Parent perceptions of barriers to academic success in a rural middle school.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Rural schools (Social aspects)
Home and school (Research)
Academic achievement (Social aspects)
Academic achievement (Management)
Student counselors (Practice)
Student counselors (Social aspects)
Education (Parent participation)
Education (Research)
Authors: Griffin, Dana
Galassi, John P.
Pub Date: 10/01/2010
Publication: Name: Professional School Counseling Publisher: American School Counselor Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Family and marriage; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 American School Counselor Association ISSN: 1096-2409
Issue: Date: Oct, 2010 Source Volume: 14 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 310 Science & research; 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 241277784
Full Text: In focus groups, parents of both academically successful seventh-grade students and at-risk students (i.e., failing one or more classes, numerous behavioral referrals, and/or suspensions) in a rural middle school identified perceived barriers to student success as well as school and community resources for overcoming those barriers. Qualitative analysis of the data revealed six common barrier themes for the two groups and two additional themes for parents of academically at-risk students. The results are discussed with respect to the Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler model of parental involvement and the school counselor's role in school-family-community collaboration.


Adolescence represents a time when children undergo numerous and sometimes difficult physical, emotional, and intellectual changes (i.e., puberty, striving for autonomy and social acceptance, and increased self-consciousness) that can create or intensify a variety of emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, and distress (Roseth, Johnson, & Johnson, 2008). Effects of these developmental changes can lead children to become alienated from friends and family, engage in high-risk behaviors (i.e., sexual behaviors, substance use), and demonstrate decreased school engagement and declining academic performance (Flook & Fuligni, 2008; Roseth et al.; Spoth, Guyll, Trudeau, & Goldberg-Lillehoj, 2002). These high-risk behaviors are often exacerbated in rural adolescents. Indeed, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2000) reported that substance use is on the rise in rural youth and has been increasing at higher rates in rural communities. Moreover, resources and services to support student success are less available in rural environments (Ludlow, Keramidas, & Kossar, 2008).

At the same time, research has indicated that parental involvement has a positive effect on a child's social and academic success (Clark, 1983; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 1991). Studies have shown that students in secondary schools earn higher grades in English and math, attain better reading and writing skills, have better attendance, and exhibit fewer behavior problems when parents are involved (Epstein, 2008). Moreover, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has emphasized the importance of parental involvement through adolescence as a way to help children through transitions and to continue to be academically successful (DePlanty, Coulter-Kern, & Duchane, 2007).

Although parental involvement has been shown to positively affect student achievement, reduce problem behaviors, and create a positive sense of self-efficacy for achieving in school-related tasks (Epstein & Sheldon, 2002; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandier, 1995; Van Voorhis, 2003), parental involvement tends to decline in secondary schools (DePlanty et al., 2007; Stevenson & Baker, 1987). A variety of factors influence the level of parental involvement. Parental involvement in adolescence decreases due to the lack of social networks for parents and the lack of financial stability (Sheldon, 2002). Eccles and Harold (1993) asserted that less educated parents are less involved because they are not as knowledgeable about their child's curriculum in middle and high school.

A study by Epstein (1986) found that school-related issues, such as lack of adequate communication between teachers and parents, influenced the level of parental involvement. Specifically, 16% of parents reported never receiving correspondence from the teachers, 35% reported never having parent-teacher conferences, and 60% reported never speaking directly to the teachers on the telephone (Epstein). Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, and Brissie (1992) found that lack of teacher efficacy was also a factor influencing parental involvement. Teachers with higher levels of efficacy were more likely to be engaged in parental involvement than teachers with lower levels of efficacy. Parents also have identified a number of other barriers that prevent them from being more involved in their child's education, such as inconvenient meeting times, transportation, child care, communication from the school, knowledge about school rules and policies (Johnson, Pugach, & Hawkins, 2004), faculty mistrust of parents and students (Hoy, Tarter, & Hoy, 2006), parents' perceptions of racism and their own negative school experiences (Lareau, 1996), and poverty (Hill & Taylor, 2004).

Although barriers to parental involvement have been widely researched in the literature, there needs to be more research about these factors during the adolescent years and in rural school environments. For example, two factors that might influence parent involvement are parents' perceptions of the barriers to academic success faced by their adolescents and their knowledge about and ability to access the resources and services needed to foster student success. In consideration of this gap in the literature, we wanted to gain a deeper understanding of (a) what parents believe to be academic success barriers in a rural middle school environment, (b) what they think they need to help their adolescent children be more successful in school, and (c) what resources and services they believe are available to foster student success. This article reports the findings of an exploratory examination of parents' perceptions of these factors gathered from parents of academically successful and academically at-risk students attending a rural middle school.

We recognize that the term at-risk students is often used from a deficit perspective that potentially locates the reasons for their performance almost totally within students and their families, ignoring the extent to which systemic and other factors contribute to student performance, and overlooking the strengths and promise that lie within the students (Sims-Peterson & Ware, 2002; Swadner, 1990). We acknowledge the stereotyping and negative effects that this terminology may have, not only on students, but on parents, teachers, and other educators who work with students, and we remind and caution readers about the imperfect nature of summary labels of this type.

