A Well-Lit Path: A Blog from Westtown School

Tips on Reading a Report Card Without Freaking Out: What to do when your Child isn't Succeeding in School

Posted by Linda Rosenberg McGuire on April 30, 2015

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Report_CardNaturally, when our children are in high school, we are focused on academic achievement. After all, grades begin to count for college and parents are abuzz with nervous anticipation about whether or not their child has what it takes to be accepted into a “good” college. However, two issues may arise that create tension for parents and their teens.

First, many teenagers are unmotivated academically and aren’t as invested in good grades as their parents. And second, some teenagers have learning differences that make school a struggle, and thus, grades may not match intelligence or effort.

First, let’s examine four tips for handling the unmotivated student:

  1. Many students do very well until they get to high school. Natural curiosity is the driver in younger students succeeding, but the social distractions and pressures of high school may derail this. Try to stay focused on the curiosity piece rather than the achievement piece. Do this by asking about the subject material, rather than the grades.
  2. Although it may take self-discipline, try not to harp or cajole. If your teenager is trying to individuate or make a statement, you run the risk of reinforcing the unwanted behavior. Furthermore, most teenagers are not going to make big changes based on lectures, carefully chosen words of advice, or nagging.
  3. Don’t make your relationship all about what your teenager isn’t achieving. It is a safe assumption that your unmotivated teen feels insecure in the classroom, so don’t compound this by dismissing their unique, lovable qualities.
  4. If your teen doesn’t particularly like school, make sure to allow them opportunities to be active in other ways, like a job, athletics, or community service. Many times parents are tempted to make extracurricular activities contingent upon grades, but that rarely works and you may be depriving your child of a chance to excel, build self-esteem, and learn skills not taught in a classroom.

Some students have always struggled academically, either generally, or with one particular subject like math or reading. However, high school can also uncover undiagnosed learning differences because the work becomes more complex and detail oriented. In either case, parents need to support their teenager, while at the same time encouraging them to manage their own classroom experience. Here are four suggestions that accomplish both these goals:

  1. If the school requests testing, don’t hesitate. This is a great opportunity for you and your teen to learn about their strengths and challenges. Furthermore, if testing results in specific accommodations, they could create a more manageable learning environment for your teen.
  2. If your teenager has diagnosed learning differences, make sure they have a thorough understanding of their learning style. Many parents don’t want to share this information with their teenager because they fear it will damage their self- esteem. However, transparency will allow your teenager to glean vital information about how their brain works. Often, when a teenager finds out that their difficulties in math or languages are not due to lack of intelligence, they are enormously relieved.
  3. Be honest with a new school about learning differences and current testing. Many times parents withhold information from schools in an effort to not stigmatize their child, or for fear they will not gain acceptance at a particular independent school. Ultimately this does not serve their teen because the school can’t do its best to serve the needs of the student. A fresh start does not erase learning differences. Give your teenager the best chance for academic success by openly sharing all pertinent information.
  4. Resist making learning differences a blanket excuse for your teenager’s poor classroom behavior, attitude, or grades. Your teen will benefit most from learning to manage their own learning style and needs, while being held accountable to classroom expectations. Promote self-advocacy, while partnering with your teenager’s teachers to share information and outcomes.

Remember, good grades are only one measure of success. If academia is not your teenager’s strong suit, keep in mind that “school age” passes, and is only one of many indicators for future accomplishments. Frankly, success in adulthood is dependent on a myriad of factors, and often academic struggles can actually bolster the resilience and grit our teenagers will need to perform in a competitive world.

Topics: Communication and Children

Linda Rosenberg McGuire

Written by Linda Rosenberg McGuire

Linda Rosenberg McGuire was the Dean of Students at Westtown School from 2011 until 2018. She is a parenting coach, consultant, speaker, and avid writer, providing insight, support, and education for parents and teachers who live and work with teenagers. She works with schools to inspire and reinvigorate their faculty to work successfully with even the most challenging students. Linda is passionate about helping parents develop more effective relationships with their teenagers, stressing the importance of listening, limit-setting, and building competence, character, and independence. Linda has 30 years of experience working with children, most of that time focused on parent-teen relationships. Linda began her career as a caseworker and trip leader for teens-at-risk, leading to work as a community mental health therapist and a school-based counselor. For the past 12 years Linda has been employed in independent school administration, working with teenagers, parents, and faculty as a program director and a dean.Linda received her BA from Bowdoin College, her MSW from the University of New England, and her Master of Organizational Leadership from Nichols College.