Why we fight about school

There are some kids who are completely self-motivated and drive themselves to high levels of academic achievement without any pressure from their parents. But most kids aren’t like that.

Self-motivated kids are the exception, not the rule, so it’s pretty safe to say that most of us will fight with at least one of our kids about grades at some point.

So how do we prevent our relationships with our kids from becoming dominated by academics?

Here are a few places to look:

Problem: Conflicting time horizons.

You offer your son the reward of a Disney vacation to motivate him to work harder in school. It works… for about 24 hours. Then it’s back to the same old habits. The nine weeks of hard work and focus it would take to accomplish the goal is too much for him to manage.

Solution: Start smaller. Simple tasks (like completing 30 minutes of studying) followed by simple rewards (praise, a short break) work best.

Problem:Conflicting priorities (and your anxiety about their future).

Almost every parent has walked into a kid’s messy bedroom and asked, “How can anyone live like this?” To most adults (and a select number of children) a certain level of disorder is just intolerable. But for most kids, it’s really no big deal. These differing priorities are bound to lead to conflict, which won’t be completely resolved until the child matures.

The same kind of conflicting priorities can cause arguments in our discussions of schoolwork and grades. Most parents consider success in school important, while many kids are more concerned with making friends and having fun. Parents naturally think about the long-term importance of school, while kids often assume that everything will just work out somehow.

Solution: Focus on the process, not the outcome. Work with your child to build the habits they need to keep their rooms clean, and excel in school, without expecting them to be self-motivated enough to do it on their own.

Problem: Vague or unreasonable standards and communciation.

Kids need their parents to set standards for both their behavior and their performance at school. And there is absolutely nothing unreasonable about expecting your child to go to class, do the work that is assigned, and get reasonable grades in coursework that is appropriate for his or her abilities and interests.

But sometimes parents have expectations regarding grades or academic achievement that are simply beyond what their kids are willing or able to achieve.

In other cases, parents will say that they don’t care about grades, as long as their children “try their best.” But what is “their best”? Most kids don’t know, and most parents, if they are honest, don’t necessarily know how to clarify what they mean.

Solution: Set clear and reasonable standards, and communicate, communicate, communicate! A good place to start is reframing how you ask questions



This is an excerpt adapted from my new book Getting Past Procrastination.

Do Retakes Help or Hurt Our Kids?

Along with the test grades your child’s teachers have passed back over the last few weeks, may have come the following opportunity:

To retake those tests and try to improve the second time around.

On the face of it, this seems like an excellent policy.

It gives kids who might not be the best test takers the opportunity to accurately demonstrate what they know.

And to the extent that retakes serve that purpose, I’m all for them.

In practice though, I believe retakes have had negative consequences on both our student’s study skills and their preparedness for standardized tests.

First, they inflate grades… and our student’s perception of how well they know the material they’ve learned.

The most awarded grade in high school and in college continues to hold steady at an “A,” three times more common than it was in 1960.

Image Source: USA Today

This on its own wouldn’t be a problem, if we also saw the same trend with SAT scores. Unfortunately, that’s not the case (average SAT scores fell over the last decade).

While retake policies vary, most allow an averaging of the first and second test scores, with some allowing a complete replacement.

That means kids who would originally have received a 60 (and maybe take a hard look at their study routine) can retake and end up with a B or an A.

Second, they affect our student’s ability to take standardized tests.

We receive calls from parents almost every day with stories of students who have amazing grades (sometimes well above a 4.0 with advanced credits), yet unexpectedly low SAT or ACT scores.

These are diligent, hard working kids who care deeply about their grades.

They’re doing the homework, they’re participating in class, they’re working hard on group projects, but they’re not always doing well on tests.

So they retake the test and bring up their grades, but don’t address the core problem: they weren’t ready when the test was given.

As the author of this Washington Post piece puts it:

“When my son told me he’d just retake his math test if he did poorly, we had a long discussion about what it means to be organized… If he studies and does poorly, that is one thing. But falling back on a retake… isn’t going to cut it.”

So is the answer abolishing the retake policy?

No, but I do think we have to make sure we’re preparing kids in the first place with the study skills they need.

Adopting The Principle of Practice

Would you prepare for a road race just by studying a map of the course you had to run?

What about getting ready for a violin recital by just looking at the sheet music?

Of course not!

But that’s exactly what kids are doing when they study for tests by rereading.

At the root of the problem, far too many kids think about test preparation in very vague terms, rather than seeing it as a concrete set of tasks. This makes studying seem complicated and overly-difficult.

Instead, how would you actually prepare for the race I just mentioned?

You might run several times a week to build up your endurance. You might mix in some sprinting to build up your speed. You might walk the course ahead of time so that you didn’t have to think too much about where to turn, or what path to follow on race day.

And for the violin recital?

As it turns out, that’s exactly the kind of preparation that our kids need for tests. They need a defined practice regimen that goes beyond just familiarizing them with the information.

They need to practice actually doing what the test will ask them to do.

Once kids are in the mindset of practicing for a test rather than just looking over class materials, the steps they need to prepare become much clearer.

This is an excerpt adapted from my new book Getting Past Procrastination.