Operationally, we have two groups of students: One group is currently passing all classes and have few or no behavioral referrals, and the other group is currently failing one or more classes and/or has a number of behavior referrals and/or suspensions. No permanent status is ascribed to the students' performance in either of these groups. Thus, we are using the terms academically successful, or successful and academically at risk, or at risk for brevity, and no assumptions about permanence or fundamental deficits or assets inherent in the two groups of students should be assumed. We follow with an overview of the theoretical framework used to guide the study. In addition, we consider implications for school counselor practice and provide suggestions for future research.


The first level of Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler's (1997, 2005) model of parental involvement was used to inform the current study. The overall model is composed of five levels (Walker, Shenker, & Hoover-Dempsey, this issue). The first level describes the motivational constructs for parental involvement: parent beliefs about involvement (role construction and parental self-efficacy), parent perceptions of invitations to become involved (general invitations from the school and specific invitations from teachers and children), and school responsiveness to parents' personal life context variables that influence their perceptions (knowledge and skills, time and energy) (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005). Role construction is defined as parents' beliefs about their home and school roles in their children's education, whereas parental self-efficacy is parents' beliefs about their ability to help their children succeed in school (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandier, 1997).

Parental self-efficacy has been linked with higher levels of parental involvement with elementary, middle, and high school students (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 1992). General invitations from the school are vital to parental involvement in that they help create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for parents and help support parental involvement (Comer & Haynes, 1991; Green, Walker, Hoover-Dempsey, & Sandier, 2007). Specific teacher and child invitations to participate in school activities also have been identified as motivators of parental involvement, and they can result in increased parental involvement (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005). Parents' perceptions regarding life context variables (skills and knowledge, and time and energy) also influence how and if parents are involved in the school. Parents may be motivated to be involved in school activities if they perceive that they have the skills and knowledge to be effective and helpful in involvement activities, whereas parents' perceptions about the demands on their time and energy (i.e., work and family responsibilities) facilitate or hinder their level of involvement (Green et al.).

The second level describes the types of parental involvement (values and goals, home involvement, school communication, and school involvement) and the learning mechanisms parents use during involvement activities (encouragement, modeling, reinforcement, instruction). The third level describes student perceptions of the learning mechanisms parents use during involvement (encouragement, modeling, reinforcement, instruction); and the fourth level describes student attributes conducive to achievement (academic self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation to learn, self-regulatory strategy use, social self-efficacy). The fifth and final level concerns outcome measures of student achievement (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandier, 2005).

Although the Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler model delineates five sequential levels for parental involvement, we believe that further exploration of parental perceptions (i.e., level 1) regarding barriers to academic success is warranted. Specifically, we wanted to ascertain what parents believe to be barriers to academic success for their children and their perceptions of the resources that are available to help them overcome the barriers to academic success. We explored these perceptions with parents in a small, rural public school system, as rural students, especially in low-wealth communities, have limited access to career counseling, college preparatory courses, career academies, and school-to-work programs (Provasnik et al., 2007). Further, we focused on the middle school environment because middle school adolescents are faced with challenges not dealt with by their younger or older peers.

Specifically, the following questions guided this study:

1. What differences exist in perceptions of barriers to academic success between parents of academically successful children and parents of academically at-risk children?

2. What resources do parents of both academically successful and academically at-risk children believe they need in order to help them help their children become academically successful?

3. What do parents believe about the availability of these resources in their rural community?


The current investigation utilized a qualitative, action-oriented approach to explore parent perceptions of barriers to academic success. Action research is utilized to solve a specific problem within a program, organization, or community (Patton, 2002). Further, action research engages the people in the organization in order to help solve the problem (Whyte, Greenwood, & Lazes, 1989). Specifically in this study, we explore barriers to academic success (the problem) through engaging the people (parents) to help solve the problem. In keeping with the goals of action research, we shared our results with the school administrator and school counselors to help address the problem (barriers to academic success), as well as other stakeholders who can use the results to make decisions, improve programs, and solve problems (Patton). To help engage parents in solving the problem, we conducted focus groups with parents to better understand their perspectives on barriers to academic success. Focus groups allow for the opportunity for participants to consider their own views in the context of views from others (Patton). Patton lists several distinct advantages of focus groups, including the following: (a) They are cost-effective in that you can gain multiple perspectives in one setting, (b) the interactions among participants enhance data quality, and (c) focus groups can be enjoyable to participants.

Based on our review of literature and the focus of this study, the paradigm best suited for this study was constructivism because the goal was to understand the perceptions of parents in a rural setting. In using a constructivist paradigm, we believed that "human beings have evolved the capacity to interpret and construct reality" (Patton, 2002, p. 96). Further, we as researchers acknowledged that these parents will have different experiences and perceptions of barriers to academic success, and we believed that they all had different contexts in which they constructed their perceptions. To understand parents' perceptions of barriers to academic success, we had to first understand how they constructed their meanings of barriers to academic success for their children. Informed by the theoretical framework of this study (Hoover-Dempsey and Sandier model), parent role constructions and perceptions can be indicative of how involved parents are with their children's education, which has been demonstrated as a way to enhance academic success. The constructivist paradigm enabled us to discover and communicate what these different perspectives were through the use of focus groups and field notes.

