Bad Grades: Diagnosing the Problem

Bad grades are a clue that something else is at hand. Asking the right questions can help you understand what your child is going through and how to help her excel.

Wouldn't it be great if our kids brought home papers with nothing but A's on top? And their teachers had nothing but great things to say about their intelligence, character, and work ethic when we visited for parent-teacher conferences? Yes, that would be great. But for many of us, at least during some part of our children's academic careers, it would also be more of a dream than a reality. But as bad as the report card or conference is, the hardest part may be in having to figure out how to help your child turn things around from there.

There's no way to know until we identify the real problem. Bad grades are only a symptom, not the underlying issue. And the only way to identify the underlying issue is to ask the right questions.

If my son has a D in Social Studies for the term, the first thing I need to ask is what grades went into that D average?

If all his homework assignments and projects have good grades, but all of the tests scores are low, then I need to ask what caused that poor test performance? Did he study for them? Or did he blow them off thinking he knew it all because his homework grades were so good? If he really did study hard for them, then I need to dig a little deeper. I need to ask which parts of the tests - which individual questions - did he do poorly on?

If I find that he usually does well until he gets to the big essay questions at the end and then blows it, I know I need to work with him or get him help on how to put his ideas into complete sentences that make a clear, convincing point. But if his essay answers are good but he missed almost every question about the definitions of terms, then I need to work with him on memorization and recall. Maybe I find that he falls down on the multiple choice questions, but when I read them, I know he knew it the night before. Perhaps his problem then is choosing an answer too quickly before reading the whole question and thinking it through.

Each of these problems calls for a different solution.

If he did so well on the homework and has perfect scores on each assignment, I need to ask how they were graded.

If the homework is merely "graded for completion," meaning he gets all the available points just for having his homework in class when it's due, then I can't assume that those perfect scores mean that he's mastering the material. All it means is that he completes his homework on time. Perhaps he does his homework but has no clue what is really going on. But if those 100's on his homework assignments are "graded for accuracy" and really do reflect a mastery of the material, then I can conclude that my son does really know the material, so I have to wonder if he is experiencing some text anxiety that causes him to shut down on exam days.

Learn how to alleviate test anxiety

The opposite scenario could also be the case.

If I ask what individual grades make up my son's D average and find that his test scores are quite good but that he has seven zeros on homework assignments, then I know that making him study more for his tests is a poor solution to the problem.

In this case, I need to ask why those assignments earned zeros. Did he not turn them in? And if that's the case, why? Perhaps it's because he didn't write the assignments down in his notebook. Is that because he couldn't see what was written on the board? Or because he lost his assignment notebook a month ago and has been afraid to tell me he needs a new one? Or maybe he wrote them down but forgot to take his notebook with him to his locker when he was collecting his books to go home. Or perhaps he took home all of the right materials and I even watched him complete the assignments at the kitchen table, but somehow the finished products didn't get back into his backpack and never made it to school the next day.


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These are all questions I need to ask to diagnosis exactly what the real problem is and when it happens. Once we know that, we can implement an appropriate solution.

Just as a doctor wouldn't diagnosis a condition without a thorough examination of the patient to make sure that he or she is treating the real problem and not make assumptions about what causes the symptoms, it's important for parents to figure out the underlying cause of poor academic performance so that we can know how best to help our kids.

It's all about asking the right questions . . . and following the answers where they lead.

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