How To Handle Bad Grades: A Practical Guide For Parents

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bad grades image 1There’s an undercurrent that runs through most conversations we have with our kids about school and bad grades.

With some families it’s more explicit:

“We expect you to do well, and come home with A’s and B’s on your report card.”

With other families it’s less so, but still implied:

“We expect you to go into school each day and give it your best effort, no matter what.”

Regardless, when report cards come home, and the results are less than stellar, it’s always a challenge to figure out how to react as a parent.

On the one hand, bad grades represent a failure. They’re the one objective measure we have of how well our children are progressing through school. If they really understood the material, studied for the exams, and stayed organized and diligent, it would be pretty hard not to earn at least a B in most elementary, middle, and high school classes.

On the other hand, bad grades are not always a fair indication of how hard your child is trying, how much they’re learning, or what their potential for success later on in life is. From that angle, we shouldn’t overreact to a C or D, especially because your son or daughter probably feels guilty about it already. But we should put stock into a C or D because that tells us they don’t have mastery over the content that counts.

In this post we’ll explore:

  • What to do if your child comes home with bad grades and how to talk to them about it
  • Whether you should punish your child for bad grades (or reward them for good grades)
  • And how to investigate why it’s happening and what to do about it moving forward

Read on to find out and click here to receive more tips and strategies to help boost your child’s grades!

What do I do if my child gets a bad grade?

You may have high expectations for your child’s grades, or you may be a bit more laissez faire about the whole thing. Regardless, the answer to “How should parents react to a bad report card?” pretty clear: there is a right and wrong way to approach it.

Here are a few initial tips on how to deal with a bad report card when it first comes home.

Step 1: Give it some distance

The first thing you want to do is to make sure you do not react in the moment.

tape measure

It’s tempting to want to express your frustration (believe me, I’ve been there!), especially if this isn’t a new issue.

Step 2: Schedule a time to talk

Instead, wait until you’ve calmed down a little bit and schedule a time to talk. Say to your child, “let’s sit down after dinner to talk about this.”

This will help to avoid a screaming match, which is the quickest way to guarantee nothing productive will come out of the situation.

Step 3: Create an open discussion, and state the feeling

Now that you have a time on the books, the next question is:

How do I talk to my kids about a bad grade?

First off, you’re going to want to start the conversation off with the phrase, “I noticed” and avoid saying, “you.” Often this will alleviate any feelings of blame and allow for a more open discussion.

For example, you might say, “I noticed that your math grade is a lot lower than we both thought it would be. Help me understand what happened,” rather than, “You did not do well in math. This is unacceptable.”

The phrase, “help me understand,” will give your child a chance to explain himself and explain what went wrong. Listen to what your child has to say and state the feeling.

Try saying, “it sounds like you’re having a hard time with algebra and it’s making you frustrated.” By stating the feeling (but not dwelling on it), you’ve shown your child that you’re on their team.

From there you’ll want to ask questions like, “what do you think you can do to get the grade up?” This will create a sense of accountability and also make your child come up with a solution. Because your child helped to create the solution, he or she will be more invested and more likely to follow through.

Punishments and Rewards for Bad Grades: Do they work?

The instant you see a less-than-stellar report card grade, it’s probably your immediate reaction to punish and restrict activities.

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Either that, or it’s probably to offer some form of reward for turning it around. You’ll want to fight those urges. Here’s what to do instead.

Should I punish my child for a bad grade?

The short answer is: the punishment should be appropriate. Many parents threaten to take their child out of sports or extracurricular activities, but this isn’t an effective solution.

The research says that parents should avoid taking away activities that boost their child’s confidence, such as sports or clubs. With that being said, it is recommended to tie privileges (like video game time, or time out with friends) to academic processes.

For example, you may say to your child, “when you show me that your homework is completed with a respectful attitude, then you can play video games for 30 minutes.” Try using a “when/then” phrase to boost accountability and tie actions to rewards.

Should I reward for grades?

Here, the answer is a little less clear, but in general avoid external rewards if you can. I’ve talked to parents who have tried offering their child just about anything and everything for straight A’s from money to a new car to a trip to Disney World.

But unfortunately, no matter how grandiose the reward, the straight A’s never come. Research tells us that rewarding for grades doesn’t work because it’s too long-term and students lose steam pretty quickly. Students also need to feel an intrinsic motivation for studying, and providing external rewards tends to extinguish their internal drive (especially when they encounter difficulty).

How To Improve: Tips for turning bad grades around

Okay so now that you’ve taken a step back, and assessed your initial response to your child’s poor performance, not it’s time to talk about how to proceed.

Why is my child getting a bad grade?

Before doing anything else, this is the question to answer, because then we can determine the best steps to take to address the underlying cause.

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Students often bring home bad grades for one of two reasons: they don’t understand the content or they don’t have the ‘soft skills’ necessary to succeed.

If it is a contextual issue, then it is usually isolated to one subject (often math/science or English/history). However, if the student is struggling with “soft skills,” things such as organization, time management, and study skills (also known as executive functioning skills), it will probably affect every subject.

Discuss the issue with your child’s teacher, consider enrolling the child in a homework club after school, or seek out a tutor who can focus on your child’s areas of concern.