We conducted three focus groups, which are described below, to investigate participants' experiences. We believed that the interactions the focus groups would generate would enable us to gain a deeper understanding of the parents' beliefs about the barriers to academic achievement faced by their children and how their beliefs may either facilitate or impede parental involvement.


Twenty-nine parents from a rural middle school in the South participated in the study. We chose parents of seventh-grade students to participate in the study as these students would not be experiencing transition barriers to academic success, as research on school transitions has found them to be associated with a variety of negative outcomes in adolescents (Akos & Galassi, 2004). We believed that parents of sixth-grade and eighth-grade students would focus on transition issues as sixth graders were new to the school and eighth graders were preparing for the high school transition.

Purposive sampling and convenience sampling were used to choose participants for this study. Purposive sampling strategies are strategic and require that the selection of cases depend upon a study's purpose and available resources, while a convenience sample denotes participants who are selected because of their availability to the researchers (Patton, 2002). The parents were recommended by the school staff as those who would be open to participating in the study. The school provided a list of parents of both children who were academically successful and who were academically at risk. We mailed a letter informing them of the research and requesting their participation. We had three dates assigned for conducting the focus groups.

Based on the participants' availability, we scheduled one focus group of parents of children who were academically successful (i.e., passing all classes) and were not displaying any behavioral problems. There were 16 parental units in that group. Because of availability issues, we had two focus groups with parents of academically at-risk children. The academically at-risk children were failing one or more classes and/or had a number of behavioral referrals or suspensions. The first night, five parental units came, and the second night, eight parental units came, for a total of 13 parents of academically at-risk students. Because of[imitations set forth by the school district, we were unable to gather demographic information about the parents. However, visually, the groups appeared to be diverse, comprising African American, Caucasian, and Latino parents. The focus group for parents of academically at-risk students appeared to be mostly African American and Latino while the focus group for parents of academically successful students appeared to be mostly Caucasian. We also had a variety, of family structures: Two-parent households, single mothers, and grandparents as head of household were part of the focus groups. The groups were both audiotaped and videotaped for transcription purposes and to ensure accuracy of participant responses. Field notes were taken during the focus groups as well.


The participants were provided dinner and free child care, and each family received $25 for participating in the focus group. The focus groups were held during the evenings in the school media center, which provided a secluded, confidential environment that was both familiar for group members and conducive for group interaction (Krueger, 1994). Upon arrival, parents and children ate together, and then the children were taken by a graduate assistant to a separate classroom where they participated in various games and activities. The two authors of this study, who are school counselor educators, explained the purpose and goals of the focus group and read the consent form to the parents. Once parents signed the consent form, the audio and video recording of the groups began. The two authors facilitated the focus group discussions using a set of predetermined questions coupled with ad hoc probe or follow-up questions as needed to clarify or further the development of the conversation. Discussion in each group lasted for 60 to 80 minutes with the senior author having the primary responsibility for asking all of the initial questions and writing brief summaries of the parent responses on a smart board to facilitate the discussion and as a way to validate the responses. Both the senior author and the coauthor asked follow-up questions for clarification purposes and to deepen the discussion of an issue; the coauthor also took detailed notes on the ensuing discussion and interactions.

Group dynamics were collegial and parents often agreed with others' statements. We did have one unexpected dilemma when one parental unit (mother and father) of an academically at-risk child attended the focus group with parents of academically successful students. However, we were informed of this before the focus group began, allowing us to code their responses with other parents from the academically at-risk group. The parents in all three groups were asked the following questions:

1. What barriers hinder children from being academically successful in the school?

2. What resources in the school/school system are available to help parents overcome these barriers?

3. What resources are available in the community to help parents overcome these barriers?

Data Analysis

In order to fully understand the participants' experiences, we analyzed data through deep immersion in interview transcripts, observation, and field notes, that is, through inductive analysis (Rossman & Rallis, 2003). Inductive analysis allows for modification of concepts and relationships between concepts to occur. The data analysis proceeded as follows.

To help establish trustworthiness and authentic, data were first transcribed by two school counseling students who were unaware of the purposes of the study. Then, the researchers became familiar with the data by reading the transcripts and summaries and/or listening to the tapes multiple times. Working from these transcripts and from field notes, the researchers independently analyzed the data. Because our unit of analysis was the discrete idea, we assigned one or more code labels that captured the meaning of each discrete idea. The meanings of subsequent discrete ideas were compared and an existing or new code was assigned to each. We then met to discuss the coding and themes that had emerged from each researcher's categorical analysis of the interview data. Categorical analyses identify similarities and differences among data units, coding and separating them into appropriate categories (Rossman & Rallis, 2003). When the categories were too narrow or in need of reconceptualization, we met to refine the coding categories, which we did on four separate occasions. Further, we participated in peer debriefing. Peer debriefing enabled patterns and themes across the coding categories to become readily apparent and helped to establish trustworthiness, credibility, and authenticity. We accomplished peer debriefing through telephone calls and e-mails to communicate additional changes such as those to the codes list, as well as to provide constructive feedback. A cumulative list of codes and definitions was maintained and continually updated before we had a final list of codes and definitions (see Tables 1 and 2 for themes and codes).


