“Seeing D’s on the grade report was causing a lot of stress and anxiety for us and a lot of tension,” she says.
Cole’s expectations were high; she’d grown up with similar pressure from her Taiwanese immigrant parents. “I came from a background where academics are really important,” she says. Her parents had stressed the importance of studying, getting good grades, going to college.
But once the pandemic hit and she got a daily glimpse into her daughter’s learning experience, her priorities shifted. “I got to see how difficult it was for her, and it definitely made me reevaluate this kind of academic striving that I’d grown up with,” she says.
So Cole wrote to the teacher and explained the stress that spending so much time on a computer was causing. “What can we do?” she asked. The teacher said her daughter just needed to turn something in. It didn’t have to be perfect. It was the permission Cole and her husband needed to ease up on their daughter’s academics.
“We just had this realization that this is elementary school. She’s in third grade. Nothing, no matter how badly she does in third grade — it’s not insurmountable.”
Less-stringent academic expectations helped Cole breathe a little easier. They can also be good for children’s mental health, especially during the pandemic, says Ronald Stolberg, a child psychologist, professor at Alliant International University and co-author of “Teaching Kids to Think.”
Academics have taken a hit across-the-board, Stolberg says, but parents should focus on “mental health and self-esteem before grades and other academic expectations,” Stolberg says. In fact, pushing academics could worsen mental health issues. “A reasonable rule of thumb is to encourage our kids to do their best until we see them begin to get overwhelmed,” Stolberg says.
Adjunct professor, former New York elementary school teacher and disability advocate Heather Clarke agrees. “I would urge parents and guardians to remember that so much of the academic expectations that we have on children in the United States are completely arbitrary and are not always developmentally appropriate for all,” she says. In New York City, for example, Clarke says 5-year-olds are expected to read independently by the completion of kindergarten. It’s an unrealistic expectation, she says. In other industrialized nations, such as Sweden, flexible guidelines and frameworks for student progress are favored over hard-and-fast expectations and rules.
Stolberg advises parents to take a similarly flexible approach to grade-level standards for their children during the pandemic and in the aftermath. “Parents shouldn’t be overly concerned about test scores, grades and missing assignments,” he says. “The well-being of our children is more important than grades right now.”
How can parents adjust a little when it comes to academics? Meredith Essalat, a San Francisco elementary school principal and author of “The Overly Honest Teacher: Parenting Advice From the Classroom,” suggests that parents perform a reality check about where their child is academically.
She says parents need to ask themselves: “Is my child showing up for synchronous instruction? Are they participating over Zoom or in class? Are they completing their assignments and advocating for their own learning needs when things are difficult? If yes, then parents can ease off of academic micromanagement.”
Like Cole did for her daughter, parents can make sure their children are turning in their work instead of agonizing over whether the work is done perfectly. Clarke recommends that parents also think outside of traditional school-provided work.
“One of the key things we know now in child development is that homework really does not provide much academic benefit to children,” she says. She pointed to a 2013 Stanford University study that showed that excessive homework increases stress levels and anxiety in high-schoolers and provides little academic benefit. Researchers have repeatedly contested the idea that homework is good for kids. The bottom line, Clarke says, is that it’s more important for parents to focus on whether their kids are learning instead of how.
For children in the early grades, “the focus should be on building basic literacy skills and math skills. That can be done by walking around the neighborhood and looking at street signs, making a neighborhood map together and labeling pictures,” she says. Those activities count as reading, writing, art, math and social studies learning, she says.
Clarke also urges parents to have an open dialogue with their children’s teachers about any new expectations. “Set those clear boundaries. For example, during the weekday, your child will not be spending more than two hours at night on homework. If the homework is not done in that time, it doesn’t get done.”
What if children need extra academic support? “Routine communication with a child’s teacher about classroom engagement, assignment completion and assessment outcomes can allow parents to identify where to help their student put more emphasis or importance,” Essalat says.
Together, parents and teachers can decide where to focus efforts and create a game plan that focuses on growth in certain academic areas as opposed to overwhelming kids and causing burnout by ramping up learning across-the-board.
The stakes might be higher for high-schoolers. “Grades become more important and parents are rightly more concerned about their children moving up through grade levels,” Clarke says. Many older students are preparing for college, and with that come specific stressors and anxieties. Her advice for parents of those students is to help them dive into their learning interests and connect them with everyday life instead of micromanaging homework assignments.
“Read autobiographies from the library, do online tours of museums to add more real-world experiences to their learning,” she says. Helping teens discover their interests will ultimately help them make college decisions, not to mention provide fodder for college admissions essays and applications.
As schools return to in-person instruction, parents may feel an urge to push their kids to “catch up” after remote-learning losses. But Essalat says it’s more important to give them the tools for success so they can confidently move forward.
“Creating organizational systems to monitor homework completion, practicing talking with their teacher about how they are having a hard time understanding a concept or assignment, and setting multiple alarms and establishing a morning routine to get them up and to school on time are ways that parents can support their student’s long-term success without assuming the wheel and taking over their academic journey,” she says.
When she gets emails from her daughter’s teacher about missing work, Cole still struggles to find balance between not caring and caring too much.
“It’s still very much a work in progress, but I try to have more productive conversations with her,” she says. “There are fewer arguments and more gentle inquiries asking my daughter if she has a plan about her work, and then just letting her go.”
Kelly Glass is a freelance writer whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, mental health, race and diversity. She lives in a small Illinois college town. Follow her on Twitter.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Heather Clarke as an elementary school teacher. She is now an adjunct professor at the college level, and a former elementary school teacher. This version has been corrected.