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Talking to Your Children About School Grades

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Several years ago, I started a job with a boss who was focused on metrics. "It's all about what we measure and what we accomplish," he said. "That which gets measured gets done, and so we need to make sure we are measuring the things that are most important."

For our students, grades are the metrics of their educational life. We measure their progress in school based on the grades they receive and other indicators like tardies, absences, citizenship scores and the like.

And so much is riding on grades and test scores in our modern educational system. Admission to competitive schools, college entrance, scholarships and even participation in favorite extracurricular activities depend on grades. Even car insurance rates are lower for children with good grades.

Whether your student has poor grades, or whether the grades are just less than you know she is capable of, the conversation about grades can be a tough one. What can a dad do to make sure that talking about grades is motivating without demoralizing your student?

Set clear expectations. First, your child needs to know what you expect from them before the school year even starts. Review their schedule and talk about classes that will be hard for them given their unique gifts, as well as classes that might be relatively easy. Let them know the grades you think they can realistically achieve with your help.

Separate the child from the grade. Remember, education is only one aspeect of their growing up experience. And cognitive skills are not always accurately measured by grades in school. Each child is a whole person, and grades do not define them.

Focus more on learning and less on grades. We have a son who has a great command of biology and chemistry, but stuggles with spelling. So his grades are often low in science, even though he clearly understands the principles and practices. While we work on the spelling issue, we also remind him how bright he is in the sciences. If they are learning effectively, the grades will usually follow after time.

Describe before your prescribe. Talk regularly about grades, and talk about why they may be where they are. Explore with your child the causes for his or her lower than expected grades. Are grades lower than you expect because homework is not being turned in? Are homework assignments turned in, but test scores poor? Does your student need help with note taking or listening skills? Before you decide on an approach, you should fully understand what is at the root of the problem.

Take one step at a time. Trying to solve a big problem with grades is simply too overwhelming for a student. Take small steps at first and solve a part of the problem. One of our children had a grade problem that was all about organization. We found him a good academic planner and helped him get in the habit of checking it at the beginning of each class for items to turn in and write in it with new assignments before each class period was over. This simple step helped make a big difference in his educational efforts.

Rewards and punishments typically don't work. Rewarding students for grades tends to de-emphasize learning and focus instead on the rewards themselves. Helping students see the value in learning itself is a more effective approach. And artificial punishments also have limited value. What does work is natural consequences. For example, a poor grade on an English test during the week might require extra time studying Friday night instead of hanging out with friends or playing video games. Try to focus on logical and natural consequences rather than an unrelated penalty.

Stay positive. Positive reinforcement is a better approach than negative consequences. When grades are good, communicate with positive affirmations. "I knew you had it in you." When grades are bad, refocus on the positive. "I am surprised that you would get a low mark on this assignment. What can we learn from this assignment that will help you next time." Always look forward and not back.

A little positive focus, coupled with clear communications, will help your children find ways to improve both their learning and their grades.

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