Through coding and analysis of the focus group data, the following six major themes emerged for parents of successful students: parent and family barriers, teacher and instructional barriers, parent-teacher interaction barriers, student barriers, school or educational system barriers, and perceived available resources for school success. The same themes emerged for parents of academically at-risk students. However, two additional themes emerged for academically at-risk students that were not present in the academically successful group: teacher-student interaction barriers and perceptions of what is needed to address barriers to school success. We will first present the common themes for the two groups of parents (i.e., of successful and at-risk students), followed by the themes that emerged only from parents of at-risk students. Each quote represents a comment from a different parent in order to demonstrate a wide range of responses from the participants, and the quotes used are typical of those categorized by parents in each category.

Themes from Both Successful and At-Risk Parent Groups

Theme 1: Parent and family barriers. This theme refers to personal and home life barriers that may prevent children from being academically successful. For the successful parents, some of the challenges they believe hinder academic success are confusion regarding their education responsibilities and lack of knowledge about the extra help their children should receive from them. They questioned whether they should step in and be more involved with helping their children with homework, or making sure they completed and turned in the homework. For example, one parent said, "We must be on top of our child's educational responsibilities. I understand that in middle school they have to start taking some responsibility, but they are still kids. For me, it's my child, it's my responsibility."

Parents of the at-risk group listed other parent and family barriers, such as single-parent concerns, as evidenced by one parent: "It's really hard being a single parent. I work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sometimes it would be good to have support from other parents. I live in [...] for 2 years and don't really know other parents. I guess it's my fault. But I don't have time to put myself out there." They also voiced not being able to discipline their children the way they wanted to discipline and lack of family support as barriers to academic achievement. This group also listed a lack of knowledge about available resources in the school and not knowing how to help as reasons why their children were not successful in school. Interestingly, this group identified a lack of parental involvement as a main reason why children are not succeeding. For instance, a parent pointed out that

The parents in these groups agreed that not having time, child care, and inflexible work schedules were reasons that prevented them from being more involved in their children's education.

Theme 2: Teacher and instructional barriers. Both groups of parents listed the same concerns under this theme, with the most prevalent concerns for parents of successful children being lack of differentiated instruction due to high student-teacher ratios:

Parents of this group also were concerned with how teachers label the students or compare siblings: "My daughter is having a really hard time following her brother. He's straight A's and she's not. They assume because they had him last year that's she's him this year, and she is nowhere near where he is." Parents of the at-risk group also were concerned about preconceived notions that teachers have of their children based on past experiences their child has had with previous teachers. One parent, in particular, was upset that the teacher "was telling everybody he was an unteachable kid because of what this teacher heard from other teachers." The parents in both groups also had concerns about teachers not being aware of the negative effects of bullying and peer pressure. One parent stated, "The teachers don't realize how this can affect a student when they are being bullied or experiencing peer pressure."

Theme 3: Parent-teacher interaction barriers. Parents of both groups identified a lack of communication between teachers and parents as a major barrier that prevents academic success of children. Parents commented that teachers should be more proactive in corresponding with parents and that parents should be updated about their child's progress in more timely ways and have quicker communication when children are misbehaving. One parent commented, "If your child is doing something wrong, it takes them two or three days to tell you. Two or three days after the fact, it's hard to discipline them." Another stated, "My child came home with an F in social studies. I had no idea. The teacher should call and say, 'What should we do to help the child?' " Yet another parent lamented,

However, one parent in the at-risk group expressed an understanding about the communication gap that exists:

Theme 4: Student barriers. Both groups of parents listed similar student factors as barriers to academic success. Both groups listed a lack of understanding of the material being taught and being too afraid to ask for help as reasons that children are not being successful: "They won't ask questions ... afraid of what others might be thinking" and "they are trying to act like they are on the same level as everyone else, but they are getting behind." However, parents of at-risk children voiced more behavioral reasons as barriers to academic success, such as kids not being prepared, skipping school, focusing on relationships, lying, not fitting in, and increased gang activity. Some examples are "the boyfriend-girlfriend type relationships--they start dating and going out" and "they focus more on being popular." Additionally, parents of at-risk students voiced concerns about their children not fitting in, "kids not feeling like they belong--being excluded is a barrier." One mentioned, "The reason gangs are around is because kids want to belong." Nevertheless, all the parents of the at-risk group did agree that parental involvement could be beneficial in mitigating this barrier to academic success, which is exemplified by the following statement: "Skipping school, arriving late, not doing homework--that all falls under family support. If the parents don't care, the students see that. That starts a long time before middle school."

Theme 5: School or educational system barriers. Parents from both groups provided a variety of school and educational barriers that they believed prevent students from being successful, such as lack of mentoring, barriers to accessing exceptional children services, deficient elementary school preparation, lack of adequate transportation, and pressures from high-stakes testing. Additionally, parents of at-risk children also listed bullying as a reason that some children are not successful in school. Of the concerns listed, the transportation issue was one voiced by a majority of parents from both groups. One parent commented,

Additionally, parents perceived that exceptional children (EC) services, whether gifted or remedial, were difficult to obtain:

High-stakes testing also was listed as a barrier to academic success. One parent said,

Another parent opined, "They start shoving the EOG at you the first day the school is open. It's putting pressure on parents, putting a whole lot more pressure on kids."

