By PATRICK MCNAMARA
Your child recently received their first B (or C or D). Up until now, they’ve done fine, perhaps because they are naturally bright, perhaps because they work really hard, but for some reason, it didn’t provide the same result this quarter.
This can be a really big deal if your child hasn’t seen these kinds of grades before. To say they are disappointed might be an understatement. They may or may not say anything about it, but it is a new experience and not a pleasant one. Moreover, because they’re 12, every emotion feels … BIG. As a parent, you are doing your best to help them process their emotions, but what do you do next?
Middle school is a common time for students’ grades to take a little dip. There’s so much going on — academically, socially and emotionally. Teacher expectations are also increasing. Add in all the COVID confusion, and a good student can stumble.
First, recognize that the intensity of your child’s emotions is perfectly normal, as is the occasional stumble. When kids make the transition to middle school, one of the challenges they face are new academic pressures. Developmentally, they are only just becoming aware that they may have shortcomings. They may not have had much experience dealing with letdowns. And it can feel like the stakes are very high, even when they aren’t. They also may feel they’ve let you down. You’ve likely given lots of praise for good grades – what happens when those grades are not so good?
As a parent, your first job is to validate your child’s feelings. You might commiserate by explaining that if you didn’t get the grade you expected, you’d be upset too. Perhaps you can relay past experiences where you didn’t succeed in the way you’d hoped. The idea is to put this whole experience into perspective — something they don’t yet have at this age.
Once you’ve reassured your child and given them some time to get used to this new reality, it is time to help them gain back a sense of control, coupled with a plan for moving forward. Parents often hear that middle school is a time when parents should begin to step back and let their kids figure it out themselves. In general, that is correct, but it isn’t reasonable to leave them on their own, if you haven’t first given them the tools to figure it out.
If this is the first time your child has experienced this kind of challenge, you’d first want to discuss why your child was surprised. At this age, they are beginning to connect past actions with current results, but many students need help making that connection. If, after that discussion, they are still uncertain why they received this grade, the next step would be to contact their teacher.
Again, your goal is to help them understand what has happened and how it connects to their own actions. If they don’t know why they received this less than optimal grade, their teacher certainly should. Discussing why you are contacting the teacher will help them do it themselves next time. Explaining that no one can improve, if they don’t know what they did wrong, is only part of it.
Once you’ve led your child down this path the first time, if something similar happens again, then it is time to stand aside and watch them try to do it on their own. Remember that helping them write an email might be easier than asking them to contact their teacher in class, where all of their friends are watching (and which might not be so easy with COVID restrictions).
Once you’ve provided this kind of guidance, and your child still finds themselves surprised by grades, then it might be time to “let them fail.” Some of the hardest parental choices involve not stepping in to “fix it,” but better they should learn from failure in middle school than be entirely protected by you until they are in college.
All of this can be easier said than done, but if you present your middle schooler with a roadmap for how they can best understand how and why they are not performing at their usual level, two things will happen. First, after some inevitable nervousness, they will begin to feel more in control of the situation, and that will lead to maturity. Second, their teacher will see that your child cares a lot about their grade and is willing to make changes to return to land of A’s.
Patrick McNamara is the owner and executive director at Sylvan Learning of Albany and Clifton Park. For more information, visit SylvanLearning.com.