5 Ways to Set High Expectations for School Success

The biggest predictor of academic success is high parent expectations

A mom helps here children prepare for school
Setting high expectations is a first step in creating family learning expectations. Siri Stafford via Getty Images

Do you know which single parental involvement activity researchers identified as being the most influential for their child's academic success is? It is having high expectations. This factor is most influential regardless of family size, ethnicity, income level, or parental education level.

It sounds so simple at first. All you need to do is have high expectations for your child, and you—whoever you are—will boost their academic success.

Then, you are left with the next question: What do researchers mean by high expectations?

Defining What 'High Academic Expectations Parents Have for Their Children'

Academic researchers measure high academic expectations by asking parents what level of education they expect their children to achieve. In general, most researchers define high expectations of academic achievement as parents expecting their child to graduate with a four-year degree from a university. Average expectations are often listed as a parent expecting their child to graduate with a high school diploma.

The variation in what is defined as a "high level of academic expectation" between studies depends on the group of parents being surveyed. Parent education level is strongly correlated with the expectation of what education level their children will achieve. 
While parents with higher education levels expected their children to also achieve that level of education, parents who expected their children to reach a higher level of education then they had also had children who attained the expected level, surpassing their parent's education levels.

How High Parental Expectations Lead to Academic Success

While researchers define high parental expectations as expecting children to one day earn a four-year college degree, a review of they studies themselves reveals that there is more than a belief about the future that leads to academic success for children.

It is the behaviors and habits that these parents have that resulted from this belief that lead effective parental involvement.

What this suggests is that you don't have to push your child to specifically earn a  four-year college degree. This also means that even parents who recognize that their children may be happier going into a career that doesn't require a college degree, such as a trade union career or the military, can still have high expectations that will benefit their children.

Below are the things that parents who expect their children to earn four-year college degrees do that lead to greater academic success:

1) Assume Their Child Can Learn Material Being Taught at School

Parents that assume that their child will be attending college are less likely to question whether or not their child is capable of doing the school work they are being asked to do. The increased rigor being brought into classrooms as the result of several different educational reforms in the last few decades have left some parents wondering why children today have homework that looks to be more difficult than the parent had while growing up. 

Part of the increased rigor is related to schools themselves holding high expectations to all students.

This is a result of landmark education research in the 1960s by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. Their research showed that when teachers were told that certain students had special aptitude, those students performed better academically. What the teachers didn't know was that the students had been randomly selected, they had not actually been tested for academic ability.

Several other studies followed that showed a similar pattern. When teachers believed their students were capable, their students met those expectations. Many education reforms have focused on ensuring that groups of students who historically have been low performers are also held to high expectations, so that these students are given the same advantages and rigor as students who are often viewed as being successful.

Making sure that all students—in every public school, in every state in the U.S.—is one of the driving factors behind the push for Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The implementation of CCSS has met with controversy. Some CCSS detractors claim that the standards are too difficult for all groups of children to achieve.  CCSS supporters point out that the standards were created to be rigorous, but achievable by all students.

It is important that parents understand that schools today are switching to new rigorous standards. It can be surprising to see how much more challenging your child's homework in a particular grade is compared to the homework you had as a child in the same grade level.

Instead of assuming that the work the teacher is assigning is too difficult, expect that your child can meet the challenge offered by the new standards. It will help to remember that your child should have received lessons over the material at school. 

If your child often struggles to complete their home or school work, there are several steps you can take to get them back on track at school. Having high expectations should lead you to understand that your child can find ways to get their grades up, not give up and continue to struggle endlessly at school.

2) Talk More With Their Children About School

Studies show that parents who expect their children to earn four-year college degrees regularly talk to their children about their school day. These conversations keep parents aware of what is happening at school. They help parents to monitor their children's progress at school. They also show that parents value academic achievement, teaching children that education is important and that children should try to do well in school.

You can start a good conversation with your child about school by asking open-ended questions about the school day. Work to ask your child a different open-ended question about school each day until you feel that you are naturally having regular conversations about school.

Some example questions you can ask are:

  • What was the most interesting thing you learned today?
  • What do you find to be the most difficult for you at school?
  • Tell me about your favorite thing to do at school.
  • What do you think you are best at in school? Why do you think that is?

