It can be hard to know what to do when our child's school marks start to drop.
As a former high-school teacher, I had many conversations with frustrated parents about how to get their child's marks to improve. There are many reasons the marks could be going down: learning disability, bullying, relationship trouble, or problems with the teacher to name a few. The first step to finding the cause of the trouble is an open conversation with your child and their teacher.
There is another situation which is the most common reason for marks to tank; the child has lost his love of learning. When this happens, an important dynamic can occur when a parent gets upset about a child's school performance. To help me explain this dynamic, I enlisted the wisdom of Jessica Lahey, a teacher and writer for The New York Times and The Atlantic.
About a year ago, a family sought help in my psychotherapy practice because their son had stopped doing well at school. After spending time separately with the teenage boy and his parents, I discovered that the boy was quite capable of doing well at school. What happened was that he got swooped into a quickly sinking spiral: a few test marks were low because he was too afraid of the teacher to ask for help, once he got behind he didn't know how to catch up, the his parents got very angry at him, then he got overwhelmed, finally shutting down from the constant harsh comments from his teacher and parents.
Sound familiar? It is a story I have heard many times.
Guess what my recommendation was to this family? If you want your son's grades to improve, stop talking about his marks, and focus on improving your relationship with him. We also talked about strategies for how the boy could find the words to ask for help, how to make sure he got it, as well as books to improve the communication between the boy and his parents.
I looked the mom in the eye and said, "You are not allowed to ask him about his marks for the next two months. Fall back in love with each other. Have fun, listen to him... but don't ask about his marks." Dropping her head to her chest with tears in her eyes, she shared with me how hard this was for her. She wanted to let go, but was so afraid to. I asked her to trust me. (And then hoped like hell that what I was suggesting would help them.) Turns out it did, and has for other families.
To make sure my recommendations were appropriate, I asked Jessica Lahey what her suggestions would be in this situation. Very passionately, Jessica said, "When I talk with parents about students who have come home with low grades, I would love to simply tell them that in my experience, if they go nuts and clamp down on their child, force them to pull up their grade and offer all sorts of rewards, whether positive (money for high grades) or negative (punishment for low grades), I can pretty much guarantee one thing. That their child will not pull their grades up and that they will lose interest in learning for the sake of learning.
When those parents don't trust my experience, I turn to the research. According to Grolnick, et. al., the children of parents who direct educational tasks and don't allow students to have autonomy over their own learning do worse than the children of parents who play a supporting—but hands off—role in their children's learning. Intervening in a child's academic life and offering external rewards is the fastest way to raise a child who does not love learning for the sake of the learning itself and learns to rely on parents for both positive and negative rewards for that learning.
On the other hand, the children of parents who stepped back and allowed their children to explore and make mistakes on their own retained an intrinsic love of exploration and learning."
I will leave the parting words to Jessica, "So hands off, parents. Let the child make their own mistakes, suffer the consequences, and find a love of learning within themselves."