Turn the lens inward

The research is in: authoritative parenting (warm but firm) is ideal when it comes to academic performance.

In fact, a study by Laurence Steinberg, Julie Elmen, and Nina Mounts, found that students who are raised in homes with parents using an authoritative approach earn higher grades in schools than their peers.

The problem is, a lot of times when good-intentioned authoritative parents become excessively frustrated or worried, they can slip into helicopter (excessively involved) parenting mode. This can give the wrong message to your child. According to Cathi Cohen, LCSW and president of InStep PC:

“If it goes too far it becomes an issue where you’re not helping your child develop resilience or become autonomous. You’re giving them the message through helicopter parenting that they can’t do it without your help. It undermines the child’s natural need to be independent.”

Her advice: take a step back.

“A child has to be allowed to fail and flounder… Helicopter parents are always trying to do their best to help their child succeed, but sometimes it’s okay to let go of the handle bars and its okay if your child falls.”

How do you do that? How do you let go without having your child fall apart?

“You have to treat letting go kind of like a game of Jenga. When you take it out of the box, it is very safe with scaffolding supports in place, and has a lot of structure. As you go through the game, you pull out little pieces and see if it still stands. In a lot of ways, this is how our kids are and they initially need these scaffolding supports. But as they get older, you want to slowly take out pieces from the Jenga tower. You don’t want to remove eight blocks at a time, just one. Start with something small, like a homework routine; then teach the skill, and remove the support. See if they are successful and steady for three weeks and then move onto the next skill. Don’t move on until they’ve been successful for 3 weeks.”

Bottom line: check your parenting style and make sure you’re not slipping into helicopter mode. And then ask yourself what you can do to tackle the grades issue while still allowing your child to figure it out independently.

Address organization habits

You may have heard the expression, “a cluttered desk represents a cluttered mind;” the same principle could be said about backpacks, binders, and lockers. Often times if a student is struggling with school, disorganization may be playing a part. Luckily, the end of the quarter is the perfect time to get organized.

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Some things you can try include:

  • Set up a regular school “check in” time to talk about school each week.
  • Figure out a homework routine that doesn’t involve constant reminders.
  • Get backpacks and assignments organized and ready to go the night before.
  • Schedule a 20 minute “clean sweep” session each week where everyone in the house drops what they’re doing to clean

Just as an example (there are more we recommend here).

Work on study skills

We hear this all the time at Educational Connections: students are spending hours studying, but just not seeing the results. As it turns out, most children haven’t actually developed optimal study skills. For example, 84% of kids study by re-reading content, which is actually the most inefficient way of learning. Determine whether study skills may be a potential culprit.

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Some areas you could address (among others) include:

  • Setting aside study time before starting homework.
  • Having your child use study guides to test themselves rather than just simply reviewing.
  • Set up an optimal study environment that minimizes distractions (this can include distraction-blocking apps as well).

Next Steps For Parents: Be proactive with bad grades

Most importantly, as a parent you want to be proactive about your approach, whatever you end up deciding to do. If you can get ahead of the curve and have a plan of attack, your chances of successfully navigating the dangerous emotional waters of a bad report card go up dramatically.

For more tips and strategies on how to boost your child’s grades, click below!

Why Is Math So Hard? School Subjects Where Falling Behind Spells Real Trouble

why is math so hard image 1The question “why is math so hard?” is one we come across so often with the parents and students we work with, it’s become almost a given. We hear things like:

“My son just doesn’t seem to ‘take’ to math. He’s just like his mom.”

“Why is it that even when my daughter really ‘buckles down’ and tries to catch up in Algebra, she still does poorly on quizzes and exams? But then she can turn around, spend a weekend with her history textbook, and ace her essays and tests?”

“It seems like ever since they started algebra, he’s been struggling and hasn’t been able to ‘get it’ no matter how hard he tries.”

But what most people don’t realize is, although math may present some specific difficulties for some children, most of these questions aren’t actually about math at all, but rather any of the school subjects that build on each other cumulatively.

With these types of classes, because each topic builds on the last (like layering bricks), they’re very unforgiving if your child starts to fall behind. And if you’re not on top of it, a “C” on a quiz or two can quickly snowball into a string of C’s on their next report card, or more importantly, a lack of understanding of those topics and a permanent aversion towards them for the rest of their time in school.

Now don’t worry, it’s not all gloom and doom if your child finds themselves behind in these subjects. In this post we’ll cover exactly which subjects you do need to watch out for, how to know when your child is truly struggling, and when you should step in to get them some extra help.

Why is math so hard? What most people think the problem is (and what’s really going on)

When a student continues to struggle in a complex, cumulative topic like math, language, or some of the more advanced sciences (physics, chemistry), we tend to think a few things right off the bat:

  • Maybe they just don’t have the “math gene,” I certainly didn’t
  • Maybe their teacher is just going too fast for them
  • Maybe they’re just more “right-brained” and don’t find math or science interesting

And to some extent, those things can be true.

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In 2005, Gallup conducted a poll that showed math as the subject students found the least interesting and most challenging across the board. These students found math to be the least intrinsically motivating, either because they never found it interesting to begin with, or because they developed that attitude over time.

