Bad Grades

There’s an undercurrent that runs through most conversations we have with our kids about school. With some families, it’s more explicit: “We expect you to do well, and come home with As and Bs on your report card.” With other families, it’s less so, but still implied: “We expect you to go to school each day and give it your best effort, no matter what.”

Regardless, when report cards come home and the results are less than stellar, it’s always a challenge to figure out how to react as a parent.

On the one hand, bad grades represent a failure. They’re the one objective measure we have of how well our children are progressing through school. If they really understood the material, studied for the exams and stayed organized and diligent, it would be pretty hard not to earn at least a B in most 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. From that angle, a C or D tells us they don’t have mastery over the content that counts.

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.

If you’re going to punish a child for a bad grade, the punishment should be appropriate. Many parents threaten to take their child out of sports or extracurricular activities, but this isn’t an effective solution. 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.” Using a when/then phrase boosts accountability and ties actions to privileges.

As for grade rewarding, try to avoid this if you can. I’ve talked to parents who have tried offering their child just about anything and everything for straight As from money to a new car to a trip to Disney World. But unfortunately, no matter how grandiose the reward, the excellent grades never come.

Research tells us that rewarding for grades doesn’t work because it’s too long-term and students quickly lose steam. 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).

Tips for turning bad grades around

Now that you’ve assessed your initial response to your child’s poor performance, it’s time to talk about how to proceed. Why is your child getting a bad grade? Before doing anything else, this is the question to answer, because then you can determine the best steps to take to address the underlying cause.

Bad grades are often a result of a student not understanding the content, or they don’t have the “soft skills” necessary to succeed. If it is 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. Once you’ve discovered the cause of your child’s poor grades, here are three tips to help.

1.Turn the lens inward. Authoritative parenting (warm but firm) is ideal when it comes to academic performance. In fact, an academic study by Laurence Steinberg, Julie Elmen and Nina Mounts found that students who are raised in homes with parents using an authoritative approach earn higher grades in schools than their peers.

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. This can give the wrong message to your child. According to Cathi Cohen, a licensed clinical social worker and president of InStep PC.

“If it goes too far, it becomes an issue where you’re not helping your child develop resilience or become autonomous,” Cohen said. “You’re giving them the message through helicopter parenting that they can’t do it without your help. It undermines the child’s natural need to be independent.”

Her advice: Take a step back. “A child has to be allowed to fail and flounder.”

But how do you let go without having your child fall apart?

“You have to treat letting go kind of like a game of Jenga,” said Cohen. “When you take it out of the box, it is very safe with scaffolding supports in place, and has a lot of structure. As you go through the game, you pull out little pieces and see if it still stands. In a lot of ways, this is how our kids are and they initially need these scaffolding supports.

“But as they get older, you want to slowly take out pieces from the Jenga tower. You don’t want to remove eight blocks at a time, just one. Start with something small, like a homework routine; then teach the skill, and remove the support. See if they are successful and steady for three weeks and then move onto the next skill. Don’t move on until they’ve been successful for three weeks.”

2. Address organization habits. There’s an expression, “A cluttered desk represents a cluttered mind.” The same principle could be said about backpacks, binders and lockers. If a student is struggling with school, disorganization may be playing a part.

  • Some things you can do to help get your child organized:
  • Set up a regular school “check in” time to talk about school each week.
  • Figure out a homework routine that doesn’t involve constant reminders.
  • Get backpacks and assignments ready to go the night before.
  • Schedule a 20-minute “clean sweep” session each week where everyone in the house drops what they’re doing to clean.
  • Improve sleep schedule.
  • Create a calendar for your child’s extracurricular activities.

3. Work on study skills. I hear this all time: Children are spending hours studying, but just not seeing the results. As it turns out, most children haven’t actually developed optimal study skills. For example, 84 percent of kids study by re-reading content, which is actually the most inefficient way of learning. Determine whether study skills may be a potential culprit.

  • Some areas you could address include:
  • Setting aside study time before starting homework.
  • Having your child use study guides to test themselves rather than just simply reviewing.
  • Set up an optimal study environment that minimizes distractions (this can include distraction-blocking apps as well).

Next steps for parents: Be proactive with bad grades

Most importantly, as a parent you want to be proactive about your approach, whatever you end up deciding to do. If you can get ahead of the curve and have a plan of attack, your chances of successfully navigating the dangerous emotional waters of a bad report card go up dramatically. JN

Ann Dolin is an educator, teacher and tutor. She is the founder and president of Educational Connections Inc. Find more at

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