Pursuing a college degree as an adult with children is a monumental but worthwhile endeavor. Research shows that earning a degree increases income and therefore health outcomes for the whole family. Higher income has also been associated with experiences that lead to more brain activity and cognitive development for infants.
Being a student and a parent at the same time, however, can be challenging. Student-parents not only must juggle their own classwork and daily life routines, but they also must find time to help their children excel in their schoolwork. Many children across the country are struggling in school, have experienced learning loss due to the pandemic and need extra academic support.
I’m a research scholar with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and the clinical director of the Children and Family Programs at Kennesaw State University. At KSU, I share evidenced-based best practices with students who are parents to support personal, interpersonal and academic success. I was once a student-parent myself, completing my dissertation while caring for my 10-month-old daughter.
Here are five things student-parents can start doing today to help themselves and their children excel in school.
1. Choose a family-friendly campus
Not all colleges and universities are family-friendly. At many colleges, student-parents are overlooked and face a higher risk of dropping out. Look for institutions that support student-parents – for example, with lactation rooms, on-campus child care, commuter rooms, changing tables and family events on campus.
While 1 in 5 U.S. undergrads are raising a child, less than half of community colleges and public universities offer on-campus child care services. And when they do, there may be a waitlist. Student-parents may need to research high-quality daycares nearby. Speaking with other parents can go a long way in finding the best care for your child.
2. Stick with predictable schedules
Predictable schedules and environments help kids thrive and build resilience in times of uncertainty. Planning out the day also allows student-parents to schedule time to devote to their own classwork and complete assignments.
Research finds that routines help new parents acclimate to parenthood. A regular bedtime may influence school performance, school attendance and health in children whose parents are divorced. Conversely, having an irregular bedtime may lead to children having more behavioral problems and lower resilience.
Parents can foster routines by creating a set wake-up, schoolwork, dinner and bedtime schedule for both themselves and their child. Family rituals and routines that guide behavior help create a safe emotional environment for young children. For example, making time for dinner together as a family can increase children’s sense of belonging, emotional connections and support between family members.
3. Set clear rules and expectations
When parents have clear rules and expectations at home, children can better understand which behaviors are off-limits. This means parents can spend less time arguing with, reminding and reprimanding their children. Taking the time to set these expectations upfront can reduce parents’ stress levels and save them time in the long run to focus on their own classwork.
These rules can work for parents too. For example, the expectation that screen time is allowed only after homework is completed works at any age.
When clear rules and expectations are in place, parents can focus attention on what their child is doing right. Praising a child for trying their hardest, sitting still and following directions will increase the likelihood they will behave well in the future. Think of it as a banking system: If a child hears mostly negative feedback and reprimands, this creates a deficit in their bank and has negative impacts on their behavior later. But if a parent praises their child often, this builds up “cash” for the times when they must make withdrawals and reprimand them.
4. Model time management
Children watch and learn from their parents’ behavior. Student-parents can model good time management strategies and study habits while they do their schoolwork.
Additionally, research suggests that it can be mutually beneficial when children and parents complete their work together. Coworking alongside your child can increase their appreciation for education and teach good study habits. The example parents set as hard-working students themselves, and how they communicate the value of education, can aid their child’s education.
5. Get involved
Children whose parents are involved in their education and school activities perform better at school. But what does positive involvement look like? It can be instilling the importance of education, asking questions about their activities or advocating for the best teacher fit. Parents can also volunteer for school events, join the PTA, attend school events and – for those low on time – communicate frequently with teachers and administration via email or online systems that display grades and allow message sending.
Student-parents can also advocate for themselves in their own studies. Professors may not know which students are also parents and the challenges that this brings. They also may be unaware that pregnant and parenting students are covered by Title IX and cannot be discriminated against due to their pregnancy or parental status. Librarians and counselors can be excellent sources of information for student-parents who are navigating college and seeking the support services that are best for them.
Allison Garefino receives funding from GA Department of Early Care and Learning; BOOST ARP grant
Crystal Rainwater receives funding from Kennesaw State University and DECAL.