How To Handle Bad Grades: A Practical Guide For Parents

By Ann Dolin | Motivation

Feb 05

bad grades image 1There’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 A’s and B’s on your report card.”

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, 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 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. From that angle, we shouldn’t overreact to a C or D, especially because your son or daughter probably feels guilty about it already. But we should put stock into a C or D because that tells us they don’t have mastery over the content that counts.

In this post we’ll explore:

  • What to do if your child comes home with bad grades and how to talk to them about it
  • Whether you should punish your child for bad grades (or reward them for good grades)
  • And how to investigate why it’s happening and what to do about it moving forward

Read on to find out.

What do I do if my child gets a bad grade?

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?” pretty clear: there is a right and wrong way to approach it.

Here are a few initial tips on how to deal with a bad report card when it first comes home.

Step 1: Give it some distance

The first thing you want to do is to make sure you do not react in the moment.

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It’s tempting to want to express your frustration (believe me, I’ve been there!), especially if this isn’t a new issue.

Step 2: Schedule a time to talk

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.

Step 3: Create an open discussion, and state the feeling

Now that you have a time on the books, the next question is:

How do I talk to my kids about a bad grade?

First off, you’re going to want to start the conversation off with the phrase, “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.

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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.

Should I punish my child for a bad grade?

The short answer is: 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.

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: Tips for turning bad grades around

Okay so now that you’ve taken a step back, and assessed your initial response to your child’s poor performance, not it’s time to talk about how to proceed.

Why is my child getting a bad grade?

Before doing anything else, this is the question to answer, because then we can determine the best steps to take to address the underlying cause.

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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.

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.

Turn the lens inward

The research is in: authoritative parenting (warm but firm) is ideal when it comes to academic performance.

In fact, a 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 mode. This can give the wrong message to your child. According to Cathi Cohen, LCSW 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. 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… Helicopter parents are always trying to do their best to help their child succeed, but sometimes it’s okay to let go of the handle bars and its okay if your child falls.”

How do you do that? How do you let go without having your child fall apart?

“You have to treat letting go kind of like a game of Jenga. 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 3 weeks.”

Bottom line: check your parenting style and make sure you’re not slipping into helicopter mode. And then ask yourself what you can do to tackle the grades issue while still allowing your child to figure it out independently.

Address organization habits

You may have heard the expression, “a cluttered desk represents a cluttered mind;” the same principle could be said about backpacks, binders, and lockers. Often times if a student is struggling with school, disorganization may be playing a part. Luckily, the end of the quarter is the perfect time to get organized.

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Some things you can try include:

  • 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 organized and 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

Just as an example (there are more we recommend here).

Work on study skills

We hear this all the time at Educational Connections: students 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% 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.

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Some areas you could address (among others) 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.

Let us know in the comments:

How have you approached bad grades in the past?

What do you think?

Thanks and best of luck!

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