The lack of mentoring, especially for males, was a concern for some parents in the at-risk group as evidenced by the following statements:

Another parent voiced, "Maybe having older college students come in for some credit and not only help with homework, but do also with basic male issues. I think the school would be an awesome place for this."

Theme 6: Perceived resources for school success. While this theme appeared in both groups, parents of successful students only listed the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program as a resource for school success. AVID is a national college preparatory program for students who are not in college prep courses but are underachieving in school; it provides them with the tools to succeed in rigorous courses and increases their opportunity to enroll in 4-year colleges and universities (Swanson, 2000). Otherwise, parents of successful students Skit there was a lack of resources available: "AVID is a great program, but there arc no other programs and resources available for kids who arc not AVID material."

Parents of at-risk students, on the other hand, listed several school and community resources in addition to AVID. School resources for this group included before- and after-school programs, in-school programs such as GAP and 21st Century (where students can go to receive extra academic support), the school counselor, the principal, sports, and proactive parental involvement. Community resources listed were sports, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and programs such as Juvenile Justice and Scared Straight. Although parents of at-risk students listed more school and community resources than did parents of successful children, they still perceived that the rural environment of the school created barriers to school and community resources. Additionally, they believed there was a lack of access to EC services, lack of affordable summer camps, and location as barrier to resources.

Themes from Parents of At-Risk Students Only

Theme 7: Teacher-student interaction barriers. Parents in this group identified the teachers' inability to discipline children as a barrier to academic success because misbehavior disrupts learning:

Another parent believed that parents are at fault for not letting teachers discipline their children: "Parents aren't helping the situation. Some of them don't think the teacher should tell the children to stop what they're doing."

Some participants perceived a major barrier to academic success was the negative interaction between the student and the teacher. For example, when a teacher ignores a child:

Additionally, some parents felt that incorrectly blaming kids for misbehavior, or the staff picking on a child, can create barriers to academic success.

Theme 8: Perceptions of what is needed to address barriers to school success. In addition to the aforementioned themes, parents of at-risk students also provided recommendations for what they believed would be helpful in addressing barriers to school success. They listed regular updates on student progress, boys' groups to deal with self-esteem, affordable summer programs and day camps, developing a list of available educational and other resources for parents, using resources in the school (i.e., deputy officer for discipline, school counselor for support), and providing moral support to parents. For example, one parent said,

Another parent agreed and added, "Not just for summer, but also teacher workdays and breaks during the holidays." These days also create a barrier for single parents.

The parents also believed that increasing parental involvement in the middle school is key. In talking about parental involvement, parents identified concrete things that parents could do to help break down the barriers to academic success. One major idea that was voiced by numerous parents was utilizing parents as resources, support systems, and mentors:

Yet another opinion voiced by parents was the need to take more initiative and be proactive in asking for resources or locating resources for their children. One parent said, "The school counselor can help, but you have to ask." Another parent agreed and added,

Also, they believed that parents would be more involved if the programs were catered toward their needs:

Similarly, one parent voiced,

Finally, parents commented that parental involvement could be increased if the school makes the parents feel welcome. One parent commented, "I don't mind going to the school because the secretary makes you feel welcome. She's very encouraging, she uplifts you. She's going to try her best to help you. She has a sweet personality." Furthermore, many parents felt that at this school, the principal makes the parents feel welcome and he listens to their concerns, and the school counselor is a great resource to them, as voiced by one parent, "Counselors give the kid an outlet, someone to talk to." Another said, "The counselors aren't judgmental. They just let them talk and get out what they need to get out."


Our research questions were answered by the study.

Those questions were the following: What differences exist in perceptions of barriers to academic success between parents of academically successful children and parents of academically at-risk children? What resources do parents of both academically successful and academically at-risk children believe they need in order to help them help their children become academically successful? And, what do parents believe about the availability of these resources in their rural community? We ascertained differences between the two groups regarding perceptions of what's needed to overcome the barriers. We found that few differences exist between the two groups regarding their perceptions to barriers to academic success. However, parents of at-risk parents had more insight into what is needed to help them help their children become successful, namely, to be involved in the school and to be proactive in helping their children. Lastly, while both groups of parents felt that resources were lacking and the rural environment limited their access to resources, only parents from the at-risk group mentioned the need to actively seek out necessary resources, or to use each other as possible resources.

The findings reveal that both groups had six common themes and that parents of the at-risk group had two additional themes. When viewing the themes of both groups of parents through the lens of the Hoover-Dempsey and Sandier model of parental involvement, the findings seem to support the psychological constructs of role construction (i.e., whether it's up to the parents, teachers, or children to be responsible for student learning, homework, and behavior); self-efficacy (i.e., being proactive in locating necessary resources and inquiring about services); and life-context variables (i.e., perceptions of the warm and welcoming school environment, no time to be involved due to work, and lack of affordable summer and after-school programs). Although not a part of the Hoover-Dempsey and Sandier model, barriers due to school location and available resources could be a major hindrance not only to school success but also to parental involvement.

