Student Achievement

Middle-Class Kids Benefit from ‘Pushing’ for Teacher Help, Research Suggests

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 19, 2013 3 min read
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There’s a fine line between being persistent in asking for help and being pushy and entitled, but a new study suggests middle-class kids find occasionally annoying the teacher still pays off in the long run.

In more than two years’ worth of observations at elementary schools, as well as interviews with teachers, students, and parents in grades 3 and 5, sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco of Indiana University Bloomington analyzed how children of different backgrounds managed constantly shifting teacher expectations. She found few classrooms lay out clear procedures for when and how students should ask questions or request help.

Rather, from one day and class to another, Calarco observed teachers shifting between the poles of “it’s important to ask if you don’t know” to “figure it out for yourself.” Even during quizzes or in-class assignments, teachers differed in the amount of explanation they were willing to give, and students who pressed or negotiated for more help often received it.

“In situations where teachers felt pressed for time, or when they felt students were not listening or were not reading the directions first, they were more likely to say, ‘figure it out for yourself.’ However, they did not explicitly explain why they were making this distinction,” Calarco said. “These cues put the weight on students to figure out what the teachers wanted.”

“The Inconsistent Curriculum,” which previewed at last week’s American Sociological Association conference in New York City, followed up on Calarco’s ongoing research, which I reported last year. That research found middle-class parents trained their children to be “squeaky wheels,” seeking help rather than waiting for others to offer help, as working-class students were more prone to do.

And here again, students from working-class backgrounds typically came to different conclusions about how to negotiate for help in different environments than did students from middle-class backgrounds, Calarco found. “Middle-class parents were explicitly telling their children to go to the teacher and ask for help, to ‘not take no for an answer,’” she said.

Working-class students were worried about “bothering” the teacher and were easily discouraged from asking questions; they also tended to be more sensitive to the teacher’s moods. “Working-class kids were most comfortable asking for help when the teacher came to their desk and said, ‘You look like you are having trouble, do you need help?’ Sometimes the working-class students working in a pair would ask their partner to go for help rather than going themselves. They tended to ask for help only when many other kids had already gotten their questions answered,” Calarco said. “Unfortunately, that was often the time the teacher was shutting it down because there had been 30 questions already.”

By contrast, middle-class students were more likely to ask repeated questions, and further negotiate for help even if a teacher rejected initial requests. As a result, middle-class students she studied were more likely to get in trouble with teachers for talking out of turn or being disrespectful than were working-class students—but, middle-class students also responded differently to teacher criticism than their working-class peers. “The middle-class students were very aware of the profits [of asking for help] and kind of brushed aside the reprimands; they saw them as joking,” Calarco said. “So, middle-class students see help-seeking [behaviors] as opportunities for reward; working-class students see them as opportunities for reprimand.”

Calarco suggested that teachers may be able to give working-class students more confidence—and perhaps rein in some inconsiderate behavior among middle-class students—by discussing with students how to ask questions and what sort of help is appropriate at different times.

The full study is expected to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Social Psychology Quarterly.

Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.