It's no secret that younger siblings often look up to their older brothers or sisters. In fact, familial educational achievement has been linked to student success by the Department of Education. That's why organizations such as the Hispanic Scholarship Fund place such an emphasis on helping students become the first in their family to attend college.
College is "the seed we want to plant," says Frank Alvarez, the organization's CEO. "As soon as there's a degree in the household, things like applying to college and financial aid become known because students have an embedded mentor."
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Watching a family member successfully finish high school can put graduation within reach for younger siblings, explains Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University.
"Having an older sibling who's graduated helps kids get through school," Fishman says. "They see [graduation] as a viable option."
Older siblings can also help when it comes to taking a tough algebra test, finding sources for a research paper, or helping edit a college essay.
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But when siblings are closer in age, their relationships can get complicated, explains Melanie Wiscount, a business and computer technology teacher at Palmyra Area High School in Pennsylvania. Each student is an individual, and often siblings don't like being compared to each other.
"They're each different in their own way," she says. And sibling rivalries can get heated in the classroom. One pair of high-achieving teens took Wiscount's computer applications class at the same time and couldn't handle competing with each other, she notes.
"The older student got frustrated because her younger sister was doing better than her," she says. "It was the first time they were put together in a class. She ended up dropping the class, even though she would have gotten an A."
Still, older siblings are generally a good resource for students looking for a built-in tutor when things get tough, says Fishman, of Clemson. Just make sure your little brother or sister is doing his or her own work.
"If you have the pencil or computer in your hand, you've almost definitely crossed a line," she says. "You want them learning as they go through the procedure."
Here are Fishman's do's and don'ts for helping out a family member academically:
• Sharing notes: Often, siblings will take classes with the same teacher. Sharing old notes is fine, as long as the teacher doesn't expressly forbid it. "It's good training for the real world," Fishman says. "When you need to find out more about something, you go to people who have already experienced it."
She adds that teachers who give the same test year after year will likely have an expectation that people aren't sharing notes. "But in the Internet age, that's not really a reasonable expectation," she says.
• Editing essays: Don't write an essay for your family member, and be careful when you edit, warns Fishman. If you notice your younger sibling has a lot of misplaced punctuation, don't just correct the errors.
"If they're going to be marked off for punctuation and you change the punctuation on that essay, you're doing the work," Fishman says. "Instead, say something like, 'I notice you have a problem with commas,' and then help them learn where they made mistakes."
• Using old projects: This one should be a no-brainer, but definitely don't do it. Wiscount says at her school, an older sister gave her computer design project to her younger brother to turn in. He got a zero.
Fishman agrees with the punishment. Reusing isn't editing: "It's very different if they take a paper and use that paper," she says.