But apart from genetic pre-dispositions, which may preclude students from pursuing a career as a mathematician or PhD chemist, most likely this lack of interest and motivation is coming from somewhere else. Let’s dig a little deeper.

The Swiss Cheese Problem

It was 1983, and there I was sitting in my 8th grade algebra class at Hoover Middle School in Indialantic, Florida. I look up at the board and I see yet another equation, and my neck starts to get stiff, and my shoulders get tense, and I thought to myself:

“I’m never going to learn this”

But I really wanted to. I was sitting in the front row of the class, talking myself into learning. However, inevitably within a few minutes I was off daydreaming about something else as my teacher droned on and on and on.

And when I would go home to do my homework, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It started off where I would do most of it, but maybe leave a few questions blank. But then slowly but surely that turned into: I only did about half of the homework questions. And then after a few weeks, not much of it at all.

And what happens when you aren’t really doing the homework?

(1) You don’t get any of the extra practice, which means
(2) You don’t know what’s going on in class the next day when you move on to more complicated problems, which means
(3) You’re even further behind when you go to do the next set of homework problems…

And on, and on, until that unit test grade smacks you in the face with a C or a D, and your motivation continues to dwindle.

This was all a complete surprise to my parents and teachers, because for all intents and purposes I was the model student. I always came to class, sat in the front, and acted as though I was paying attention.

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But behind the scenes, my understanding of what was going on in these cumulative classes looked more like “Swiss Cheese:” I had some of the pieces put together, enough to struggle through at first. But there were holes in my learning and those accumulate over time.

This was my issue with math, and it’s the same issue we see over and over with the students that we help.

School subjects that are cumulative are like building a brick wall

Math, the languages, and many of the sciences are cumulative: if you don’t learn the fundamentals, you’ll continue to be more and more confused, and fall further and further behind as the class progresses forward.

This was my problem in algebra class. But you can see this problem happening with far earlier than that. Take fractions, for example.

If your child has difficulty understanding fractions, they may be able to remember a few simple concepts like:

1/4 = 2/8 or 1/6 + 5/6 = 1

But if when it comes to adding fractions with different denominator (e.g. 1/4 + 2/7) they don’t grasp the method, then what happens when they get to more complicated arithmetic problems like this:

102/7 + 25/4

A gap in understanding appears.

As these gaps accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to fill them in, and more unlikely that you will be able to fully grasp algebra or calculus later on. If a student becomes discouraged at an early age and it is not remediated quickly, then it is probably that the student will become disillusioned with the subject entirely.

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It’s like building a brick wall: if your foundation is weak, whatever you stack on top of it is going to be unstable, and quickly be reduced to rubble if put under scrutiny.

Cumulative vs. non-cumulative school subjects

Now the story can be much different for subjects like english and history. If your son or daughter struggles with the “Hamlet” unit in english class, or misses class during “Roman Empire” unit in world history, they may end up with a few poor grades on some essays and a unit test, but beyond that it’s relatively straightforward to recover.

You figure out what they did wrong, why they missed what they missed, and approach the next topic with a renewed study strategy. These non-cumulative subjects are much less “dangerous” to fall behind in, because a short-term concerted effort can recover much of what was lost during the period they missed.

Here’s a quick breakdown of which subjects fit into which category:

Subject Type Subjects If they fall behind…


English, Reading, Social Studies/History, Earth Science, Biology

Pay attention, use questions and reminders to guide them in the right direction, but no need to immediately step in. Unless they repeatedly struggle, or show aversion to multiple different topics, books, or units some gentle guidance and suggestions should be enough to ensure they get back on track.


All Math classes (Arithmetic, Geometry, Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Calculus, Statistics, etc.), All Foreign Languages (Spanish, French, German, Latin, etc.), Chemistry, Physics

If they show any signs of multiple poor grades in a row, uncharacteristically low grades, a big unit test failure, or an aversion to the subject, take action now to either step in yourself or hire a tutor to help them catch up as quickly as possible.

Other potential signs include: when they don’t want to show you the homework portal or say they don’t have homework in that class, or you suggest they go see the teacher and they refuse to.

Now the real question becomes: what do we do about it?

Step 1: Are they really falling behind, or just temporarily struggling?

Now how do we know whether our kids are actually starting to slip in class, or whether they just had a bad week or two that led to some uncharacteristic grades? When do we need to think about stepping in?

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The good thing is, like we briefly summarized in the table above, there are some telltale signs that indicate whether or not your child is falling behind in one of these cumulative subjects.

You probably DON’T need to step in yet if they:

  • Had one or two low homework or quiz grades, but then quickly recovered (still pay attention though)
  • Came home with an out-of-the-ordinary test grade with a clear cause you can point to unrelated to their understanding of the material (e.g. a stupid mistake, were sick when they took the test, etc.)
  • Are having trouble with one or two specific concepts, but are open to help and willing to work through it

You probably DO need to step in a get some extra help if they:

  • Come home with a string of low grades on quizzes and assignments
  • Bomb a unit test or come home with a highly uncharacteristic grade
  • Are spending an inordinate amount of time studying each night with no improvement in grades
  • Seem “down” about the subject or aversive to studying it
  • Say they don’t have homework or studying for that class
  • Don’t want to go see the teacher if you suggest it

You know your kid best, so use these guidelines and your best judgement to evaluate whether they’re having real trouble or are just going through a temporary sticking point. And if you do suspect something is up, it may be worthwhile to have a brief dialogue with their teacher to see what they say about their performance in class.

