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.
For example, Stuart A. Karabenick, a research professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, found that students who sought help appropriately were more likely to try to master educational content, rather than simply trying to pass a given test—a mind-set associated with both better academic and life achievement.
In addition, research by special education professors David W. Test and Catherine H. Fowler, both of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, found that students who participated in programs that improved their help-seeking and advocacy skills became more engaged and better-behaved in school.