What really determines academic success?

Every parent worries about their child's future. We want them to be happy and -- since we've been told that success equals happiness -- we want them to be successful. In order to be successful, they should do well in school. Since we want them to be a good students, we look for advice. There's plenty of that.

The problem with advice is most of it is conflicting. It's hard to know if you are doing the right thing or causing irreparable harm. So, in the interest of well-meaning parents out there, we have set about to do a little research on what determines academic success. We took some well-touted theories and looked to the research to determine what is fact and what is fiction.

Fact or fiction?

Giving homework to young children helps them later in school.

  • FICTION: Current research shows that there is no real correlation between homework in the early years and overall success. So stop the math drills and let them go outside and play.

Reading to your child will help them do better in school.

  • FACT: Most educators agree that reading to children helps them developmentally.
  • In her report Literacy and its Impact on Child Development, Laura Justice from the University of Virginia stresses the need for adults to play word games and read books in a non-controlling but instructional way.

Putting a child in a good Early Childhood Education program will help them stay in school later.

  • FACT: According to Anne Smith at New Zealand's Children's Issues Centre, "High quality, intensive ECE programs have positive effects on cognitive development, school achievement and completion."

Kids from single-parent, low-income homes are more likely to drop out of school.

  • FACT and FICTION: According to a report done by Statistics Canada in 2002, dropout rates are higher among lower income and single-parent families, but the majority of dropouts come from 2-parent, middle-income homes.

Parents who are less involved in the education of their children are more likely to have children that drop out of school.

  • FACT: According to Shelley Hymel and Laurie Ford at the University of British Columbia, in their study "School Completion and Academic Success: The Impact of Early Social-Emotional Competence," the parents of dropouts tend to be less involved and demanding with their children and provide less educational support.

Children who have parents with a university or college diploma go farther in school.

  • FACT: According to Statistics Canada, high school graduates are more likely to have parents with a post-secondary diploma or university degree. Stats Canada says, "the proportion of dropouts who had parents who had not completed high school was three times that of graduates."

Gender does not matter when it comes to school success.

  • FICTION: According to Michel Janosz from the Universite de Montreal, "Boys are more likely to have problems at school: they are more prone to failure, grade retention and dropping out." Statistics Canada also agrees that high school drop outs are more likely to be male.

Friendships have nothing to do with academic success.

  • FICTION: According to Shelley Hymel and Laurie Ford at UBC, peer relationships have a lot to do with success. Kids often drop out not because of bad grades but because they don't feel they belong at school and don't have friends. Ford and Hymel state, "Positive peer relationships can be a protective factor, supporting a child's academic pursuits, with studies showing that peers can serve as effective socialization agents for school engagement and motivation."


  • Something that is overwhelming in all the research is kids with good self-esteem from loving, attentive homes and who have good friends do well. And it doesn't hurt to turn off the television and sit down and read together. We are still looking for the correlation between toilet-training and university graduation rates. We'll keep you posted.