Step 2: How to help them “catch up” in cumulative school subjects

Once you have recognized that your child is struggling, there are two paths you can take: either (1) step in to help yourself and work with them and their teacher to get them back on track, or (2) hire a tutor to help them “fill in the gaps,” rebuild their foundation in that course, and get them confident and motivated to keep up during class again.

Steps you can take as a parent

The first thing you can do in the case of a poor test grade, is to help them take advantage of the retake policy if the teacher has one. If your child isn’t making test corrections or letting you know about a chance to retake the test, it’s a good sign they’re feeling defeating. So take this opportunity to discuss options with their teacher and see if there’s still a chance for kid to retake test.

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Second, kids are usually afraid of rejection and typically won’t be willing to write the teacher an email with a question or an ask for help. So sit with them and help them write out an email to their teacher:

“Hi Mrs. Smith,
I’m working on my homework due this Tuesday and I’m really not understanding how to use the Pythagorean Theorem. Can I stop by after class tomorrow to ask you about it?”

Most of the time just writing and sending that one email will lift a huge load off of their shoulders, especially when they realize their teacher is most likely going to be very receptive to helping them out.

Third, see if they can attend study hall after school and sit in the classroom with their teacher while they do their homework. Inevitably they’ll end up asking for help with problems they’re stuck on and feel more comfortable doing so with their teacher in the room without the pressure of their classmates present. This will help them get in the routine of asking for help when they need it without feeling embarrassed.

Steps you can take with a tutor

Although many parents are fully equipped to help their children with homework and studying, a tutor is, in the large majority of cases, are more effective means for getting your child back up to speed in a subject like math or foreign language if for no other reason than: they’re a new face and an outside voice with less “stake” in the game.

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Photo: US Department of Education

Additionally, if a tutor really knows what they’re doing, they’ll be able to diagnose where your child is struggling, and take progressive steps to close those subject gaps, catch them up, and build up their ability to keep up with the new material. Here’s for example, what our tutors will generally do:

  1. Assess where the student is right now, and identify any gaps in the fundamentals that will need to be addressed right off the bat.
  2. Build an execute a plan to fill those holes in understanding and re-teach that material expediently so that the child still has time left over to work on the current work going on in class.
  3. Spend additional time helping them through their homework, and helping them prepare for upcoming quizzes and tests. Because the worst thing that can happen is to have them continue to lose ground and lose confidence as they go back to the basics and try to re-learn older material.
  4. Once the student has started to master the old material they missed out on, then ideally the tutor will have them start to preview what they’ll see next so that they feel more motivated and focused by the time they get to school and take on that topic during class. This is much more powerful than remediation alone, and will improve grades and confidence more than simply reviewing and correcting material after the fact.
  5. Work with the student to take practice tests ahead of their actual exams. In general, kids who perform poorly in specific subjects like math tend to have a very inaccurate idea of how much they actually know. Tutors can create and administer practice tests to both help students identify where they still need work, and also to prepare for the pressures of solving problems within the testing format and timeframe.

Take Action

Whether you decide to step in yourself first, or move forward with a subject tutor for your child, the most important thing is to work quickly to get them moving in the right direction.

If you’ve done the work to identify that they’re really struggling, further delay will only make things worse. So put together a plan, and start working towards stopping the cumulative snowball effect from progressing any farther.

If you think tutoring may be the best option to get your child back on track, and you live in the DC/Virginia/Maryland area, you can contact us here or call (703) 934-8282 and we’ll be happy to walk you through some options we have available.

If you’re not local to us, a quick Google search for “Algebra tutor” or “Spanish tutor” within your area should yield some good options to choose from. Feel free to use our math or foreign language tutoring overviews to give you a sense of what to look for.

And finally, if you have any comments, questions, or feedback for us, leave a comment below! We love hearing from you and would be happy to help where we can.

Rewards For Good Grades: Good Idea Or Disaster Waiting To Happen?

rewards for good grades image 1As a parent, at one point or another you may have found yourself telling your child something along the lines of:

“If you get an ‘A’ on your Biology test, I’ll take you shopping,”

Or: “Clean your room and you get to play video games for an hour.”

Now, on the face of it, rewards for good grades seem like a win-win situation on both sides: you ensure that your son or daughter are keeping up academically, and they get rewarded for their actions. And providing an incentive for good grades is not exactly a new invention: it’s probably been going on as long as parents have been getting report cards.

However, many psychologists think that paying for grades or providing other extrinsic rewards for academic performance is a mistake, setting the stage for poor attitudes towards school and actually a decrease in academic performance over time.

Are they right? Or do rewards for grades actually motivate kids effectively? We discuss in this post.

For more tips on topics like motivating your kids, click here! We’ll keep you up to date with our latest tips, strategies, and resources to help your child tackle his/her assignments.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards For Students

There have also been many studies where rewards correlate with negative consequences (like this review paper from Grand Valley State), while other studies would argue that rewards are what allow students to achieve their goals (like this one from Harvard University and Edlabs).

