Good Housekeeping published an article last month that I really appreciated. The article’s bottom line was “Students pick up on their parents’ feelings about school performance, and experts say it doesn’t help them in the long run.”
It’s unspoken in that statement that the parents’ feelings about school performance are primarily anxious. And it’s incredibly hard not to feel that way. We start developing a sense of stress about school performance as soon as we enter the system—at age 5 or younger! And with all of the rhetoric about how college is more competitive than ever these days and students must do well in school (i.e. get good grades) in order to do well in life, it’s no wonder parents are stressed!
So what should parents do with these very defensible feelings about grades that may also be negatively affecting their kids?
Stop Focusing on What the Grades are to Understand Why
As hard as it is, if kids are struggling, the answer is to do your best to manage your stress about the low grades so you can shift your focus to understand what exactly it is about the task of going to school (which is really thousands of tasks) that is causing the performance issues. Then, the energy that was once fueling the grades anxiety can be funneled into solving those problems.
The Good Housekeeping article put it very well: “For instance, adults can struggle at work for many reasons: inadequate support or training, emotional or relationship struggles, being in the wrong job and so on. A good boss will have faith in your capabilities, dig deeper to grow curious about your struggles, listen with an attentive ear and offer resources to help. Children need the same.”
A major challenge of course is that the manager-employee relationship is not the same as the parent-child relationship. And in many cases, whether our kids are too young to really explain what’s going on or too deep into their teenage sullenness, “listening with an attentive ear” is unlikely to be entirely fruitful.
And that brings me to a student who’s been working with us for a few months now, since about the middle of the Fall semester of his Junior year.
A Real-Life Example
When his parents first called us, they, as so many are, were desperate to start seeing their smart, talented teenager finally show his abilities in his school performance. His grades had been mixed ever since middle school, when he made the jump to advanced mathematics, and things seemed to unravel from there. By the time they called us, he was failing three of his five classes, despite having had continuous support from tutors. He was perpetually frustrated by what he perceived as his parents’ “nagging” and therefore not willing to discuss anything about school sincerely. And the only explanation they could see for all of it was that he just must not care.
But when I interviewed this student during our first 1:1 academic coaching session, as I do with every new student, this is how it went:
School Without Suffering: What are you most focused on achieving right now?
Student: Catching up on late work and then after that trying to bring my grades up in Math and English and Spanish
SWS: If you could be anything, do anything, or have anything in the next 3 months, what would it be?
Student: Consistently working out, be more comfortable in class, have more free time, and have better time management
SWS: What do you think are your biggest obstacles to getting what you want?
Student: Myself—getting tired and not having the motivation to keep going
SWS: You’re in the School Without Suffering Student Membership! What would you like to get out of it?
Student: I’m not too concerned about grades, more wanting to change mindset because carrying over to everything in life.
What stood out immediately was that these were not the answers of a kid that doesn’t care or isn’t motivated. So that was a worry that his parents could and should let go of right away.
No longer focused on this student’s level of motivation, we could now get down to the work of determining what was really getting in the way of his success.
As I got to know him, I came to understand that he cared deeply about his grades and by extension how he was perceived by others. In fact, he cared so much that it was causing intense anxiety (which he masked well from his parents) that was stopping him from asking for help from his teachers, from completing work, and even from turning in the work that he did complete.
This is what was causing the failing grades.
Freeing Up Brainspace for Better Functioning
Once we pinpointed the real reason for this student’s academic struggles, both he and his parents were able to let go of all of the concerns they had about other potential causes for the problem and focus clearly on the right solutions.
The student’s mind space was finally free to learn the strategies he needed to complete his missed assignments and turn in all subsequent assignments on time. By the end of the semester, he had brought all of his grades up to Bs—not easy to do when you’re starting from failing with only half a semester to go!
He’s now starting the new semester AHEAD in all of his classes, and he’s feeling incredible.
And as you can imagine, everyone in the house is now feeling much less anxious about grades.
Founder & Principal Academic Coach
Laura Fragomeni, Ed.M
Laura Fragomeni is a Harvard-educated master academic coach and the founder of School Without Suffering, an academic coaching practice specializing in helping struggling students around the world be happy and successful.