Consistent with other findings regarding parent involvement, participants listed difficulties to their involvement in schools (i.e., Johnson et al., 2004). While parents identified a variety of barriers to student success in this study, results also indicated that parents appear to have some definite opinions about what needs to occur for children to be academically successful and about the roles that they and school personnel need to play in that endeavor. Overall, they recommended increased communication between schools and families (especially between teachers and parents), teachers paying closer attention to the individual needs of students, and greater availability of school and community resources that enhance learning for all students. At the same time, while parents asserted that there were certain things the school could do, they also saw themselves as having a shared responsibility in helping their children become academically successful, and some commented that they should be even more involved in their children's social and academic lives. These findings seem to align with level 1 of the model regarding parental role construction about what they as parents should do to help children to be successful in school (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005).

The self-efficacy construct also was exemplified by the parents in this study. Although the parents clearly want to help their children be successful academically, outside of being more involved and proactive in locating resources, they seemed unsure about how to help and did not perceive the existence of resources in the school and community environment to which they could turn to for help for their children. This finding aligns with the Hoover-Dempsey model in that parents' skills and knowledge can play a role in their decisions to be involved in their children's education as they progress from elementary to high school (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005).

With respect to resources, it could be that in a rural environment, resources are unavailable, harder to locate, or simply not easily accessible to the school community. Indeed, rural schools tend to have more limited resources than urban schools (Warren & Peel, 2005). Another possible reason is that some parents may not feel welcome in the school and, therefore, do not come to the school to access the resources that could be available to them and their children. In fact, parents in this study reported that, when the school made them feel welcome, they were more likely to come to the school. This finding also supports the Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler model as part of the model centers on creating warm and welcoming environments for parents and having school practices that convey respect for parent questions and suggestions (Green et al., 2007).


School counselors can facilitate the type of collaboration between schools and families that fosters student success. Based on the results of this study, we believe there are four areas in which school counselors can aid in removing barriers to student success"

1. Participate in school-family-community collaboration activities.

2. Develop parents as resources.

3. Help bridge the communication gap between parents and schools and help foster a welcoming school environment.

4. Develop a list of available resources for parents and school staff:

Participate in School-Family-Community Collaboration Activities

Due to the nature of their profession, school counselors must know how to work and collaborate with a diverse group of people. They arc charged with collaborating with school stakeholders in order to optimize the academic, career, and personal development of their students. According to ethical guidelines, a primary responsibility of school counselors is promoting and supporting student success by work with various school staff such as school social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses to identify best practices for collaborating with parents, community leaders, and other stakeholders (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2004). In addition, school counselors should work with other educators and parents to establish a school environment that promotes student achievement, values and responds to the diverse needs of students, and ensures equitable access for all students to participate fully in the educational process (ASCA, 2008).

There is some evidence illustrating that school counselors are involved or want to be involved in school-family-community collaborations (e.g., Bryan & Holcomb-McCoy, 2004, 2007). For example, a study of school counselors' perceptions of collaboration suggests that despite a variety of barriers (e.g., administrative tasks, too many roles and functions, time limitations) to developing and implementing partnership programs, school counselors believed in the efficacy of these collaborations (Bryan & Holcomb-McCoy, 2004). Some activities that school counselors can use to help remove barriers to school success include working with school social workers to identify students who need extra resources. They also should conduct needs assessments with parents to uncover the type of services and programs they believe would be helpful to them and their children.

Develop Parents as Resources

Some of the parents in this study recommended that parents work with other parents as a way to help overcome barriers to academic success. Schools need to begin to see parents as experts on their children's needs, as agents to help promote academic achievement in their children, and as educational resources for other parents. In contrast to the philosophy of "doing to" or "doing for" students and families, school counselors can begin to team with others to foster parent networks that model and teach parents how to work with school staff and each other to identify resources and procedures that will meet the developmental needs of their children (Amatea, Daniels, Bringman, & Vandiver, 2004). In viewing parents as resources, both the families and the schools can utilize their unique strengths to provide the necessary needs for their children's academic and social development. One way this can occur is through collaborating with the parent-teacher association (PTA). Although the PTA is considered a traditional form of parent involvement, this association can be instrumental in developing nontraditional ways of working with families and bringing more diverse families into the school. As the PTA is often looking for ways to involve parents, PTA members can be pivotal in initiating new parenting practices. For example, they could develop parent support groups that can include information about school policies, or mentoring programs for students and parents. The PTA also can help with transportation barriers by developing car pools in which those with vehicles transport those without to school functions.

Help Bridge the Communication Gap and Foster a Welcoming School Environment

A major concern voiced by all parents in the focus group was the communication gap between parents and schools. Personalized communication between teachers and parents humanizes the school environment for parents, teachers, and students (Epstein, 1992). School counselors can stress the importance to both parents and teachers of using their various communication channels in a timely fashion. To help remove barriers to communication, school counselors also should make sure that information provided to parents about their children's education is disseminated early, more than once, through more than one channel, and in ways that families can understand (Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning, 1994). Phone trees, interactive phone systems, and e-mail list services have all been found to be effective modes of communication with parents (Ferguson, 2005).

