The year 2020 has been a wild ride for kids as well as parents. As a result of so much remote learning, uncertainty, isolation, and lack of structure, many students are seeing their grades plummet, even those who normally do well in school. A recent study of schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, found a whopping 83 percent increase in failing grades since the start of the pandemic. Similar reports out of North Carolina, California, Maryland, and Texas paint an increasingly grim picture of the effects of pandemic schooling. The situation has been even harder on children from low socioeconomic backgrounds as well as those who were already struggling academically long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.
Even if your child’s grades have held up, it’s not at all uncommon for even the best students to have a bad semester—or a bad year. Most teachers say a drop in grades is to be expected at some point in every student’s career. Despite their best intentions, life can become inexplicably complicated for kids, and there are myriad things that can impact their focus, mood, and academic progress. Perhaps they’ve taken on too many honors classes and are feeling overwhelmed. Maybe their best friend moved away or there’s been some other disruption to their home or social life, like a divorce or death in the family. Even a parent losing a job can have a trickle-down stress effect that can cause kids’ grades to fall. It’s important to keep in mind that grades are just one indicator of what’s going on at school (and elsewhere), so acknowledging any overarching problems is important. In many cases, until those issues are addressed, students will continue to struggle.
If you notice even a sudden change in their grades or their outlook regarding school overall, don’t panic. Instead, approach them from a loving place and give them the benefit of the doubt first. Parents often go straight into analytical mode to pinpoint what they think is the cause, but it’s important to give children a chance to lead the conversation. After all, if they’re struggling, the last thing they want to feel is denigrated.
Here’s what to say
Try asking if they forgot an assignment or if they’d like extra help with their studies, and see how they respond. “These types of questions show concern rather than anger and give children an opportunity to express what is truly bothering them,” Brett A. Biller, Psy.D., mental health director at Audrey Hepburn Children’s House, told Hackensack Meridian Health recently. Open-ended questions (without a yes or no answer) can help, too, as they give your child the opportunity to share their thoughts more fluidly.
If they choose not to talk about it, or you’re having a hard time getting through, you’re not alone. This is what teachers and school counselors are good at. Reach out to them or another professional who can suggest different approaches.
Here’s what to do (and not do)
Whatever you do, psychologist Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D. warns parents against using rewards as incentives for good grades and punishment for bad grades, especially with adolescents. Instead, he suggests more supervision. Try having them do their schoolwork in an open setting, where you can keep an eye on them in case they’re struggling or suddenly daydreaming. Leaving them alone in a bedroom or other spot in the house provides the feeling of isolation, which can prompt kids to abandon any sense of structure or self-discipline, even when they’re older and seemingly more mature.
It also may be a good idea to include your child in your conversations with teachers and ask them to share how they’re going to get their grades up in front of all parties. This provides accountability and ensures everyone is on the same page. If they’re older and resistant to so much supervision, make it clear that the more they demonstrate an ability to keep their grades up, the more you’ll trust them to manage their time. It’s important that your child knows you’re there to help, not to control them. If they don’t remain in the driver’s seat of their academic life it will be harder to develop good long-term study habits. Come up with a system that allows them to check in with you regularly, and let them know they’ll never be faulted for asking for help.
For those parents who believe that letting children fail will teach them a lesson though, Dr. Pickhardt warns against that, too. Without learning how to self-correct, he told Psychology Today, many students adjust to failure and begin to treat it as if it’s okay.
Ultimately, all kids don’t have to get straight A’s, and having a bad run is more than okay—especially under the stressful conditions we’re all experiencing. By working together but letting your child maintain control, the path to better grades gets easier.