Long before they start school, children are given feedback on how they are doing in the form of stars, bows, stickers, and other tangible rewards. These are not only reinforcing for the child, but also for their parents. Once school begins, many parents assume that grades (whether expressed by numbers, letters, or smiles) are a good indicator of their children’s knowledge.
“You were great! You get an A!”
“You get five stars for reciting the poem!”
Consequently, when a child brings a test back home, parents will commonly remark solely on the grade itself: “Why did you get a C?” or, if the grade measures up to what the parents consider good enough: “Wow! You got a B+ on your test, I’m so proud of you!”
Bad grades alarm most parents, concerned that something “isn’t right”. To them, this usually means that the child is lazy, that they procrastinate, that their “attention is poor”, and so on.
Once you consult with professionals, you’ll see that they rarely rush into giving you a definitive answer as to the source of the problem.
This article aims to address some of the most common reasons for bad grades. Think of it as a “checklist” to direct your attention into exploring the possible issues that, when resolved, might help the student achieve better results.
They can’t or won’t study?
If there is a line between “can’t” and won’t”, ability and motivation, it is very thin. The two are often intertwined. Recognizing what comes first – difficulty with handling a task or a lack of willingness to do it – is a very important step for those working with the student.
Abilities – Reasons why they “can’t”
Let’s start with abilities. Parents, unaware of an underlying problem, often push their children to succeed and exacerbate things by frustrating the child with demands the child can’t fulfill. It is important to assess whether the child’s cognitive status, their “intelligence”, is equal to the task. If there is a suspicion that the issue is the child’s intellectual ability, it’s necessary to contact a psychologist, who can determine, through testing, exactly what “isn’t working” in the way the child thinks. After assessing the problem, the psychologist then designs a plan to work with the child. Other abilities we need to pay attention to are the student’s hearing and vision. You want to make sure there are no sensory problems causing the learning difficulties.
Cognitive-abilities testing also encompasses attention issues, with subtests specifically designed to gauge attention deficit. Frequently, a child simply gets distracted because the material isn’t interesting, engaging, and stimulating enough, not because they haven’t learned how to focus their attention. With gifted children, especially, it’s quite common to confuse a lack of interest for attention issues.
However, for some students, directing attention and maintaining focus is more difficult. Their brains just function differently. That’s why, if you see that no matter how much you try helping your child focus, and no matter how hard they are trying, nothing seems to really work, make sure you have them tested for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or attention deficit disorder (ADD).
This, of course, does not mean that once the student is diagnosed and gets treatment and begins focusing better, we should give up exploring how engaging the material and how difficult the task may be for them. ADHD/ADD can often go together with various learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia, as well as with students who are very interested and gifted in specific subjects and lacking interest in others.
Speech and language development
Speech therapists assert that reading and writing problems are rooted in earlier phases of speech and language development. Being able to differentiate the sounds that constitute a word or having sufficient vocabulary are both prerequisites for acquiring reading and writing skills. If your student has had problems with speech development, a consultation with a speech therapist is recommended.
There are also cases where the child’s abilities aren’t in question. The problem with grades is masking another problem.
Reasons why they won’t
Attention seeking (due to concerns at home)
Given that parents value and care about academic performance, a perceptive child can use their concern for bad grades as a means of manipulation to achieve a personal goal. This is not to imply something “bad” or “negative”. For instance, the child may figure out that a bad grade can divert a busy parent into dedicating more time and attention to what’s going on with them and help with homework even if that help is not actually needed. For those children who feel uncomfortable communicating their need to spend more time with their parents, getting bad grades “on purpose” can be an effective strategy.
Bad grades can, in some cases, be seen as a symptom of challenges within the family. Family therapists have many times described examples where “helping the child with motivation” serves as a common goal for parents to work on together when the student sees the parents going through tough times in their marriage. The student offers the problem to help change the family dynamics. This is not to say that bad grades are caused by inadequate parenting. It says that to understand where bad grades come from, the dynamic within the family should be addressed and better understood.
The subject, the teachers, the peers
When we talk about a student’s motivation, it’s important to consider whether the student is not getting good grades in all their classes or only in specific ones. Some classes might just not “suit” the student’s skills and interests in a way that motivates them to push harder. They might see a class as boring and not worth the effort. Try exploring with the student: “If there was anything that could make Math fun, what would that be?” or “If you had a chance to transform your Language Arts class, how would you do it?”
The student-teacher relationship is also an important factor to consider. Teachers play a major role in sparking a student’s interest in a subject and we need to learn the student’s opinion of the teacher in a class where they’re not performing well. Another question worth asking is: “Who’s in your class?” Just imagine a teenage boy in the same class with a girl he really likes, and you’ll get the idea about why this is a good question.
The “I don’t care about grades” approach
Sometimes, when asked why they don’t want to try to do better in school, the student will just shrug, “I’m lazy and I don’t want to do it.” This can leave the parents frustrated and feeling helpless. How can you support a kid who does not want any support?
That is precisely the right kind of challenge for Coaches. We unpack “the box” of behaviors that the label “lazy” has been put on.
We look carefully into the meaning of all of those behaviors headed “lazy”. Perhaps the child isn’t used to doing something that demands more work and did all their previous tasks with ease (or the tasks were too easy and this is the first time they’re being faced with something that requires more effort). It may be that the student does not connect grades to any tangible goal they might have for themselves in the future. It might be that they feel better “saving” their energy for something with more meaning to them. In some cases, it’s easier not to try and call yourself “lazy”, than try, not succeed, and call yourself “a failure”.
The “good grades aren’t cool” approach
Are bad grades perceived as socially acceptable? “Cool”? For a student trying to fit in, academic performance can sometimes not count as much as being on the basketball team or having an amazingly cool shirt. So good grades can be “sacrificed” for the sake of different positioning within the social group.
How to deal with this challenge? We need to understand why it is so important for the student to fit into a specific group and why they see that as more significant than getting good grades.
Stage fright and other fears
There are cases where it’s not that the student doesn’t care about the grades but actually cares too much. So, when they “practice” at home, they achieve great results but have problems when it comes to presenting what they’ve learned. Tests, quizzes, exams, and other ways of assessing knowledge can be a great source of stress for children. Children, like adults, often suffer from stage fright and don’t perform at their best. If this ends up being a problem, the child should work on their fears with a professional Coach, who can help them identify key triggers and the source of those triggers. By reaching a deeper understanding of why the fear exists, the student and the Coach can come up with better ways to cope with it in a more functional way.
Where bad grades come from is a complex question to which the answers never come easily. Sometimes, we become so focused on what we perceive as a problem, that we miss the solution – or too focused on what we think is the solution, that we misunderstand the problem.
And given the emotional investment and attachment to their child, it makes it all the more difficult for parents to approach the problem in a way that would truly help.
That is why it is a good idea to consult with people who can help provide your student with the best possible support.
We have tried to outline the most common “roots” for bad grades. Bear in mind that this article cannot cover each issue in detail. That’s why we welcome your questions. We’ll be happy to answer them.
by Ana Jovanović