Grades aren't the only way to measure your child's educational success

By Lisa Evans on July 29, 2013
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 important?”

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 about marks?

“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.

Get relevant. 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 towards learning

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 long-term success.

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 most influence.”

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 and beyond.

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 teachers!”

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.

By Lisa Evans| July 29, 2013

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