Although growing up in a single-parent family is frequently viewed as a risk factor for a child, single-parent families are now fairly common. Of children born since 1984, more than 60% will spend an average of 5 years of their childhood in a single-parent family [3; 6; 13]. Moreover, 30% of all children in the United States spend their entire lives with single parents . Many people have questions about the influence of single-parent families on a child’s academic achievement and the ways single parents can help their children succeed in school.
Research on Single Parenting and Academic Achievement
Research on single-parent families has changed over the years. During different periods, research in the area has followed one of two models: the Family Deficit Model or the Risk and Protective Factor Model.
Family Deficit Model. Dating back to the 1970s, the Family Deficit Model views the nuclear or two-parent family as the ideal family structure. According to this model, single-parent families have a negative impact on children simply because they do not have a nuclear family structure [7; 13]. Research using the Family Deficit Model begins with the assumption that single parenting is bad for children, and the results of these studies typically support this assumption. Indeed, some studies using the Family Deficit Model minimize or overlook the influence economics and other background factors have on academic achievement rather than alter this research model [7; 13].
Risk and Protective Factor Model. Developed in the early 1990s, the Risk and Protective Factor Model does not regard single-parent families as irregular [12; 13] because the foundation for the model is that all families have both strengths and weaknesses . Rather than view single parenting as the cause of negative outcomes for children in these families, the Risk and Protective Factor Model describes family structure as one of many risk factors. Risk factors are either background characteristics or life events that may have a negative impact on child development. Protective factors are characteristics and events that positively influence children and help limit the impact of risk factors [12; 13]. Essentially, risk factors are the weaknesses and protective factors are the strengths of any given family. According to this model, single parenting can be both a risk factor and a protective factor for children in this type of family.
How Do Risk and Protective Factors Work Together?
Personality, availability of social supports, and family cohesion are often identified as categories of factors that can impact a child positively or negatively. Researchers define personality factors as internal characteristics found in every child, including the child’s intellectual ability and approach to learning, attitude and disposition, self-esteem, and impulse control. Social support availability factors are whether or not the child has advocates at home, at school, and elsewhere in the community. Family cohesion includes family structure and background characteristics such as the parent’s occupation, family income, parent education, parental mental illness, parenting style, race and ethnicity, and family size. Family cohesion factors also include life events such as divorce, remarriage, death, and other changes that can influence child development [11; 13] .
Elements of each of the three categories can serve as either risk or protective factors. For instance, researchers regard family size as a risk factor when there are four or more children, close in age, within the same household, but a protective factor in families with fewer than four children or when children are spaced 3 or more years apart. Furthermore, risk is cumulative , meaning that children who have a combination of risk factors such as poverty, many siblings close in age, and a single parent are at greater risk of poor academic performance and other negative child development outcomes than children from single-parent homes with higher incomes and fewer siblings. The more risk factors children have, the more likely they will experience negative outcomes as a result.
Risk factors can lead to negative results, but the presence of risk factors does not guarantee poor outcomes [12; 13]. Indeed, protective factors mediate and limit the impact risk factors have on academic achievement and other aspects of child development. According to research in this area, protective factors include high self-esteem, strong social support at home and at school, low rates of criticism from parental figures, positive parent mental health, college-educated parents, high income, and parenting strategies that effectively address high-risk situations. For example, children considered high-risk because of exposure to several risk factors often do well in school when their parents and teachers believe that they have the ability to do so. Similarly, strong parenting is a protective factor, and children who live in impoverished areas can successfully avoid negative outcomes if parents develop higher expectations for their children’s school performance [5; 12]. Essentially, the strengths and protection families offer children are more important than the structure of the family unit .
Does Single Parenting Negatively Influence Academic Achievement?
At present, research does not provide a definitive answer to this question. In some ways, children in single-parent families are at greater risk than children in other types of families. Even when they have the same academic abilities, children in single-parent families are three times more likely to drop out of high school than children from two-parent families [13; 15]. Because they are the primary and frequently sole source of financial support for the family, single parents have less time to help children with homework, are less likely to use consistent discipline, and have less parental control, and all of these conditions may lead to lower academic achievement [1; 9; 13]. Among children in single-parent families, those from mother-absent households earn lower science grades than children from father-absent homes. No matter which parent is missing, children from single-parent families generally find it more difficult to connect with school .