But as it turns out, we may not actually be talking about the same thing. So in order to better understand both the advantages and disadvantages of having rewards, let’s take a look at the two different types of rewards students can receive.

Extrinsic Rewards

If you are a parent, then this is probably what you use the most in terms of rewards. Extrinsic rewards relate to physical or tangible items that are awarded to a student for recognition of accomplishments. Most of the time, students are aware of the extrinsic award that they will achieve and will work towards accomplishing their goals for that specific purpose.

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Examples of these types of rewards would be studying for a test in order to get an ‘A’, or competing in a triathlon in order to get a trophy. They are driven by the desire or motivation to gain something in particular, or even to avoid a negative outcome.

Intrinsic Rewards

Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, are driven by the desire to engage in a behavior because it is personally rewarding. There is no tangible item that the student can gain from performing an activity; their self-motivation and emotional well-being is their reward.

Some examples of intrinsic rewards would be helping build a house because you find it brings joy to you, or playing an educational game because you find it challenging and exciting. These examples show an internal motivation to participate in an activity for its own sake.

The Benefits of Rewards for Good Grades

Extrinsic rewards can facilitate a student’s interest in something that they originally did not have interest in. It allows the student to acquire new skills and knowledge, which can eventually lead to intrinsic motivation if the student continues to pursue the activity.

Extrinsic rewards can also be seen as a form of positive reinforcement; it is a way for students to understand that their performance is adequate or deserving of praise. According to one study conducted by a Cornell professor, C. Kirabo Jackson, students who are rewarded for earning good grades on AP tests tend to score higher on the SAT and choose to attend college at higher rates than those who are not rewarded for grades.

Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, have long-lasting effects and are generally self-sustaining. It gives the student a sense of meaningfulness and accomplishment for learning to master a certain subject, skill, or activity.

Students who have intrinsic motivation do not place much emphasis on grades or physical rewards, but rather on their genuine interest on the matter at hand. This allows them to think outside the box and use their creativity as they further develop their passions or interests.

The Disadvantages of Rewards

Extrinsic rewards are generally effective for short-term goals only, and can often distract students from fully learning or understanding the subject at hand. The rewards also need to be consistent and increased during certain times in order to work.

Often, teachers have found that once tangible rewards were removed from situations, students lose their motivation and interest. According to a study by psychologist Edward Deci, this can have a negative impact on a student’s intrinsic motivation.

Deci divided college students into two different groups and asked them to complete a puzzle. One group was paid, and the other was not. Deci found that the paid group did not continue to solve the puzzle once the experiment ended, whereas the unpaid group continued. He argued that receiving a monetary or extrinsic reward can reduce intrinsic interest, or even prevent students from forming intrinsic interest altogether.

Now on the intrinsic rewards side of the story, although they yield very few disadvantages, they do require more preparation and can take time to develop.

Each student is an individual, and finding what will intrinsically motivate them can be tricky. This may involve getting to know the student’s interests and figuring out ways to connect those interests to the material. Teachers must also be passionate and enthusiastic about the subject themselves; this is key when sparking intrinsic motivation in students.

Should We Still Be Rewarding Kids For Grades?

Rewards are often necessary when it comes to helping students achieve their academic goals; however, they must be used correctly and in moderation in order to be effective.

Extrinsic rewards can be beneficial if teachers and parents understand that it is for a short-term goal and that the student will most likely only be temporarily interested in the material.

Although in some cases, extrinsic motivation can lead to intrinsic motivation, where students look forward to earning intrinsic rewards. It is true that it may take time to achieve those intrinsic rewards, but the results will show long-term effects and can often build a student’s character.

What do you think?

At Educational Connections, we’re big fans of fostering intrinsic motivation, but we also know there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. So over to you…

How do you handle this situation with your son or daughter?

Let us know in the comments!

If you found this article helpful, get more tips and tricks here! We are here for you and your family and want to provide you the resources to help your child have a successful school year.

Academic Anxiety: How To Help Kids Build Confidence In Their Schoolwork

academic anxiety image 1Sometimes stress can manifest itself in unexpected ways.

Have you ever had a flash of anger come over you as someone cuts you off in traffic… only to realize that you just weren’t paying attention as they changed lanes because you were busy thinking about a fire you were going to have to put out as soon as you got into work?

Or maybe you come home to find that the dog has chewed the corner of the couch, and get uncharacteristically upset… only to realize you’re actually just stressed about having the house ready for your in-laws coming into town that weekend.

Well the same thing can hold true for our kids.

They may misbehave, or procrastinate, or act withdrawn, citing boredom or disinterest, when in reality they’re actually stressed about their schoolwork under the surface.

This is the phenomenon of academic anxiety, and unfortunately it’s on the rise.

In this post we’ll cover exactly what academic anxiety is, what some of its underlying causes are, and some ways to tackle it so that your kids feel more prepared, and less stressed about the rigors of their schoolwork.

Is academic anxiety on the rise?

Yes. Anxiety among kids is significant, especially in areas where there’s a lot of pressure and competition for kids to perform well. Whether it’s preparing for college exams, book reports, or other homework, students are spending hours studying and trying to perfect their academic work.

