How to Talk to your High Schooler about Grades

By Dr. Rick Bavaria

Age Groups

It’s mid-term time in high schools. You’ve been monitoring your teens and their progress, but you’re uncertain about grades. They’ve been doing their homework, you’ve been checking it randomly and you’re chatting about school.

But, still, what about grades? How to bring up this prickly topic? It doesn’t have to be difficult.

Here’s a fact: teens are rarely surprised by a report card grade, a test score, or an essay evaluation. Believe me, I’ve taught teens for a long time. They know when they’ve put in the time and effort and when they haven’t. There’s no reason why parents should be surprised.

Here’s another fact: if you’re surprised by a report card grade, you’ve let some opportunities to talk to your high schooler about grades slip by. Remember, they’re not surprised despite the wide-eyed, Oscar-winning act.

Avoid those big, oftentimes dramatic scenes. Here are some tips that I find helpful when I want to learn how grades are coming along before report card time.

1. Talk. Informally and at casual times, but often, ask about how algebra class is coming along, how the essay on the 1964 Civil Rights Act is progressing, or the timeline for the science project. Then, listen. Let your child take the lead. Talk when grades are high. (“Impressive. What did you do to achieve that?”) Talk when grades are troubling. (“That must be disappointing. How can I help?”)

2. Show how grades are important. Yes, other aspects of school are important, too –curiosity, motivation, focus. But grades are an important snapshot of progress, and they’re useful as a guide. Just as an instant replay of actions on the soccer field or a recording of a trumpet solo is helpful in assessing when to keep doing an activity and when to try something new.

3. Give some practical tips on how to raise grades. Don’t sound like a know-it-all, but some casual words about paying attention in class, managing distractions, taking careful notes, having helpful study buddies, and keeping up can show you’re on your child’s side and supportive. Although, don’t try and have these conversations all at once, naturally.

4. Watch for warning signs. If your child is doing his or her best and still not reaching goals, a little help may be needed. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and everyone needs a little extra help from time to time. Offer to help explore possibilities – a dedicated teacher before school, a really smart Honor Roll friend who can explain quadratic equations, or a professional tutor who knows how to improve skills and raise confidence. If your child is brave enough to ask for help, praise that insight.

5. Stay calm. Teens don’t learn in nice, upward-moving arcs. They’ll do well in one subject and lousy in another. They’ll be bright and motivated one semester and lethargic and uninterested another. That’s why it’s good to keep the grades conversation an open one. Remember, they already know. It’s your job to know, too.