
As part of an ongoing series of studies in an outlying suburb in Pennsylvania, sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco of Indiana University in Bloomington observed and interviewed 56 white students from 3rd through 5th grades and their working- and middle-class families and then conducted follow-up interviews when the students were in 7th grade.
Through observations of classroom interactions with teachers, and interviews with the students and their parents, the researcher tracked students' confidence and their ability to seek help from teachers, clarify assignments or concepts they didn't understand, and resolve problems around academic issues—what Ms. McCrory Calarco called educational advocacy.
"I find that although both middle-class and working-class parents teach children skills for negotiating with institutional authorities on their own behalf, the nature and content of these lessons varies along social class lines," she said. "Whereas middle-class parents stress the development of children's self-advocacy skills, working-class parents instead emphasize skills for problem-avoidance."
While the study is small, its findings build on studies suggesting that students' ability to seek help and successfully navigate the school system can make a big difference in their academic achievement.