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Photo: woodleywonderworks

About 8% of kids have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, but many more have the symptoms associate with anxiety like rapid heartbeat, clammy palms, upset stomach and constant worry.

Sometimes, this anxiety results in perfectionism, where kids want their school work to be perfect. So instead of writing an essay just once, if it’s not good enough, they’ll crumple their paper up and write it four more times.

Other times, anxiety will cause them to shut off: either ignoring their schoolwork entirely, or simply putting it off as long as possible through procrastination.

Either way, when kids become overly worried about school work, they don’t have time for being a kid.

The link between ADHD and anxiety

Now although, anxiety can be a problem for any student, it can especially be a problem for students who have ADHD, or who already have tendencies towards problems with focus.

For instance, in some students ADHD can trigger anxiety, and as students get older and move through school their symptoms will worsen.

This is because as they become more aware of their executive functioning struggles, they will begin to realize their work and homework takes them longer. This can then lead to missing assignments or not giving themselves time to complete projects and homework. And it’s a vicious cycle that leads to stress and anxiety from falling behind and not performing to their ability.

Some students may even avoid schoolwork all together and it is not because they are lazy or unmotivated. It may even be a subconscious decision to avoid school work or certain assignments. They may also make a decision to focus on one larger, or seemingly more important assignment and let the others fall to the wayside. This behavior, however, will just lead to increased anxiety and negative feelings about themselves.

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Photo: tinkerbrad

Because there has been an increase in students with both anxiety and ADHD, if you think your child is struggling with anxiety, whether it is related to ADHD or not, it may be helpful to consult a professional and determine if you should intervene.

Some signs you should be aware of for are:

  • Changes in your child’s eating or sleeping
  • Constant negative statements about themselves or any self-harming behavior
  • Displaying physical signs of anxiety such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Withdrawal from friends or family

That being said, there are things we can do as parents, if you think anxiety may be an issue for your child.

How to approach academic anxiety as parents

I recently spoke with WTOP on this topic and laid out a few ways in which we can help our students cope with anxiety.

First, accept how your child is feeling

Accept how your child is feeling, and also know that you can’t be dismissive. What you don’t want to say is “stop worrying” or “it’s not a big deal.” Instead you want to ask questions that will help your child solve problems.

By acknowledging them first, they’ll feel more like you understand what they’re going through and be more receptive to help. It’ll also give them a chance to get their worries out and into the open without worrying about being judged.

Second, guide them towards better time management with questions

So, when you’re talking about homework, you don’t want to say “Do you have homework today?” Instead, ask:

“What are your priorities for today?” or…

“How long do you think it will take you to finish that math assignment?”

Kids that worry a lot about school sometimes have poor time management skills, and if a task should take a half hour, they may spend 90 minutes on it.

By asking “How long will this take you?”, you’re helping them to better estimate their time before they start, which will then reduce the pressure they feel to get it completed quickly, or do more than they are capable of.

Third, help them sort and prioritize their assignments to avoid overwhelm

Sometimes kids stay up late because they start their homework late, often because they’re feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared. When kids are overwhelmed, their assignment load can seem daunting.

In these cases, we encourage kids to sort their assignments into three categories: “must do”, “should do”, “could do”.

The work that absolutely has to be done first goes into the “must do” category. If it should be done, but not necessarily at that time, put it in the “should do” category, like a math assignment that’s not due for a couple of days. And then the work that isn’t required – for example, recommended reading and not required reading it goes into the “could do” category.

Having kids think about their assignments this way can help prioritize what absolutely needs to be done versus what’s simply a nice to have, and get them back into the position of feeling in control of their work, rather than overwhelmed.

Test Anxiety: It’s about more than studying

Now there’s also another variable we haven’t yet touched on, which is also tied to anxiety about school: taking tests.

Test anxiety is definitely real and very common. When students are anxious about tests, they are not using the frontal lobe of their brain as effectively. This part of the brain is responsible for focusing, reasoning, and planning. When you are worried and anxious, your frontal lobe capacity diminishes by about 30%.

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For example, a University of Chicago study had students write down all their fears and worries in a journal before taking a test, and found that when kids jotted down their worries right before the test, they performed almost an entire grade point higher on average.

When kids worry, their performance suffers. So below we’ve outlined four main reasons students become anxious before exams, and some methods we can use to alleviate some of this stress.

Problem 1: They don’t know what the test is going to be like

The best way to reduce nerves about what is going to be on an exam is to use all of the real test material you can get your hands on. Whether they are provided from the teacher or through a test prep book, the more your student can familiarize himself with the wording and style of the questions the easier it will be to comprehend when test time comes.

Along with repeated and consistent practice with this material it is shown that taking 5 full length practice tests drastically reduces nerves. I know, it sounds repetitive but trust us on this one they’ll be thankful when they step into the testing room feeling confident and prepared.

Problem 2: They don’t know what will be on the test

Most students have anxiety about the material on their exams because they do not focus on their deficiencies when they’re studying, or better yet they don’t even know what those weaknesses are! When a student understands what skills he is lacking it makes it way easier to study, he’ll understand exactly what he needs to focus on. In turn, he will stop being so uncertain which will relieve this anxiety.

