Rebecca was different from her sixth-grade friends. She didn’t care about social status or Snapchat or fashion. She cared about grades, and she cared about them a lot. By the end of the first semester, she had become so obsessed that her mother contacted me, her school counselor. “She can’t sleep, can’t think about anything else,” she told me. “Every night, she sleeps on our floor drowning in tears. There’s no way she can sustain this stress.” Her mother tried to shift her daughter’s focus away from grades, but the anxiety only intensified.
When I met with Rebecca, she was adamant that everyone got straight As, and that she would, too. She would come to my office crying on the rare occasions when she earned a B-plus. This was middle school, and I worried that the higher stakes in high school would send her into a tailspin. Rebecca’s parents and I wanted her to keep an even keel, but they lacked a framework for talking about grades at home. They felt disingenuous denying that grades carried significance, but they also didn’t want to pile on the pressure.
Alan Goodwin, principal of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., is familiar with students like Rebecca. He also sees other iterations, including kids who struggle academically and parents who worry disproportionately about their kids’ school performance. He meets with ninth-grade parents right away to encourage perspective.
“Usually, this is the group that’s most concerned about report cards,” he says. He tells parents it can be an adjustment when their child earns their first B, particularly when peer pressure is involved. Even when parents try to back off, kids may compare grades, test scores and numbers of AP classes.
To encourage realistic expectations, Goodwin debunks the myth that perfect grades are common. At graduation, he asks groups of students to stand, honoring everyone from athletes to musicians. He deliberately saves the straight A students for last.
“In 12 graduations, I have never had more than a handful, maybe five students stand up,” he says. Despite this message, some kids still worry excessively about grades, and Goodwin tries to mitigate their stress. Between final exams, students at his school can play dodge ball, practice mindfulness or yoga, engage in art activities, or play with borrowed puppies.
Parents and educators want kids to work hard, do their best and learn without buckling under the pressure. It’s tough to strike that balance. Here are six ways to talk constructively with kids about grades.
Debunk the myth of the straight A. Everyone is not getting straight As. Even those who do won’t necessarily end up at Harvard; there are too many other factors. As the college admissions process has grown more competitive, parents have become increasingly concerned about academic performance. More parents are pushing for higher grades when their children earn less than a B. But grades are subjective, and they can be deceptive. Teachers may inflate grades. A student who takes an easy course load may do better than a student taking all advanced classes. Some teachers may be exceptionally harsh graders. Even between schools, there can be major differences in standards and how students are assessed. Grades also may be weighted to account for course rigor. By acknowledging these inconsistencies and limitations, we can help kids focus on more important goals, such as accruing knowledge, determining strengths and interests, and developing a love of learning. As Alexandra Robbins illustrates in “Overachievers: The Secret Life of Driven Kids,” a book about the pressured daily lives of eight Whitman students, you don’t need a perfect GPA to be successful.
There’s a lid for every pot. There are thousands of colleges in the United States. When parents and students peruse the list of schools their local high school’s graduates actually attend, it expands their awareness beyond name-brand institutions. The tide also may be turning when it comes to college admissions. Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist on the faculty at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, issued a report that calls on colleges to change their admissions criteria to emphasize caring for others and meaningful ethical engagement over laundry lists of accomplishments. More than 50 admission deans have endorsed his report, including the entire Ivy League. Schools still want to see academic rigor, but not at the expense of students leading balanced lives.
Back off, and it will pay off. Foster independence and let kids fight their own battles. Give children autonomy and the freedom to experiment, problem-solve, self-advocate and make mistakes. Hovering over kids may help them do better in high school, but college then ends up being a disaster. Students may have difficulty talking to professors or handling disappointment. As Jessica Lahey writes in “The Gift of Failure,” today’s protective parenting style undermines children’s competence, independence and academic potential.
Character counts. If school is a struggle, point out students’ other strengths and urge them to look beyond academics for a sense of accomplishment. Maybe chemistry is difficult, but they are natural leaders or compassionate volunteers. Set reasonable expectations and try not to compare them to other students. Regardless of their grades, shift the focus to developing traits such as integrity, resilience, critical thinking, perseverance and teamwork, all of which will be equally if not more important when they enter the workforce. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford and author of “Overloaded and Underprepared,” notes that we shortchange these components of a successful life when we overemphasize grades, test scores and rote answers.
Find the sweet spot when kids struggle. Students can experiment to see what works when they don’t do well, whether it’s tutoring, dropping a level in course difficulty, retaking a class or pursuing summer enhancement. They may need to reassess the difficulty of their course load. A greater number of parents are advocating for their children to take AP courses, even when it’s an ability mismatch. When this happens, students may devote excessive time to staying afloat in one course, to the detriment of other classes. Remind kids that there is no reason to despair, and that their teachers want to see them improve. At the same time, be on the lookout for extreme frustration. Testing may identify a learning disability and determine whether any supports need to be put in place.
Ease performance pressure. Hammering home the point that an exam is critical to future success rarely helps students. Instead of asking children how they scored on a test, pose open-ended questions about the learning process. Focus on effort and growth. Encourage breaks and outside activities such as exercise, or reading for pleasure. Students need to identify what helps them unwind, whether it’s spending time in nature or listening to music. There are many paths to success after high school, and the goal should be to match students with the right fit — whether that’s a university, trade school, community college or a gap year for travel or work. Kids need to define success on their own terms.
Fortunately, Rebecca had time on her side. Her parents and school staff helped her recognize when she was off-kilter and needed to utilize coping strategies. She now devotes more time to sports, downtime and spending time with friends and family. Grades no longer keep her awake at night, and although she lives in a community that overwhelmingly emphasizes achievement, she is determined to maintain her equilibrium. After all, as Pope says, success is measured over the course of a lifetime, not at the end of a semester.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md. She tweets @pfagell.
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