Additionally, communication with parents should be bidirectional and infused with support, trust, and mutual respect (Morris, 1999). Parents know their children's needs, and it is important for them to be able to share this information with school staff (Cuthbert, 2002). Often, parents are in a position to provide unique information regarding their children's personal and academic circumstances. School counselors and teachers could work in tandem to contact families in order to both give and receive information that may help maximize student success and achievement.

Develop a List of Available Resources for Parents and School Staff

Schools alone lack the resources to address the large number of barriers to learning that many minority and poor students in schools confront on a daily basis (Bryan, 2005). School counselors in conjunction with school social workers and others can be proactive in identifying community resources for their school population. Community asset maps are good ways to identify possible resources within the community (Griffin & Farris, in press; Mitchell & Bryan, 2007). Community asset maps can be used as a way to learn more about children's communities as school counselors pinpoint resources that are available in the community and ways in which resources of churches, community centers, and local stores can be accessed (Mitchell & Bryan).

Furthermore, school counselors can work with community leaders, which can lead to business partnerships and other programs that can improve school resources and facilitate academic achievement and favorable attitudes toward schools (Sheldon & Epstein, 2002). Indigenous institutions such as churches and the extended family can be a source of valuable community resources for African American families. Both extended family and churches can provide social and emotional support for African American adolescents (Day-Vines, Patton, & Baytops, 2003; Moore-Thomas & Day-Vines, 2008). Such relationships provide a good starting point for school counselors to better understand the cultures and communities of students and families within the schools and to identify available resources to remove barriers to academic success.


Both parents of successful students as well as parents of at-risk students identified barriers to academic success ranging from poor communication between parents and teachers to a lack of awareness of school and community resources. One limitation is that the findings in this study cannot be generalized beyond the participants in this study, as it only examined the perceptions of barriers to academic success among parents in a rural middle school. In addition, this study only included one school and did not take into account school-based variables such as teacher qualifications, school size, and standardized test scores. Additionally, the focus group setting could be a limitation in that parents may not have felt safe to be open and honest about their true perceptions, or the perceptions of some parents could have influenced others. Future studies could include individual interviews or survey methods using open-ended questions aimed at eliciting true perceptions. A further limitation is that the study focused only on the perceptions of parents of seventh graders. It is quite possible that the transition issues faced by sixth and eighth graders may result in an additional set of perceived barriers to academic success that needs to be addressed. As parental involvement theories are typically based on the elementary school population, more research needs to be conducted with parents of middle school students (Hill, Tyson, & Bromell, 2009).

Finally, the study did not examine the demographic differences among parents in their perceptions of barriers to student success. Although studies show that there are differences in parental involvement based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (e.g., Desimone, 1999; Hoover-Dempsey et al., 1992; Lareau, 2000; Muller & Kerbow, 1993; Turney & Kao, 2009), there is limited discourse on demographic differences in parental perceptions of barriers to positive student outcomes. Furthermore, research is limited on parental involvement in middle schools with ethnic groups such as Latinos and Asian Americans (Hill & Tyson, 2009). Future studies about barriers to school success should examine demographic differences among parents such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, school location, parent age, and grade level.


The adolescent years are characterized by significant changes in social, emotional, and biological development from the elementary school years and can often lead to declines in academic performance (Barber & Olsen, 2004; Eccles, 2004; Eccles & Harold, 1996; Keating, 2004). School-family-community collaboration and parental involvement have been identified as ways to close achievement gaps, enhance student development, and improve academic achievement (Bryan, 2005; Hill & Chao, 2009). While the ASCA school counselor competencies include a knowledge component about collaborating with families and communities to promote educational equity for all students (ASCA, 2008), it seems clear that school counselors should be more involved in collaborative efforts between school and families. We contend that school counselors can be a valuable resource for parents, empowering parents to increase their self-efficacy in helping their children overcome barriers to academic success.


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Dana Griffin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and John P. Galassi, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. E-mail:

This work was supported by a grant from the Research Triangle School Partnership of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The views expressed in this article are the authors' views and do not represent the granting agency.
teachers have a lot of kids, so unless you show
   an interest ... once they get in middle school,
   they drop them off a ledge and say, "Catch
   them, parents." Middle school is when they
   start to learn a lot, deal with peer pressure ...

Unfortunately, with the student-to-teacher
   ratio, they [teachers] have to take the middle-of-the-road
   approach. They [students] have to
   walk that fence; you either walk on it or fall off
   on one side or the other. It's unfortunate [the
   teachers] don't have time to stop and pick that
   child up."

I guess one of the things that has been the
   hardest for me is when my child was in grade
   school, there was a really open line of communication
   and I felt like I knew his teachers
   and I knew on a daily basis what my child was
   doing and if he was having difficulty. I feel
   now, he really hasn't had any difficulties
   because I haven't been told anything, but then
   the midterm thing comes home and there's an
   assignment missing. I feel like the communication
   is greatly lacking compared to what I'm
   used to.

With the lack of communication with teachers,
   more and more is being poured on the
   teachers with less and less support. They are
   feeling overwhelmed, with so many kids, they
   don't have the support they need to manage
   their class and their curriculum. So to try to
   answer just one more e-mail is hard.

