We can only do the best we can with what we have. That, after all, is the measure of success.
—Marguerite de Angeli, author and illustrator
No, not Halloween ghosts or Christmas (yet), but something that strikes real fear into families as the school term comes to an end: report cards.
Children and their parents both dread report cards. Kids are not only anxious about their grades, but their parents’ reaction as well. Parents not only worry about their child’s ability to succeed in school and to get a good job in the future, but also about what other adults – teachers and neighbours – think of them as competent parents.
Whether your child gets satisfactory or unsatisfactory grades, keep the focus on learning. Having an automatic response to grades can put the emphasis on results, evaluation and competition, sometimes at the expense of learning.
Begin by asking your child what has he/she learned during the last marking period. What did she like best? What was easy? What was difficult? What does she think she will learn in the future? In what ways does she think she can improve?
When grades meet or exceed expectations, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. When grades are unsatisfactory or failing, parents can jump to conclusions and have strong, negative reactions that are unhelpful. What can parents do to avoid or reduce report card overreaction?
When parents are disappointed by children’s school performance, they may become frustrated, even angry. Children, too, may have strong feelings of shame and defensiveness. If report cards arouse these strong feelings in your family, it’s important to set aside a cooling off period. Allow time after the arrival of the report card for everyone to get a grip on strong emotions. Difficulties relating to school require a problem-solving approach that depends on everyone remaining calm and rational.
Understand what the grades mean.
It’s important for a parent to understand the teacher’s grading system in order to determine her child’s strengths and shortcomings and the most effective course of action. Most teachers take into account attendance, participation, school assignments, homework and test results when setting a grade. In some cases, grades may reflect conduct.
On the whole, however, grades usually evaluate the child’s ability to master subjects based on a number of criteria.
If the child’s effort and performance is satisfactory during class, but they consistently fail tests, then they may be experiencing test anxiety or difficulty in interpreting tests. While all school children need to conform to testing standards, there may be alternative ways to evaluate your child’s performance.
Likewise, if your child’s participation in class is inadequate, they may need encouragement and opportunity to be more involved. If homework is unsatisfactory, they may need guidance in establishing effective after school routines or help in acquiring study skills.
The Bigger Picture
Before stressing out over an inconsistent report card, consider whether the grades reflect your child’s strengths. If your child gets A’s and B’s in most subjects and a C in one subject, it might not be a big deal, as long as your child is making progress.
Many teachers express concern that their stressed-out students believe they must get an A in every subject to please their parents. For a small number of gifted students, a perfect report card is attainable. But for most students, the idea of being a lifelong straight-A student is unrealistic.
Kids who are obsessed with perfect grades may develop anxiety, neglect their friends and family, and develop unhealthy habits like staying up all night and depending on caffeine. They may be tempted to cheat in order to maintain their perfect record. Or they may melt down at the sight of a B-plus. Avoid this scenario by setting realistic expectations for your child, praising them when they do well, and offering help when they don’t.
If you and your child are stressing out about grades, remember that they’re just letters and numbers. The most important thing is that your child is learning. If they’re progressing, that’s good. If they’re falling behind, assure them that you’ll help them to get back on track.
It’s possible that when you dig deep into the reasons behind your child’s poor report card, you may find out that they simply didn’t apply them self in doing the work. If that’s the case, withdrawing privileges and letting them know you’re disappointed might be all that’s necessary to turn things around.
Focus on solutions, not excuses.
It’s easy for both parents and students to rationalize an unsatisfactory report card. Both may blame the teacher, the school system or tough new standards. There may, in fact, be legitimate reasons for a child’s performance.
Family situations like relocation, unemployment and divorce are significant stressors that can adversely affect a child’s ability to concentrate and follow through.
However, parents need to look past these circumstances to potential solutions. Being single-minded about finding solutions is the best path to success.
Talk with your child.
When children struggle with school, resulting in a disappointing report card, it’s time for a face-to-face, heart-to-heart talk. Don’t lecture or preach, and avoid blaming, criticizing and excessive advice-giving. School performance is ultimately the child’s responsibility and any problems are primarily their’s to solve. So what does a parent do?
Ask the right questions and be a good listener.
Let your child explain his school performance. How does he feel about his grades? In what areas are they doing well? Where do they need to improve? Ask how they can and will do better. Ask how you can help them to do better.
