Your second grader hands
you a math test to sign.
Written in bright red ink is
the dreaded four out of 10.
“What?! Didn’t you study?”
you’re tempted to yell, but
one look at your child’s
bowed head, cheeks as red
as the ink with which the
offending grade is written,
causes you to stop. You sign
the paper, fi nish packing
his lunch, send him on
his way and ask yourself:
“is the grade really that
Dr. Linda Silbert,
education expert and
author of When Bad Grades
Happen to Good Kids,
says a parent’s reaction
to poor grades plays a
formative role in children’s
identity and self-esteem
development and can pave
the way for their future
education success or failure.
“Identity develops from about seven years old. You start
thinking ‘I’m tall’, ‘I’m short’, ‘I’m smart’ or ‘I’m stupid’,”
she says. Punishing or yelling at your child for receiving
a poor grade isn’t going to result in sudden As. Pushing
workbooks and extra homework won’t cut it either.
“This can just breed resentment towards the parent and
increase the child’s anxiety,” says Dr. Silbert.
Do we care too much
“We’re a bit obsessed with marks,” says Annie Kidder,
Executive Director of the advocacy group People for
Education, based in Toronto. Although grades are meant
to demonstrate how well a student is performing in a
given subject, Annie says our society’s focus on marks
is misguided and we should place emphasis on the soft
learning skills such as working well with others, asking
for help and developing positive work habits instead. “It’s
too bad we call them soft skills because those are the skills
that allow you to prosper in your life,” says Annie. “You
may be able to get As through high school, but if you don’t
have these soft skills you aren’t going to do well in life.”
While a few Cs and Ds may cause parents to burst in
frustration, Annie says the grades we should really worry
about are the analytical comments teachers write about
these soft skills. She argues that marks will go up if the
latter are built upon.
Teacher Eleanor Lentini says congratulating kids for
achieving learning goals rather than test grades can help
develop a lifelong enjoyment of learning.
“It’s good to work towards something but there should
be a joy in learning rather than the pressure of having
to get an A,” she says. “Kids have a lot of school ahead
of them, so you want to make sure they’re prepared and
supported in a meaningful way.”
What’s the problem?
OK, so you’re not going to measure your child’s success
by a grade, but neither do you want to completely ignore
consistently poor marks. They can be a sign that your
child is struggling in school and needs a little extra help.
Dr. Silbert says improving grades begins with a positive
parent-child relationship. “Your child needs to know that
you’re their ally.” Saying “Didn’t you study? Weren’t you
paying attention in class?” and punishing your child by
removing television or play time is less likely to result in
successful changes than calmly stating “that means you
didn’t understand what the teacher was asking, so let’s
figure out what the problem is.” Follow these steps:
Get checked out.
“Health-related issues such as poor
eyesight or an auditory issue could be causing your child
to suffer in school,” says Dr. Silbert. Schedule a doctor’s
appointment to make sure you aren’t dealing with any
health issues. Ask the teacher if there is a concern that
your child may have a learning disability and advocate for
testing if necessary.
Test the material.
Talk about the subjects your child
is struggling with to ensure they truly understand the
material. “So many kids just memorize what the teacher
did and they fail the test because they really don’t understand the material,” says Dr. Silbert.
Extra homework and workbooks may
seem like a perfect solution to help kids practise difficult
material, but Eleanor Lentini recommends helping kids
at home by making the material meaningful to their lives.
“I don’t suggest a lot of workbooks,” she says. “To me,
that’s sort of like a gym membership. The first few pages
get done but no one wants to go back.” If your child is
struggling with writing, for instance, Eleanor suggests
asking them to write a letter to their aunt in Calgary or
write out a birthday card for their friend.
A formula for success
A 2012 study by People for Education highlighted the best
ways parents can help their children succeed in school.
Have high expectations
While you may assume telling your child you expect an A
will make them work harder, this strategy can put undo
pressure on a child and set them up for failure. Rather
than a grade expectation, say, “I expect that you’re going
to work hard. Fostering positive education values rather
than grades is what’s most important,” she says.
Talk about school
Report cards and tests present an opportunity to discuss
school, but it shouldn’t be the only time. Asking about
your child’s favourite subjects, getting involved in their
extra-curricular activities and being part of their school
life beyond the report card makes education a priority for
the entire family.
Foster a positive attitude
A child’s marks should be between the teacher and
student. The parent’s job is to focus on improving their
ability to learn. “It’s helping them deal with difficulty,
asking for help, being persistent, having to learn difficult
or boring things,” says Annie, adding it’s these skills
rather than subject grades that will set children up for
Promote good work habits
This is a skill that will serve kids well into adulthood, but
Annie wants to be clear: good work habits shouldn’t be
measured by a grade. “It’s about letting kids work hard
so that they can feel their own sense of satisfaction,” she
says. While nagging kids to do their homework or study
for a test may result in a good grade, this strategy won’t
promote success in the long run. “The end result is ‘I
only get better marks if I have someone nagging me’,”
says Annie. Promoting good work habits means getting
kids to recognize that school is their responsibility and
that they are capable of achieving success on their own.
Success should be measured in how good or bad students
feel about their accomplishment, rather than the grade the
teacher feels they deserve for the assignment.
ABCs of report cards
Report cards help parents
understand kids’ progress
at school, but there’s more
to the report card than A, B
or C. While your eyes may
immediately dart toward
letter grades, experts agree
marks don’t always give the
clearest picture of a child’s
success in school.
Eleanor Lentini, a Grade 2
teacher in Toronto, recommends
parents read the
back of the report card
first, focusing on learning
skills and work habits. “This
information helps identify
the areas for improvement
where parents can have the
Analytical comments in the
learning skills section can
reveal a great deal about a
child’s school progress and
their potential for success.
Working well independently,
getting along well
with others, focussing and
organizing are skills that, if
developed well in the early
years, can set a child up for
a successful future in school
Eleanor says high marks in
these areas demonstrate
that a child is mentally
ready for success, while
low subject grades only
show that they aren’t
mentally prepared to succeed
in reading, writing
or mathematics. “Children
develop at different stages
so while a child may get a D
in the first term of Grade 1 in
reading, once that mental
development kicks in, it
may increase to an A
by the end of the term.”
“I wish that from kindergarten
to Grade 3 that
there weren’t any marks
so parents could focus on
the anecdotal,” she says,
adding she doesn’t get
worried when she sees a C
on her seven-year-old son’s
report card. “I just say, don’t
tell them your parents are
Lisa Evans is a Toronto-based freelance writer who failed grade 10 math
but thinks she turned out OK.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2013.