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Ouch! How to Talk About a Bad Grade

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 Ouch! How to Talk About a Bad Grade

When you have that sinking feeling as you look through your child’s grades, whether it indicates a minor – but surprising – slip or a gut-wrenching skid, what mindset should you have and how should you talk to your student? And will it help?

The National Center for Family and Community Connection with Schools put it this way after reviewing piles of research about education’s shortcomings that came out around the time No Child Left Behind was born: “Students benefit significantly when there is an individual encouraging and expecting them to be academically successful.”

And research by the National PTA found that student success is directly related to “a home environment that encourages learning and communicates high yet reasonable expectations for the child’s achievement.”

So it pays off to be involved, but these experts and others recommend that parents keep in mind three E’s:expectations,execution, and encouragement.

They generally agree that parents should give student appropriate responsibility or autonomy to meet certain standards, and set expectations with an understanding that there will be consistent reviews of performance.

Parents also should discuss the process that resulted in the grades rather than spending too much time on the student’s shortcomings, although it’s fine to discuss where the student failed and where they can improve. Parents should discuss the reasons for the difficulty: how students are executing assignments

Finally, the research shows, parents are more successful if they are positive about their student’s potential and, with realistic goals in mind, are optimistic about the future and encourage their student

“Too often kids who fail brand themselves as a failure,” says student academic coach and author Renaye Thornborrow. “We can help them learn how to shift their thinking from, ‘I’m a failure’ to ‘I failed a test so I guess I didn’t learn the material very well. I better put a plan in place to get my grade up.’ Those are two very different experiences of the same event.”

Here are some tips about how a grade report talk might go:

  • Choose the setting.

    With the same approach you’d use for any tough issue, think about the proper time and place and mood. Obviously you shouldn’t delay long when it comes to grades, but you might mutually agree to a good time and be conscious of when your student is receptive.

  • Be firm but understanding.

    It’s important that your student be held accountable, but listen to his or her side of things and give credit for a legitimate rationale. Transition years are difficult, for instance, and teachers occasionally grade unfairly. Some courses are a big step up from previous learning.

  • Focus on effort.

    Whether it's lauding the highest grade in the class or showing disappointment with a D, talk about the work (or lack of work) that went into the effort rather how smart or successful the student is.

  • Focus on learning.

    “They are responsible for their learning,” says Thornborrow. “If they get a low grade, even if it’s “passing,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they learned the material. Strive for knowledge, not just an “A.”

  • Be specific.

    Don’t just look at the grade, look at how it came about – and if you don’t have that information, ask teachers. Was it homework, classwork, tests or bigger projects? Was there a problem in specific classes?

  • Find solutions.

    Come up with a few specific solutions to the problems. Should your child see the teacher, pay closer attention, add an hour of study, change study habits or styles, get a tutor?

  • Set goals.

    Agree to what each grade could be – and talk about the specific problems and solutions, and what the student needs to do to reach both long-term and short-term goals.

  • Rewards and consequences.

    That’s life and they are valuable. But think about how you have been rewarded (or had consequences) and recognize they only work when they are fair (remember that parking ticket) and consistent, and when they highlight both success and failure.

Longer term, you should pay attention to persistent problems and consider whether you need to get more help from a tutor or other professional. Talk to the school counselor who can study the issues and suggest strategies or other plans that might provide accommodations for your student. They can also set up a meeting with teachers.

[Need help from The TeenLife Experts? Here's 3 things to do when you get a college rejection letter.]

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Written by James Paterson

James Paterson-profile-picture

Jim Paterson is a writer and editor who specializes in issues related to education and counseling. He has written for the Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, Parent Magazine, Baltimore Magazine, Counseling Today and a variety of other publications. He has also been a school counselor for the past eight years and last year was named “Counselor of the Year” in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, DC.

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