3) Provide Opportunities to Learn Outside of School

Parents who expect their children to earn four-year degrees provide plenty of learning opportunities outside of school. These parents encourage learning outside of school by creating what educators call a "learning rich home environment" and by participating in extracurricular and social activities.

A learning rich home environment has a quality that encourages learning by the way the home is organized and run. Some of the ways you can make your home a learning rich environment are to:

  • Provide plenty of interesting books for your children to read or look at. Studies show that the number of books in a child's home is positively related to children's reading levels.
  • Provide toys that encourage thinking, imagination and hands-on play. Aim to provide a variety of different types of activities. Toys do not need to be expensive to provide opportunity for learning and growth.
  • Involve your children in daily home activities. Explain to children how to do a given task, and why it is important. Having children  help measure and follow directions in preparing meals teaches math skills while building up their self-esteem by teaching them how to care for themselves. Cleaning up their rooms teaches children how to organize their belongings so they can find them when they want them. 
  • Take your children to a wide variety of places and events. You can take your children to museums, nature hikes, sporting events, various festivals, local plays, concerts, zoos, aquariums, and more. These trips can be a special bonding time between parent and child, while your child learns more about the world around them.

Having your child get involved in extracurricular activities will give your child to explore in greater detail a subject or activity that interests them. Extracurriculars provide a fun block of time in a school day that might otherwise seem a little too academically focused. 

Your child will also get to make friends with similar interests. They may gain leadership and teamwork social skills that willbe sueful in their futures.

4) Discuss Their Children's Future With Them & Help Set Goals

Parents who expect their children to earn four-year college degrees talk with their children to help them plan their future. In elementary school parents might make comments about the child one day attending college, establishing the expectation that they will go to school beyond high school.

If you are a parent who would like to have high expectations without demanding college, you can start talking about how your child will continue learning beyond high school. You can let them know that people never really stop learning,and describe briefly how some people do apprenticeships, others go to college, some ,and describe briefly how some people do apprenticeships, others go to college, some directly join the workforce and continue to advance their careers with on the job training or taking part-time classes.

The reality of the workforce today, and likely into the future, is that workers do continue to learn after they leave high school. To be well prepared to continue learning, it is important to continue taking challenging courses in high school and achieve well during that time. 

Occupations that do not specifically require a college degree, such as trade unions and the military, often test applicants knowledge of math, reading and writing skills, along with other knowledge deemed necessary to enter a particular field. 

A parent supporting their child's career goal of entering a non-degree field will help their child immensely by helping their child explore the required knowledge of the career path, along with how to study and take the required exams for that career. the required knowledge of the career path, along with how to study and take the required exams for that career.

Middle school is a good time to begin exploring which career fields your child may wish to enter. Your child may not settle on their future career until they are older, but by beginning planning and thinking ahead in middle school, your child can take the right classes in high school to help them get their chosen careers.

5) Plan Financially for Children's Postsecondary Education

College and vocational coursework can be very expensive. Parents who expect their children to earn four-year degrees will plan for ways to pay for ​college.. They will explore scholarships, grants and savings programs that will allow their children to get the education that will get them to their future career. 

These parents also help their children evaluate how well a career field will pay and the quality of education their children will receive. These parents can discuss with their children how any student loan debt will be paid back, and help their children to limit borrowing to an amount that they can expect to repay.

Every Parent Can Have These High Expectations

Fortunately, the above activities are things that all parents can do. You don't have to have earned a college degree yourself, be wealthy, or even spend a great deal of time volunteering at your child’s school (research found this activity did have positive influence on children's academic achievement, but not as much as high parental expectations.) 


Jeynes, William. "Parental Involvement and Student Achievement: A Meta-Analysis / Browse Our Publications / Publications & Resources / HFRP - Harvard Family Research Project." Parental Involvement and Student Achievement: A Meta-Analysis / Browse Our Publications / Publications & Resources / HFRP - Harvard Family Research Project. Harvard Family Research Project, Dec. 2005. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

"Parental Expectations for Their Children’s Academic Attainment |." Databank Indicator. Child Trends, Oct. 2015. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

"Status of Education in Rural America - 1.15. Parental Expectations of Educational Attainment." Status of Education in Rural America - 1.15. Parental Expectations of Educational Attainment. Institute of Education Services, June 2007. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

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