How to Handle Bad Grades
BY ANN K. DOLIN, M. Ed.
There’s an undercurrent that runs through conversations we have with our kids about school and bad grades. With some families it’s more explicit: “We expect you to do well and earn A’s on your report card.” Yet with other families, it’s less so, but still implied: “We expect you to go into school each day and give it your best effort, no matter what.”
Regardless, it’s always a challenge to figure out how to react as a parent when report cards come home, or when you log in to see the grades, and the results are less than stellar.
On the one hand, bad grades represent failure. They’re the one objective measure we have of how well our children are progressing through school. If they understood the material, studied for the exams, stayed organized, and remained diligent, it would be pretty hard not to earn at least a B in most elementary, middle, and high school classes.
On the other hand, bad grades are not always a fair indication of how hard your child is trying, how much they’re learning, or what their potential for success later on in life is. Plus many students are still playing catch up after spending so much time away from campus during pandemic quarantines. From that angle, we shouldn’t overreact to a B- or even a C, especially because your son or daughter probably feels guilty about it already. But we should put stock into it because that tells us they don’t have mastery over the content that counts.
You may have high expectations for your child’s grades, or you may be a bit more laissez-faire about the whole thing. Regardless, the answer to “How should parents react to a bad report card?” It’s pretty clear there is a right and wrong way to approach it.
The first thing you want to do is to make sure you do not react at the moment. It’s tempting to want to express your frustration (believe me, I’ve been there!), especially if this isn’t a new issue.
Instead, wait until you’ve calmed down a little bit and schedule a time to talk. Say to your child, “let’s sit down after dinner to talk about this.” This will help to avoid a screaming match, which is the quickest way to guarantee nothing productive will come out of the situation.
Then create an open discussion, and state the feeling, “I noticed . . . ” and avoid saying, “you.” Often this will alleviate any feelings of blame and allow for a more open discussion. For example, you might say, “I noticed that your math grade is a lot lower than we both thought it would be. Help me understand what happened,” rather than, “You did not do well in math. This is unacceptable.” The phrase, “help me understand,” will give your child a chance to explain himself and explain what went wrong.
Listen to what your child has to say and state the feeling. Try saying, “it sounds like you’re having a hard time with algebra and it’s making you frustrated.” By stating the feeling (but not dwelling on it), you’ve shown your child that you’re on their team.
From there you’ll want to ask questions like, “what do you think you can do to get the grade up?” This will create a sense of accountability and also make your child come up with a solution. Because your child helped to create the solution, he or she will be more invested and more likely to follow through.
Punishments and Rewards for Bad Grades: Do they work?
The instant you see a less-than-stellar report card grade, it’s probably your immediate reaction to punish and restrict activities. Either that, or it’s probably to offer some form of reward for turning it around. You’ll want to fight those urges. Here’s what to do instead.
If there are bad grades the punishment should be appropriate. Many parents threaten to take their children out of sports or extracurricular activities, but this isn’t an effective solution. The research says that parents should avoid taking away activities that boost their child’s confidence, such as sports or clubs. With that being said, it is recommended to tie privileges (like video game time, or time out with friends) to academic processes. For example, you may say to your child, “when you show me that your homework is completed with a respectful attitude, then you can play video games for 30 minutes.” Try using a “when/then” phrase to boost accountability and tie actions to rewards.
Should I reward for grades? Here, the answer is a little less clear, but in general, avoid external rewards if you can. I’ve talked to parents who have tried offering their child just about anything and everything for straight A’s from money to a new car to a trip to Disney World. But unfortunately, no matter how grandiose the reward, the straight A’s never come.
Research tells us that rewarding for grades doesn’t work because it’s too long-term and students lose steam pretty quickly. Students also need to feel an intrinsic motivation for studying, and providing external rewards tends to extinguish their internal drive (especially when they encounter difficulty).
How to Improve
Students often bring home bad grades for one of two reasons: they don’t understand the content or they don’t have the ‘soft skills’ necessary to succeed. There is a third reason this year. Many students are also having a tough time keeping up their grades due to hardships brought on by Covid, including high absence rates.
Early reports across the country show absentee rates are still high this fall, because of illness (personal or family) and mass school quarantines.
If your student’s bad grade is the result of a contextual issue, then it is usually isolated to one subject (often math/science or English/history). However, if the student is struggling with “soft skills,” things such as organization, time management, and study skills (also known as executive functioning skills), it will probably affect every subject.
Discuss the issue with your child’s teacher, consider enrolling the child in a homework club after school, or seek out a tutor who can focus on your child’s areas of concern.
The research is in: authoritative parenting (warm but firm) is ideal when it comes to academic performance. The problem is, a lot of times when good-intentioned authoritative parents become excessively frustrated or worried, they can slip into helicopter (excessively involved) parenting mode where you’re not helping your child develop resilience or become autonomous.
Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections, Inc. and author of Homework Made Simple. For more info, visit ectutoring.com