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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  To access the full research publication summarized in this digest, please see the citation below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

A growing number of women participate in today's labor force. In 1999, 60 percent of women were working, up from just 43 percent in 1970 (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005). Despite the positive impact of women on the economy, educators and parents frequently cite parents' busy work schedules as a major obstacle to family involvement. Mothers' involvement in their children's education is one of the family demands that could be negatively impacted by increased maternal employment. ¹

Overall, the few investigations that study the relationship between family educational involvement and maternal work reveal negative associations. In these studies, time demands emerge as the central aspect of employment that creates a barrier to working parents' educational involvement (Newman & Chin, 2002). This is particularly true for low-income mothers who often work in environments that offer limited parental leave and inflexible schedules. Yet, some studies do suggest positive effects of maternal employment on educational involvement, mainly when structural supports—such as schools scheduling convenient times for family-related activities—are put in place (Chavkin & Williams, 1990).

The purpose of this study was to examine the connections between maternal work and low-income mothers' involvement in their elementary school children's education. Our work was based on an ecological approach to development, in which contexts such as maternal work influence children's development both directly and indirectly (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Specifically, this study addressed two questions:

  1. Is maternal work associated with low-income mothers' involvement in their children's education?
  2. How do low-income working mothers become or stay involved in their children's education?

Research Methods

Data for this study were drawn from the School Transition Study (STS), a longitudinal follow-up to the experimental impact evaluation of the Comprehensive Child Development Program (CCDP). We used a mixed-methods approach and conducted both quantitative and qualitative analysis to understand the complex phenomena of work and family involvement.

Mothers of 390 low-income children living in three regions across the United States were included in the quantitative portion of the analysis (African American = 37%, White = 36%, and Latino = 24%). Mothers were asked to report on the number of hours they worked or attended school per week and on their involvement in their children's school (e.g., whether they had attended a parent–teacher conference, open house, school meeting, field trip, etc.) over the prior year.

The qualitative analysis drew from in-depth case study data on a subset of 20 families. Ethnographers in the field asked mothers questions about family life, the school and community, family educational involvement, and the child. We systematically coded these interviews, using a computer-assisted and qualitative data analysis program, and reviewed ethnographic field notes and observations of the school, home, and neighborhood (QSR NUD*IST, Qualitative Solutions and Research PTY Ltd, 1997). Our analyses yielded within-case portraits of the educational involvement strategies of working mothers, as well as a typology of positive strategies mothers utilized across cases (Miles & Huberman, 1994).

Research Findings

Work as an obstacle to involvement
Our quantitative data showed that the amount of mothers' combined work and enrollment in education/training predicted their levels of involvement. Mothers who worked part time had higher levels of involvement in their children's school than did mothers who worked full time (defined as more than 30 hours per week)—signifying that the time demands of work do pose a barrier to involvement. Yet, mothers who were not working and not looking for work had the lowest involvement levels of any group. Interestingly, this finding suggests that something about work, of any amount, positively related to involvement.

Work as an opportunity for involvement
Our qualitative data revealed that work also serves as an opportunity for involvement. Case study mothers utilized four main strategies to stay involved in their children's education.

1. Using work as a home base. Mothers used the workplace as the locus for a variety of involvement activities typically performed in settings like the home, school, or community. Some mothers used the workplace for child care and enrichment functions, while other mothers used the workplace as a location from which to communicate with schools and children. For example, mothers made and received calls at work to monitor their children at home or to talk with the school to schedule meetings. Some mothers also met with their children's teachers while at work to conduct informal parent-teacher conferences.

2. Garnering resources from work. From the workplace, mothers obtained nonmonetary material resources like food, recreational supplies, books, and the use of computers. Mothers also viewed the workplace as a resource through which children could interact with a variety of people and see firsthand the value of work. For example, one mother brought her daughter with her to work at a small boutique, where her daughter had access to a computer and could see her mother model hard work and occupational commitment.

3. Conquering time and space challenges. Mothers managed and negotiated time and space demands creatively in order to effectively organize their direct and indirect involvement in their child's school and learning. Mothers often requested workplace and/or school flexibility to allow for direct and indirect involvement. For instance, one mother took her lunch break at 3 p.m. so that she could pick up her children at the bus stop and escort them home safely.

4. Promoting a support network. Mothers also relied on family and friends for involvement support. Some mothers created a coordinated family learning effort in which multiple people were involved in children's schooling. For example, some mothers depended on friends and relatives for help with transportation to school or assistance with children's homework. Other mothers constructed and encouraged a family learning culture at home, thereby emphasizing the value of education and learning. One mother who was taking college classes sat alongside her daughters and did her homework each night while they did theirs.

Implications for Practice

1. Collect information about parents' work settings when inquiring about children's family and afterschool arrangements. Schools can ask parents more about their work than just contact numbers in the case of emergencies; they can also ask parents about the nature of their work and what they do. Schools can find out if the child comes to the mother's work, if so what he/she does there, if the parent can communicate with school from work, and the preferred means of communication. When parents' work settings change, schools can make sure to collect new information from parents.

2. Create flexibility in the timing of school life and parental work. Parents often have work schedules that do not allow time to be at home or school to support their child with homework. Schools and teachers can offer parents alternate times and locations for meetings and other involvement, while keeping in mind the need for privacy in some discussions. For example, in some cases, formal parent–teacher conferences can be held at parents' work settings or at community locations that are more convenient to parents' workplaces. Policymakers and employers can support extending the Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as other less formal arrangements, to allow working parents to stay involved in their children's schooling.

3. Partner with local employers. Schools can partner with local employers for resources, including materials, mentors, and volunteers. School personnel can also give presentations at work sites on literacy, standards, and new school policies. In the classroom, teachers can connect children's experience at their parent's workplace with the curriculum, arrange to visit or volunteer with children at a parent's work site, and invite parents to come to schools to share their work expertise through guest lectures.

4. Provide technologies at school that facilitate communication between teachers and parents at their workplaces. Cell phones, voicemail, and email for teachers, faxing capabilities, and websites for homework postings are all technologies that can facilitate communication between teachers and parents in some workplaces.

5. Redefine and expand what family involvement means. When family involvement is defined narrowly—for example by emphasizing activities that take place only on school grounds—full-time working parents may fall short. Schools need to recognize and support the adaptive and indirect efforts of working families to be involved both at home and through informal learning opportunities in other settings and contexts. Moreover, school staff must make efforts to engage and communicate with other interested family members and friends of the child.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Chavkin, N., & Williams, D. L. (1990). Working parents and schools: Implications for parents. Education, 111(2), 242–248.

Chin, M. M., & Newman, K. S. (2002). High stakes: Time poverty, testing, and the children of the working poor. New York: Foundation for Child Development.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Qualitative Solutions and Research Pty Ltd. (1997). QSDR NUD*IST User Guide (2nd ed., Vol. 1). Melbourne: Author.

U.S. Department of Labor. (2005). Women in the workforce: A databook. Available at

¹ Adapted from Weiss, H., Mayer, E., Kreider, H., Vaughan, M., Dearing, E., Hencke, R., & Pinto, K. (2003). Making it work: Low income mothers' involvement in their children's education. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 879–901. The original article may be downloaded only. It may not be copied or used for any purpose other than scholarship. If you wish to make copies or use it for a nonscholarly purpose, please contact the American Education Research Assocation directly. We would like to thank Magaret Caspe for her editorial assistance in developing the digest based on this article.

Heather Weiss, Ed.D.
Harvard Family Research Project
Harvard Graduate School of Education
3 Garden Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

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