by Christa Melnyk Hines

Your child has come home with a poor report card. What do you do now?

For some kids, school is a challenge no matter what. But throw in a historic pandemic, complete with masks, social distancing, and an unrecognizable classroom environment—or remote learning—and you have a recipe for even more kids feeling the sting of school struggles.

How should we respond?

“Families, teachers and students need to have grace with each other. Students have not been in classrooms for months and there are many things going on in our lives,” says Kristen Zuck, a coordinator of curriculum and instruction.

Acknowledge feelings. Focus not only on your child’s physical health, but also their social and emotional well being. Talk to your child about how school looks and feels different, and acknowledge that it may even be a little weird, this year.

“Discussing with our kids how they feel and reassuring them that it’s okay that they feel that way can help ease some anxiety,” Zuck says.

Get curious. Rather than panicking over a poor grade and demanding answers, try to understand your child’s perspective. Otherwise, you risk losing an opportunity for a productive conversation.

“Curiosity is a good place to start with because it’s a non-defensive position, and it puts your child in a position of not having to react,” says parent coach Nicole Schwarz, LMFT, owner of Imperfect Families.

Try to figure out what might have led to a poor score. Perhaps your child is distracted by the unusual school environment, their mask is itchy, or they cannot figure out the technology. Maybe they are struggling to grasp a concept like multiplication. Or perhaps they need to have their desk moved up closer to the front of the classroom because they cannot hear the teacher well.

Ask your child questions like: What do you think would help you do better? or How can I support you?

“My goal as a parent would be to show my kids that I’m rallying around them and wanting to help them move forward,” Schwarz says. “When they feel heard and understood, they’re more willing to go deeper into conversation.”

Create structure. Kids typically thrive in a structured environment because it provides a sense of predictability and security, which supports learning.

“Whether they are at home or in a physical school building, helping them create a daily schedule, including goals, can help them guide their day and know if they’re setting themselves up for success,” Zuck says.

Tech check. Whether your child is in an actual classroom or a virtual one, not understanding how to use the technology or how to access available resources can frustrate any learner.

“Regardless of learning mode, make sure your kids know how to use whatever technology they have available. Whether they are accessing resources, keeping a calendar, engaging in virtual meetings or note-taking with their devices, kids may need some guidance,” Zuck says.

The process will also help you determine where assignments and grades are posted, how teachers are communicating with their students day to day, and how to tell if/when assignments are turned in.

Talk to the teacher. Even if your child is learning remotely, teachers generally make themselves available to address student or parent questions and concerns.

“Our teachers have ‘office hours.’ They’ll have time during the day when they can read emails from parents and take phone calls,” says Michelle Fitzgerald, Ed.D., an assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and professional development.

Younger children may not be able to articulate why they are struggling in a particular subject or in general. Do not wait until parent-teacher conferences to reach out for support and ideas.

“Communicate with the teacher and seek to understand why exactly the grade came out the way it came out,” Fitzgerald says.

Ask questions like:

  • What specifically caused this grade to be low? 
  • Were assignments not turned in? 
  • Did my child not do well on assessments? 
  • Are they having trouble with the content? 

Conversations with your child’s instructor can help you understand what they are seeing from their perspective. Often, they can suggest ideas for helpful interventions.

“It’s not so much about ‘my child’s got an A, B, C, D or F.’ It’s about figuring out ‘who my child is as a learner,’” Fitzgerald says.

When you have that information, you can work with the teacher to create strategies that support your child’s ability to learn successfully at school and at home.

For example, if your child struggles to focus during testing or assessments, ask the school if accommodations can be made for your student to test in an area with fewer distractions. At home, make sure your child is fueled with quality sleep, healthy food, and time to focus on concepts that they need additional help on.

Encourage personal advocacy. Beginning from when they are young students, encourage your child to advocate for themselves in the classroom.

Tell them to “ask your teacher for more help, raise your hand in class—and celebrate those accomplishments,” Fitzgerald says.

As your child gets older, include them in parent-teacher conferences, which will empower them to take personal responsibility for their learning, monitor their progress and set future goals.

“If a plan needs to be created for moving forward, having the student, parent and teacher team together is best,” Zuck says.

Be proactive. Help your student enjoy a stronger second quarter by remaining aware of upcoming assessments, as well as ongoing assignment schedules. Most teachers post grades in digital grade books. Check those periodically to stay on top of your child’s progress throughout the quarter.

“Watch them when they’re doing their homework to see if they’re struggling and then communicate with the teacher on a regular basis,” Fitzgerald advises.

Plan a Successful Parent-Teacher Conference

Try to connect with your child’s teacher before the conference to avoid surprises.

Approach the conference from a collaborative perspective.

Ask questions like:

  • Does my child struggle with the content?
  • How can we address issues with test performance?
  • What does their organization/time management look like?
  • Does my child seem happy/sad/frustrated/lonely?
  • My child’s grades are good, but how I can support their continued growth?

Christa Melnyk Hines is a nationally published freelance writer. She is the mom of two teenage sons.

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