A Parent’s Guide for Handling Concerning Grades

What to do when it’s Progress Report time at your child’s school.

For many tweens and teens, middle or high school is a big academic leap. As your child settles into the new school year, you might notice them struggling or be surprised when they bring home grades that concern you. Here are four things to do if your newly minted middle or high schooler brings home their first progress report in a few weeks and it’s not what you expected.

Step 1: Stay calm and be curious

 If your tween hands you a progress report that makes your blood pressure rise, try to take a breath before you respond. Remind yourself that no one learns by being yelled at. In fact, raising your voice will likely make your child feel defensive, which won’t help you figure out the underlying issue.

Get curious instead: Ask your teen what’s going on in the class(es) you’re concerned about. They may think they are in trouble and start to rattle off a list of frantic excuses. If they do, remind them that you are their academic partner and you want to help them improve their grades.

Step 2: Let the detective work begin

If your teen sees you as a true collaborator, you can uncover the cause of their struggles together. Are they flunking pop quizzes? Forgetting to do homework? Kids can flounder in class due to academic reasons (the material is moving too fast; they have a gap in skills needed to succeed), but they can also struggle for social reasons (they dislike their chemistry lab partner; they aren’t hearing math lectures when feeling insecure about coming to class with wet hair after gym).

Tweens and teens can also find middle and high school difficult if they have issues with executive functioning. Executive functioning is a broad term used to describe a set of skills we use to set goals, follow directions, start or complete tasks, organize materials, pay attention and juggle multiple responsibilities. These skills are crucial to academic success, yet they pose a real challenge for young people whose brains are not yet fully developed.

Step 3: Problem-solve and make a plan together

Once you uncover the academic, social or executive functioning challenges behind your child’s struggling grades, craft a game plan. Proposed solutions need to match the reason for your child’s low grades. If an absent or unkind lab partner is the reason for their D in chemistry, help them craft an email to their teacher asking if they can work alone or in a new group instead. If your child is losing their math worksheets before turning them in, they may need help setting up a folder system (and likely would benefit from support from a parent, teacher or even a smart speaker to maintain it).

Sometimes, your child needs more than reminders to stay on top of their grades. Consider hiring a tutor or helping your child find a study partner to help get them back on track. If a particular subject or skill poses excessive challenges for your student, request a screening from their doctor or school psychologist to rule out a possible learning disability. With an appropriate diagnosis, your child may be eligible for extra support at school.

Step 4: Be realistic and follow up

Have you ever heard the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day?” Neither was an A in history class! It takes weeks to build a worrisome grade percentage in a class, and it can take weeks to improve it. One stellar test score isn’t enough to undo five frightful ones, and buying colorful folders won’t solve a child’s organizational challenges.

If they slip up again, resist the urge to tell your student they should already know how to do something – their performance in class is telling you they still need your guidance. Prepare for frequent check-ins with your child and their teacher and have your student expect them. With patience and persistence, you can help your growing child build the skills and habits they need to succeed in school.

Lynn Gilbertsen is a certified high school English teacher, literacy consultant and executive functioning tutor. She is the parent of two children and an advocate for students with disabilities.

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