Bringing home low grades

by Leslie Foster

low-grades-2Your child just brought home a report card that isn’t meeting grade-level learning expectations. Your first instinct may be to get angry, raise your voice, or punish. Here are some more effective strategies for dealing with a disappointing report card.

Stop and determine the cause

Experts caution to take a deep breath before reacting. “Don’t panic,” says Trevor de Freitas, director of the Glebe Kumon Centre. “Recognize that the student can and will do better if given the proper level of academic support.”

Linda Barbetta, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton, offers similar advice. “Put report cards in perspective. Report cards are a snapshot in time and are somewhat subjective.”

The first, most important step is to determine what caused the less-than-favourable report card. Jennifer Wyatt at Thinking in Pictures Educational Services suggests determining whether the low grades are within your child’s control or whether there is a larger issue that needs identifying. Some areas to consider include:

• Undiagnosed academic issues, such as a learning disability

• Effort, skill, intelligence, motivation

• Boredom, disinterest in certain subjects

• Family dynamics, pressure from family, and stress

• Emotional functioning

• How grades are determined, who does the grading

• Class dynamics, bullying, issues between your child and the teacher, bad teaching, inexperienced teaching, child too shy or afraid to ask for assistance

• Participating in too many extracurricular activities

• Problems with vision or hearing

Many experts caution that grades are not always reflective of the child’s ability or intellect, especially if they have a learning disability. And some kids simply don’t take tests well.

Barbetta points out that, as a rule, school doesn’t focus on a child’s strengths. The expectation is that each child will be good at everything. And that’s just not a realistic expectation.

Wyatt recommends asking your child what they think happened and whether their grades reflect the work that they put in. Listen carefully to their answers. You may be surprised that your child’s response points to the problem and the solution.

School work may simply be getting more challenging. If your child is having difficulty grasping new concepts, remediation may be necessary. Maybe your child has an especially tough teacher. If the teacher is tough but fair, it is likely a blessing, even if it means a lower grade. Children often learn more from these teachers.

Low grades are not necessarily reflective of a child’s latent ability. The child may well be giving 100 per cent. Explore the underlying reasons. Meet with the teacher to get more feedback.

If you or the teacher feels it is warranted, meet with a psychologist to rule out learning disabilities or intellect challenges before jumping to conclusions. Working with a psychologist could be a great way to get to the root of the problem and prepare a plan of action.

Praise, don’t punish

If the reason for your child’s poor report card is that they simply didn’t apply themselves, withdrawing privileges and letting them know that they did not meet your expectations might be necessary to turn things around. However, children need to know that they are loved unconditionally.

Your child should be reassured that getting a poor report card does not mean they are a failure. Further, Barbetta suggests punishment risks driving kids underground. They may further disconnect.

Lynne Charette, Principal, Student Success/Elementary at the Ottawa Catholic School Board recommends parents always find something to praise within their child’s report card. Find a positive comment and focus on that.

“Praise the positive,” she says. “It’s important for the child to see that his/her guardian/parent is looking for positives.” Somewhere on your child’s report card, there is something to be proud of. Finding the positives shows your child you are looking at everything and not just the negatives. Praise can apply to a specific subject, a project, an extracurricular activity, or a teacher’s comment.

If you choose to offer an incentive, be sure it’s not perceived as a bribe. You don’t want children to only work at earning good grades to receive a reward.

Charette suggests a child should be rewarded for good effort, in learning skills and work habits. Children need to learn that success in school is necessary for success in life.

Develop an improvement plan

You need to put an improvement plan in place and engage your child. “Let the child be involved in the advocacy of their education,” says Barbetta. Rewards need to be based on realistic goals for your child. If the goals are not realistic, you can shatter your child’s confidence, and they might give up.

Goals should represent baby steps towards improvement. Every parent knows their child’s “currency.”

Establish short-term goals and support your child in achieving them.

Realistic is the key word. A move from Cs and Ds to As is likely not realistic. Perhaps you set a goal to increase grades to Bs and Cs. Be clear with your expectations and explain that you will only be upset if they don’t try their hardest or don’t ask for help.

Provide support as required. If they’re struggling with time management, help them prepare a schedule. Determine your child’s learning style. Know the teachers’ expectations.

Provide access to tutoring if required.

Support your child’s success

The most important question to ask, according to Charette is “How can I, in collaboration with the teacher, support my child to work to his/her potential?”

Report cards are a learning tool designed to help you in supporting your child’s learning.

Make sure you are aware of what’s going on throughout the school year. Review your child’s work regularly. Make the resources your child needs to succeed available to them: tools, tutoring, praise, etc.

Make sure you keep the lines of communication open with your child and your child’s teacher. Results on a report card should never come as a surprise.

With younger children, parents will need to be more pedagogical and directional. With older children, communication will be more bidirectional. de Freitas suggests asking questions such as, “What can we do to improve this?” A child will feel more supported if they see that their parent is actively engaged.

Encourage good work habits. This is a life skill that should be established at an early age.

Create a good work environment with all of the necessary resources, proper lighting, and free of disruptions.

Find ways to help your child succeed in areas that they struggle by building on success and special interests.

If your child struggles in math but loves video games, try a learning-based computer game. If your child has difficulty in languages, read captivating stories such as Harry Potter as a family.

Most importantly, think proficiency, not perfection. If your child is putting in the right level of effort and is consistently getting Cs, you may have to accept that they are a C student. Also recognize that they may excel at music, art, or athletics.

Encourage the development of their talents, but be sure to clearly discuss expectations. Don’t tell your child that they need to get straight As, but tell them they need to put in their best effort.

Report cards and grades are not going away. Just remember they are one snapshot in time. Later in life, no one will ask your child if they got an A in Grade 5 math, or how they did in Grade 10 science. And trust that your child will learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it.

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Resources for parents

• Canadian Dyslexia Association |

• Government of Ontario |

• Kumon Canada |

• Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario |

• Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton |