Dealing With Bad Report Cards

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Four times a year, parents across America get feedback on their child's academic performance and it's not always good news. Report cards can produce anxiety and stress for parents who want to help their children but aren't sure how to do so. Keep in mind that a poor report card also produces anxiety and stress in your child, although these emotions may manifest differently in your child. A child who says he doesn't care about his grades could be upset about doing poorly or lacking in self confidence. The same goes for children who act out when confronted about poor grades. No one wants to do poorly in school, but many are unsure of how to do well.

It is important to note that a bad report card can mean different things for different children. One child may maintain a certain average, then suddenly dip below that mark. Another child may earn grades that are low across the board. Whether this is your child's first poor report card or fifth, you can do something about it and help your child take steps toward success.

If your child comes home with a poor report card, follow these three steps to getting him back on track and on his way to a more positive learning experience.

Stay calm You're obviously upset but bringing those feelings to the table will undoubtedly produce anxiety in your child. Your child knows his grades are poor so you don't need to state the obvious. Taking the emotion out of your interaction provides a neutral platform for you and your child to discuss the changes that need to be made in order to improve her grades. Avoid phrases like "I'm disappointed in you," "You need to try harder," or accusatory statements like "How many tests did you fail?" These statements are sure to produce anxiety or anger in your child and will inhibit her ability to communicate with you. Say "Tell me about Math class" instead. Approach your child when you have time to sit down and talk. We are all cranky when we are hungry, thirsty, or tired so keep that in mind when choosing a time to talk. Inviting your child to share a cup of tea or a snack is a comfortable arena in which to address the report card. Maintain your cool throughout the conversation, even if your child raises her voice.

Speak to the teacher Parent-teacher conferences are typically scheduled around the time report cards are handed out. If your child's school isn't offering one, ask for one. Send the teacher a list of questions before the meeting so she can have answers for you at the meeting and possibly show you work samples. Approach the teacher calmly and ask for specifics about work your child may be missing, poor test scores, or areas of concern. Look at the breakdown of grades and the percentages your child earned for homework, classwork, participation, and tests. Ask for strategies that are being used in the classroom to support your child as well as strategies you can use at home. Neither the school nor the family can turn around a poor report card alone- it is a team effort. Ask to follow up with the teacher about two weeks after the initial conference to see if your child is showing improvement.

Establish your next step Parents sometimes take the "wait and see" approach, especially since this is the first report card of the year. This approach never works, since we know that once a habit is established it is hard to break. Your next step may be following through with the teacher's suggestions. You may also consider hiring a tutor or going to a learning center to seek extra support or new strategies for your child. Another option is to ask a neighbor, friend, or older family member to help with homework. Finding someone to tutor who has a strength where your child experiences a challenge could be a good match. Consider asking a teenage cousin or neighbor to help younger children a few days a week. Younger children often look up to older children so having a positive influence while doing homework may help motivate your child. If you do choose to have someone else work with your child, make sure you communicate specifics about your child's strengths and challenges and strategies the teacher has already used or suggested.

It is important to remind your child that she is in control of her grades. She was not given poor grades; she earned them. Fortunately, this means she is in control of bringing her grades up again. Most teachers are clear as to what they are looking for in an essay, project, or test. Help your child outline the goals of an assignment when it is first assigned and check in with her frequently to see that she is staying on target. If extra credit is offered, sit down together to tackle the assignment.

Remember to praise your child for following through on school work, not just for earning good grades. Some children put forth good effort and still do not earn A's. It is important to praise your child's work ethic since this is truly a skill that will get her through life. Continued praise and positive support will help your child do her best.

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.