When parents remain non-critical and practice respectful listening, children may reveal feelings and ideas that point toward potential solutions. For example, a child may talk about how other children tease them so they’re afraid to speak up in class. Another child may disclose that they don’t have enough time to complete their tests. In either case, some solutions are suggested. The shy child can practice speaking up while another child can learn time management or test-taking skills.
Get help if needed.
Some students require tutoring or other assistance. You may have to arrange for diagnostic testing or specialized services for your child. You may need support and cooperation from other family members as you and your child adapt to new routines and rules. Finally, you may need support as you deal with your own feelings in the situation. Practice good coping skills and seek out the empathetic ear of a good friend.
Parents with children aged from birth to 5
• Preschool and child-care assessments tend to focus on the overall development of your child, which is critical to your child’s success. Instead of pushing your child to memorize the ABCs, help your child develop in all areas, such as getting along with others (social skills), learning to cut with scissors (fine-motor skills), and paging through picture books and making up stories (imagination skills).
• If your child care or preschool doesn’t offer assessments of children, ask the teacher for a meeting at least once a year (or two, if possible) to get information about how the teacher sees your child’s development, strengths, and weaknesses.
• Your child most likely will show talent and skill in one area over another. Continue to stimulate your child in those areas, but don’t neglect the areas where your child struggles.
It’s just as important that children develop physical coordination as well as intellectual curiosity.
Parents with children aged between 6 and 9
• Hopefully school report cards will focus as much on your child’s character, behaviour, and social skills as well as academic skills. If not, ask if you can meet with the teacher to learn how your child is developing socially, intellectually, physically, and emotionally.
• Place as much stock in helping your child develop social and emotional skills as well as literacy, mathematics, and other academic skills. How well liked a child is at third grade “has shown to be a better predictor of mental-health problems at age 18 than anything else,” writes Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. Kids with strong social and emotional skills often have better academic skills.
• No matter what kind of marks your child receives on report-card day, make the day one that you celebrate. Point out what you’re proud about, and set the stage for making report-card day one that kids look forward to instead of dread.
Parents with children aged between 10 and 15
• Kids at this age are often shocked how quickly their grades can drop, and many need to learn even more study skills to do well academically. Monitor your child’s grades and also set firm boundaries around getting homework done and the importance of education.
• If your child is struggling in a class, call the teacher and set up a teacher-parent-student meeting. Talk through the issues before your child gets too far behind.
• This is a critical age when many kids can easily disengage from school. Don’t allow this to happen. Work with teachers, counsellors, tutors, and other interested adults to keep your kids interested and enthusiastic about school. Explain that sometimes school gets hard, but when you work at it, you can feel good about the progress you make.
• Talk about how grades matter since colleges, vocational schools, and other post-high-school educational opportunities consider grades in deciding whom to accept. Grades typically start counting in ninth grade, but kids who learn solid study skills and get good grades in the earlier years will be more ready for ninth grade.
Parents with children aged between 16 and 18
• This is another critical academic time for teenagers since it’s easy to disengage from learning, especially when classes get hard. Continue to monitor your teenager’s academic progress. Many schools now have online portals that will connect you to your teenager’s grades, attendance records, and homework assignments. If your school offers this, sign up and monitor it weekly. Encourage your teenager to monitor it as well.
• Continue to talk about how grades impact post-high-school graduation education opportunities. Be clear that these institutions also evaluate standardized test scores, co-curricular activities, and signs of leadership. Help your teen to develop a well-rounded resumé that brings out their best.
• Monitor your teenager’s stress levels. Some find high school academically competitive and can psych themselves out. Others think high school is a waste of time and try to do the minimum. Talk about how high school is a key part of your child’s life and how they can make the most of it. Your child may benefit from attending a stress management program for students that are going through the HSC.
If your child gets good grades.
Even when children obtain good grades, parents can overreact.
Too much praise or unnecessary rewards send the message that children are only important when they receive good grades. Children may even think, “They only love me because I am smart.” It’s more important to focus on how the child feels about his achievements. In order for children to develop pride in their work, they must be able to reflect on and evaluate their own efforts. A thoughtful parent helps children arrive at their own conclusions about their success. When children say, “I’m proud of my grades. I like school. I want to do even better next time,” parents do not have say anything. A smile and a hug can say it all.