Encouraged to Excel, but How?


Latino parents encourage their children to excel in school as a way to make up for the sacrifices of migrating and to improve the family’s socioeconomic status. Despite parents’ consistently high academic aspirations for their children, Latino adolescents show the highest high school dropout rates relative to other ethnic groups.

Mexican American students have the lowest rates of high school completion compared to Whites, Blacks, Asians, Pacific Islander groups, and other Latino subgroups. Even so, 35% of Latino young adults ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in postsecondary education, the highest increase between ethnic groups since the early 1990s. If all parents have such high academic aspirations for their children, what are parents doing that helps their adolescent children excel academically while other youth are dropping out of high school?

We conducted qualitative interviews with parents and their adolescent children to ask about messages parents pass on to their children about academic achievement and the ways in which teens internalize this guidance. We then used school record data from two schools to compare the academic behaviors and family routines of adolescents with varied GPAs and class levels.

We found that, even though all parents in our sample wanted their adolescents to graduate from college or graduate school, parents differed in how they communicated their expectations to their children. Parents whose children had high GPAs reported making schoolwork a part of the family’s daily routine. Parents of teenagers with low GPAs tended to focus on academic performance in emergency situations and to offer external rewards for improvement.

Promising interventions teaching parents effective methods of being involved in their children’s education should train parents to make academics a part of daily life.


Emmanuel, for example, was in remedial classes and had a 1.33 GPA. His dad reported not wanting to push him too hard as long as Emmanuel “understands the value of education.” Emmanuel told us, “If I’m failing some classes that are, that he knows I could get up. I guess, he might tell me…If you get two As, I’ll give you a new video game console.” This shows that Emmanuel’s dad was involved in his son’s schoolwork.

Emmanuel repeatedly demonstrated that he was capable of improving his grades, but schoolwork never became part of his daily routine. For him, good grades seemed to be temporally dependent on parental rewards and challenges when sparked by poor performance. Therefore, the actions he took to improve his grades didn’t become habits.

By contrast, Javier, who was in advanced placement and honors courses and had a 3.43 GPA, talked to his parents about assignments every day. His mom explained: “[We’ll ask] ‘Hey, Javier, what assignments do you have?’ ‘Oh, they gave me this.. and the teacher told me this and that.’ He always has commentaries for us about what he did at his school.” If Javier did not do well on an exam, his parents encouraged him to persist: “Since God gave you that great intelligence that you have, sal adelante [come out ahead].” Similarly, Javier reported: “They don’t punish me. They just speak to me about it because they know that I can do better and that I can raise it to an A or a B.”

Although most parents want their children to attend college, parental values are passed through daily routines. Our study revealed meaningful variability in daily academic practices in the family routine. Overall, parents of adolescents with higher grades explicitly expected higher grades and were involved in the academics of their adolescents on a daily basis, as opposed to primarily intervening during “academic emergencies.” This, in turn, seemed to contribute to adolescents’ value of education and academic resilience. These findings suggest that Latino parents are involved in the academics of their adolescents though in different ways and with different timing, emphasis, and embedding in daily routines. This sheds light on findings from our previous research, revealing that the parent-child relationship is a critical component of academic performance. Promising interventions teaching parents effective methods of being involved in their children’s education should train parents to make academics a part of daily life.

Photo by William Warby on Unsplash