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Bad marks in school

Is your child struggling in school? Staying positive and making time to help could inspire a love of learning

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“I studied so hard!” your seven-year-old son groans, digging a test out of his backpack. His mark? Five out of 10. “I hate school!” he says. How should a parent respond?

Sandy Hope, who teaches grades two and three at Warsaw Public School near Peterborough, Ont., says, “I really encourage parents and students to view number and letter grades as feedback.” The approach to marking these days is more strategic than it used to be, aimed at assessing how a student is progressing with set learning goals in the curriculum. Hope says, “I try to help kids identify what they’re doing well and what needs more work, rather than emphasize right and wrong answers.” That doesn’t mean there won’t be marks. Letter or number grades are used on report cards and assignments, but they need to be seen as part of a larger scheme, a snapshot of student progress at that particular time, says Hope.

A child who is getting disappointing grades may need some extra learning support. Here are some ways to help:

Be in the loop. Many teachers use email, newsletters, web pages and learning journals to keep parents abreast of what’s happening in the classroom. Make sure you read all this material and ask questions when you need to. “Parents are always welcome to call or send a note and drop by my classroom to observe, help out or have a chat,” says Hope.

Put in a bit of overtime. Kids at this level shouldn’t have a lot of homework, but there may be times when extra practice will help them get a handle on a new concept. If your daughter is having difficulty figuring out how to count money, for instance, the two of you might play store or a board game that involves counting money.

If language is the issue, make time for reading every day and talk about what you’re reading. While this can be challenging with a reluctant reader, a book related to a favourite activity — say, ballet or visiting the zoo — might offer encouragement. “The key is to keep it fun and short,” says Hope.

Google it. Hope recommends looking for good games and programs online that help with literacy and numeracy. It’s important to work through these activities with your kids, she says, to make sure the skills are being reinforced.

Ask for help. If you’re concerned about your child’s progress, the school can assist, says Hope. Would the teacher recommend tutoring? Most kids aren’t tested for learning disabilities until grade three, but Hope says, in some cases, it may be appropriate to have a child’s hearing and vision checked.

Now, what about that flagging confidence? “We learn from our mistakes, and the ability to pick yourself up and carry on after failure is a life skill all children need,” says Calgary parenting expert Judy Arnall. “Parents must be good coaches, so that kids learn to survive a bad grade, learn from it, and improve.”

Ask what went wrong. This encourages kids to self-evaluate, says Arnall. Most of the time, they know where they stumbled. Then ask, “How can I help next time? What do you need to make this better?”  

Nurture other talents. It’s important that students who struggle in one area get to experience success in other parts of their lives — learning to drum, playing lacrosse.… The boost in confidence can spill over into other areas, including school, says Hope.

Talk about the good stuff. It could be walking the dog every day or managing their allowance well, says Arnall — it helps kids’ self-esteem to know they’re excelling in other aspects of life. “You can celebrate things like sharing, helping out, having a positive attitude, being polite.… These life skills will serve your child well as she grows up,” says Arnall.

Finally, it’s important to keep things in perspective. The odd low mark should never be a reason to ground or punish a child. Arnall says, “Acknowledge the child’s effort, and then put it away and move on.”