Family-school communication during lockdown improves children’s learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the likelihood that millions of children around the world will be alienated from school and at risk of academic failure.

Italy was the first western country hit by COVID-19 and one of the countries in Europe with the highest death rates. National lockdown restrictions came into force in March 2020 and schools were closed until the end of the academic year. Now new lockdowns are feared. Teachers’ and parents’ engagement in online schooling and remote learning has emerged as one of the most significant challenges for the country.

Children experiencing lockdown measures at home are likely to have accumulated multiple stresses related to their lack of or low engagement in school-based instructional and social activities. With schools closed, parents have become full-time child care providers and home-school teachers, responsible, more than ever, for supporting their children’s educational and developmental needs.

Now Italian young people, their families, and their teachers are facing the challenge of in-person or blended (partly in-person, partly online) education.

“How well both parents and their children believe they are capable of handling challenges associated with online education was associated with higher child autonomy around online education, better academic performance, and fewer child emotional difficulties.”

Last summer in Italy, we conducted an anonymous survey of parents with 6- to 18-year-old children about their beliefs about online education. Here are some preliminary data:

  • 250 parents, 83% of whom were mothers, answered the survey.
  • The average age of the children was 11 (SD = 3.84) and 53% were boys.
  • The parents were from the center and south of Italy.
  • 48% lived in an independent house, while 52% lived in an apartment.
  • 90% said they had WIFI in their home during the lockdown.

Our study was inspired by Albert Bandura‘s studies on self-efficacy beliefs, which showed that people’s actions are strongly influenced by how much they believe they are capable of reaching a goal or effectively handling a challenging situation. We conducted a pilot study to examine parents’ self-efficacy beliefs toward the challenges of online education during quarantine (we asked, for example, “During quarantine, how well did you believe you were capable of supporting your child doing homework during online education?”). We also examined parents’ perceptions of their children’s beliefs about feeling capable of handling the challenges (we asked, for example, “During quarantine, how well do you think your child felt capable of asking for support to do homework from you/a classmate/a teacher during online education?”). Hereafter I refer to those constructs as parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs toward online education.

First, both parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs toward online education were associated with higher autonomy on the part of the children around online education (e.g., “During quarantine, how often did your child attend online education autonomously, without you having to remind him/her it was time to do so?”). Similarly higher parents’ and [children’s?] efficacy beliefs correlated with better academic performance and fewer emotional difficulties on the part of the children at the end of academic year.

Second, parents’ support for their children’s academic activities before the COVID-19 pandemic started, as well as parents’ and children’s familiarity with online communication platforms before the pandemic, were associated with higher parental self-efficacy beliefs toward online education.

Greater parental difficulty in supporting their children in respecting homework deadlines and understanding teachers’ instructions about homework, as well as an overall parental feeling of powerlessness in understanding how they could support their children’s learning, predicted lower parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs.

In addition, higher parents’ and children’s beliefs in understanding others’ needs (empathic self-efficacy), handling anger and sadness in challenging situations, and expressing positive emotions (regulatory emotional self-efficacy) were associated with higher parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs toward online education, as well as with youth’s autonomy toward online education.

Parents’ hostile rumination (e.g., “I will always remember the injustices I have suffered”) and irritability (e.g., “I often feel like a powder keg ready to explode”) were associated with lower parents’ self-efficacy and children’s autonomy toward online education.

“Facilitating family-school communications in the time of COVID-19 might decrease parents’ sense of powerlessness when supporting their children’s learning development.”

Children’s negative emotions (e.g., anger and sadness), low effortful control (e.g., the ability to inhibit an action when there is a strong tendency to perform it), and higher problematic behaviors (e.g., aggressive behaviors, anxiety and symptoms of depression) before the COVID-19 pandemic were also associated with lower parents’ and children’s efficacy beliefs toward online education.

In conclusion, Bandura’s self-efficacy theory supports the importance of taking into account how well both parents and their children believe they are capable of handling challenges associated with online education. Our preliminary findings show a correlation between these beliefs and developmental outcomes for Italian children during the difficult months of the lockdown.

Facilitating family-school communication in the time of COVID-19 might decrease parents’ sense of powerlessness when supporting their children’s learning development. It could also increase their sense of efficacy around the challenges typically associated with online education.

If parents and teachers know which parents’ and children’s characteristics are associated with better child outcomes, they might be able to think more effectively about how to manage their own and their children’s behaviors to maximize the chances of success for the children.

Header photo: Nenad Stojkovic. Creative Commons.