He gets on the bus at quarter till seven in the
   morning and his classes don't start till 8:30.
   He gets home at quarter till five. That is a long
   day for a 12-year-old boy. And then he says, "I
   don't want to do my homework. I've been at
   school all day." And he has. His day is longer
   than mine.

I think that there's too many politics on these
   tests that they have to take to get extra help.
   Because my daughter, until she was diagnosed
   with a medical issues, could not get extra EC
   help. Because the average range is so big and
   she was working above her IQ, and you have
   to be working a certain percentage below your
   IQ. I think that's crazy. She still needs help,
   but can't get it.

I have a problem with No Child Left Behind.
   For the last half of the year, it seems like that's
   all they care about--how good their school is
   doing and passing, and getting kids to pass the
   End of Grade [EOG] tests.

I'm a single mother of three boys at different
   schools. So, my biggest problem is not having
   the male figure at home, and I know it's not
   the teacher's job, but I don't feel like there is
   a lot of time given to mentoring students.

The fact that these kids are misbehaving in
   class and do it over and over and over again,
   and they know there are no consequences.
   That's disruptive for every child in that class,
   especially if you have a child [who] is really
   trying. That disruption can be enough to
   derail them.

My child needed help ... if he raises his hand
   and he's doing it properly and you don't take
   the time to find out what it is that he really
   wants, he's going to yell out. The teacher can
   say, "I can't get to you right now, but I'm
   going to make sure I answer your question ...
   before you leave." That's all he needs to know.

The summer programs are very hard to find
   for this age group. The ones that are out here
   are very expensive. It would help me if the
   county school system could have full-time
   camps like they have for elementary school

We had a person in the elementary school we
   could talk to if something was going on at the
   school. I don't remember the name of the
   organization he was from, but if parents didn't
   want to talk to the teacher, we could go to
   him for help. He would also encourage students
   to do their homework and if students
   had problems, he would make sure they stayed
   on top of it.

I continue to ask and ask and ask. My doctor
   recommended me to someone and then I
   asked that person. Then from there I went to
   whomever the next person was and I questioned
   them. It was an ongoing chain.
   Whatever resource I have, I kept questioning
   them and kept asking and asking and asking. I
   began to understand, and I learn how to be
   able to use strategies to help my child. I need
   to know how to counsel them at home.

As a parent, I need something that makes me
   want to come. If it's just a recap of the last
   meetings, there's no reason for me to come.
   But if there's a speaker [who is] going to talk
   about peer pressure, that's dealing with an
   issue that my child is facing.... I'm more likely
   to come out.

Something that will bring me out is if someone
   is coming to talk to us about how to deal
   with your children, showing us a different way
   to use our parenting skills. If it's a meeting for
   just socializing ... that's OK once or twice, but
   I need someone to teach us something that we
   aren't doing or need to do in a different way.

Table 1. Themes from Parents of Successful Students

Parent and           Teacher and          Parent-
Family               Instructional        Teacher-
Barriers             Barriers             Interaction

Confusion            Lack of              Lack of
regarding            differentiated       communication
parents'             instruction

Parents' lack        Preconceived
of knowledge         notions about

Student              School or            Perceived
Barriers             Educational          Resources
                     System               for School
                     Barriers             Success in the
                                          School and

Lack of              Pressures from       AVID
understanding        high-stakes          program
of material          testing              (school)

Too afraid/shy       Deficient            No community
to ask for help      elementary           resources

Falling asleep       Difficulties in
in class             accessing
                     children services

Table 2. Themes from Parents of At-Risk Students

Parent and         Teacher and       Parent-           Student
Family             Instructional     Teacher           Barriers
Barriers           Barriers          Interaction

Parents' lack      Lack of           Lack of           Lack of
of discipline      differentiated    communication     understanding
for children       instruction       from teachers     of material

Parents' lack      Teachers not                        Too afraid to
of knowledge       answering                           ask for help
regarding          kids' questions
available          related to
resources in       school work
the school

Parents' lack      Teachers                            Lack of
of knowledge       labeling                            organizational
regarding          kids as                             skills
parenting skills   "unteachable"
and education

Single-parent                                          Kids not
issues                                                 fitting in, not

Lack of                                                Focusing on
parental                                               social
involvement                                            relationships,
                                                       not academics

Teacher-           School or         Perceived         Perceptions
Student            Educational       Resources         of What's
Interaction        System            Available in      Needed to
Barriers           Barriers          School and        Address
                                     Community         Barriers

Child acting       No access to      AVID, GAP,        Regular
out because        exceptional       21st Century,     updates on
teacher does       children          school            student
not respond to     services          counselor,        progress
him or her                           principal,

Child getting      Negative          Boy/Girl          Parental
blamed for         elementary        Scouts,           involvement in
negative           school            juvenile          middle school
behavior when      experiences       Justice, Scared   and programs
innocent                             Straight          geared toward
                                     (community)       parents' needs

                   Lack of                             Affordable
                   positive                            summer
                   programs and                        programs
                   activities in

                   Lack of role                        List of
                   models and                          available
                   good mentors                        resources
                   in the school

                   Bullying not                        Welcoming
                   addressed                           school
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