When her 10-year-old son, Hamish,* came home with the answers to his French test scrawled up his skinny forearm in red marker, Elizabeth McClellan was shocked. “He was cheating. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, we’re not a cheating family.”
In a teary confrontation, the Toronto mom learned that, in her son Hamish’s mind, failure was not an option. “He was afraid — he was afraid his friends would think he was stupid, he was afraid I’d be disappointed, he was afraid his teacher would be mad.”
Fear, not delinquency, is what motivates many kids who cheat — whether it’s by copying someone else’s test or plagiarizing from the Internet. And unless they’ve been living in a cave, kids know it’s wrong. “Maybe they’re afraid of repercussions [from peers, parents or teachers] or maybe they have high expectations and are afraid of letting themselves down,” says Daliah Chapnik, a child and adolescent psychologist and the director of the Child and Adolescent Psychology Centre in Aurora, Ont.
Cheating, then, in Chapnik’s view, may be a coping strategy, and it’s the job of parents to provide kids with a better one — namely, study skills. “Kids may think that if they understood a lesson in class, they’ll be able to recall it on a test,” says Chapnik, “so they may not think it’s necessary to prepare.” What Hamish McClellan describes as “a remembering problem, not a knowing problem” can most often be traced to a gap between learning information and locking it in.
*Names changed by request.
Natalie Nerima, a teacher at Withrow Public School in Toronto, tries to close that gap by encouraging her students to prepare, sending home practice sheets before every test, and notifying parents so they can support study efforts.
Nerima also makes sure every student in her class knows that re-tests are an option. In her experience, kids who know they have a second chance are less likely to cheat. If re-tests are not permitted, she says, “they basically have one chance and if they mess it up, it’s their fault.”
That’s a lot of pressure. And, says Chapnik, “parents often send the message that it’s not OK to fail. They don’t ask what a child got right, they concentrate on what a child got wrong.” Instead, she counsels parents to put the emphasis on effort, not outcome. “Kids have not yet learned that the amount of time they put into studying directly correlates with how well they do,” she says. Parents can help students make that connection by rewarding prep and practice time. “Then, whatever the mark is, as long as a solid effort has been made, it’s got to be OK.”
If cheating persists despite solid study efforts, or it’s accompanied by behaviour like stealing and vandalism, it might indicate a bigger problem that requires professional help. such as a psychoeducational assessment. Most cheating, though, is not habitual — and is, in fact, a sign that a child cares about his achievement.
Stop cheating, start studying
Equipping kids with study strategies is a solid first step toward avoiding cheating, says Chapnik. Here are some tips:
• Come up with a homework routine.
• Create a space that is free from distraction.
• Suggest kids learn little tricks or ways to help them remember things.
• Offer to quiz kids before a test.