However, some research suggests that the factor that has the greatest impact on student achievement is not family structure but income [2; 6; 8; 9; 14]. Studies that consider the influence of both family configuration and income find that there is little difference in the academic performance of children from two-parent and single-parent homes when family income is equal [2; 6; 9; 14].
Family income also influences parent support and involvement in education — factors related to school achievement. Students who regard their parents as warm, firm, and involved in their education earn better grades than their classmates with uninvolved parents . In these families, parent support acts as a protective factor countering some of the risk factors these children encounter. Although economic pressures often limit or prevent parent involvement in single-parent families, when single parents make the effort to support their children’s education, their effort acts as a protective factor.
The Impact of Absent Fathers on School Achievement
More often than not, single-parent families include a mother and children whose original father no longer lives in the home. Similar to income and parent education, father absence is also a risk factor that makes it more difficult for children to succeed in school. When parents separate or divorce, children often lose both the financial and emotional support of their fathers, which can have a negative impact on academic performance. Although child support does not resolve all of these issues, it does make a significant difference. Children in mother-only families who receive child support tend to do better in school than those who do not receive child support [6; 14]. Reviewing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Knox  found that for every $100 of child support mothers receive, their children’s standardized test scores increase by 1/8 to 7/10 of a point. In addition, fathers who support their children financially typically have more contact with them, further decreasing the negative emotional impact of marital breakdown .
Although many single parents remarry, researchers contend that blending families does not eliminate all of the risk factors children experience in single-parent homes. The family income of children in blended families mirrors that of children who live with both of their original parents. However, many children in blended families actually receive less parental support than those with single parents. Remarriage often changes parental behavior as a formerly single parent enters a new relationship. This disruption can be hard on children who may feel that they are losing another parent. The presence of stepsiblings also reduces time with and access to parents, further decreasing the amount of support individual children receive [10; 14]. Although children in blended families still tend to have higher academic achievement than those living with single parents, some children will replace academic problems with emotional and behavioral difficulties, essentially eliminating many of the positive effects brought on by the increase in family income .
The Impact of Mother’s Employment
Research on the influence of income and mother’s employment suggests that working is not a predictor of negative outcomes [6; 8; 9; 14] and working can have both positive and negative effects on student achievement. Regardless of whether they are single or married, mothers who work full-time often have less time to spend with their children [8; 14], a condition that may lead to lower achievement and increases in behavior problems at school. For many single-parent families, however, children receive more benefits than harms from their mother’s work. In addition to the income working brings into the family, African American children in elementary school actually do better in school when their mothers work outside of the home . The fact that children from low-income, single-parent families actually earn higher grades than children from two-parent homes with similar income suggests that single parents who work teach their children coping strategies that limit the impact of financial hardship, low parent involvement, and other risk factors .
Single parenting is not the sole predictor of academic failure for children. There are many risk and protective factors that interplay to encourage a child’s academic success or contribute to a child’s poor school performance. Regardless of family type, parents should stay involved with their children’s education from elementary school through high school and beyond to help them maximize their academic achievement.
For More Information
Improving the School-Home Connection for Low-Income Urban Parents
The Five Types of Parental Involvement
Hetherington, E. Mavis, & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: Norton.
Helping Young Urban Parents Educate Themselves and Their Children
McLanahan, Sara S., Astone, Nan M., & Marks, Nadine F. (1994). The role of mother-only families in reproducing poverty. In A. C. Huston (Ed.), Children in poverty: Child development and public policy (pp. 51-78). New York: Cambridge University.
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. (2000). Parents matter: Tips for raising teenagers. Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://npin.org/library/2002/n00705/n00705.html
Online Resources for Parent/Family Involvement
Father Involvement in Schools
Parent Involvement in the Educational Process
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