However, sometimes there are still holes in our learning and a student will come across a question on a test that they didn’t study and panic will set in. Sometimes this is because of time constraints in studying but a tutor can be beneficial in this situation. They will help set goals and teach test taking strategies that will help guide them when they are deciding what questions to answer and how to pace themselves if they come across and concepts they are not familiar with.

Problem 3: They don’t know what the testing experience itself will be like

Again, the best way to ease testing anxiety is practice, practice, practice. Especially when it comes to preparing for standardized testing such as the SAT or ACT being sure to take all the practice tests that are assigned under the proper time constraints is vital to a productive test prep plan.

It is the best way to ebb anxiety that is related to taking the real test. Be sure to treat practice tests as if they were the real thing, set up in a quiet area and have all of the materials that will be allowed on test day so they will know exactly what to expect.

Problem 4: They’re worried about what grade they’ll get

As your student takes practice diagnostic tests make sure to track the progress. The more they take the better idea of how they will score on the real thing. If all measures are taken to reduce anxiety on test day they should score in that ballpark. Knowing this information will help to put their mind at ease and boost confidence in their abilities as they prepare.

Next steps for tackling anxiety

The pressures put on kids to do well in school is alive and well. And this means we need to counterbalance this pressure with constructive strategies to help them cope and navigate through their learning experience positively.

So first, if you think your child may be anxious about school, sit down and talk through the situation, giving them the space to air out there concerns.

Then use some of the strategies outlined here (or others you’ve implemented on your own) to help work through the stressors they’re feeling and build a more healthy and productive relationship with school.

And then let us know in the comments:

How have you dealt with academic anxiety in your household?

Do you have any questions or feedback for us on other situations we might not have covered here?

We’d love to hear from you.

Summer Tutoring: What I Gained From Staying Academically Active

The year was 1979. Rod Stewart and Peaches and Herb were topping the charts, and there I was staring blankly at my math test, feeling lost. Although I should have been able to do two-digit divisor long division, I really couldn’t. It all seemed so complicated and I froze.

The fourth grade was coming to an end and instead of feeling proud of all I had accomplished, I felt overwhelmed by what I hadn’t.

But that summer, my mom made one of the best decisions about my elementary academic career that she ever made: she hired my teacher, Mrs. Lewis, to tutor me over summer break.

I remember my mom walking me over to Mrs. Lewis’ house, just a few doors down the street from us. I would sit around the kitchen table with Mrs. Lewis a couple times a week for an hour each time, and although I never really wanted to go to see her, when I left, I felt so relieved.  She helped me to review fourth grade math concepts and to preview what was to come in fifth grade. This review-preview technique was really effective and the summer was a perfect time to use it!

By the end of the summer, I was finally understanding long division, and I also understood fractions, decimals and percents. I had come a long way since that fateful end to fourth grade… When I went back to school that fall in the fifth grade, I had never felt so much better about math, a subject I never liked my whole life.

The time I spent with Mrs. Lewis really paid off. Not only did I feel confident going into fifth grade, but that confidence motivated me to actually study for math, something I had never done before, and of course, this helped me to get good grades, another feat I had never been able to accomplish. Although my grades in math were never bad before my summer tutoring, they were mostly Bs with an occasional C, I really didn’t understand the work at a deeper level. I superficially knew how to solve the problem, but I didn’t really understand how numbers were connected to each other, and I had no idea why I even converted fractions, decimals, percents in the first place.  But now that I was in fifth grade fresh off of summer tutoring with Mrs. Lewis, things were clicking and making sense for me—I had both the content knowledge and the confidence to tackle fifth grade math with ease.


Fifth grade ended with me doing well in math and because of this, my mom was happy and I really didn’t do much of anything that summer!  I watched a lot of General Hospital and Days of our Lives. I went to a few camps, but I didn’t work on academics, and boy was that a bad decision, because after that summer, there I was in sixth grade feeling lost yet again. Although I was young at the time, it really hit me how much one-to-one instruction I needed and the positive impact it had on my life.

This pattern of taking summers off continued until I was in high school when I finally realized that my mom was right and staying academically active over the summer was the right move for my academic career and my emotions.

If you are interested in keeping your child academically active this summer and think we can help, check out our summer tutoring packages and submit a Get-a-Tutor form so we can tell you more!

Why Is My Smart Kid So Scattered? And What’s the Real Impact on Grades?

smart but scattered image 1Every day I speak to parents who are stressed out and confused. If you live in the DC area, you can probably identify with being “stressed out.” But many are also confused at how their smart kids can be so scattered.

The parents who call our office looking for help are confounded by the fact that their kid is really smart (heck, most of these kids can tell you a story a mile long, remembering every last detail, and some have even been in the gifted program), but their grades are mired in mediocrity because they are perpetually disorganized and procrastinate like crazy.

Parents report that when left to their own devices without any parental oversight, these kids can’t keep up with their assignments and rarely study for tests, let alone remember when the tests are in the first place. And not surprisingly, when parents try to help, their overtures are resisted.

It just doesn’t make sense. How can a such a smart kid be so forgetful? Why is life with this kid so chaotic, with assignments left until the very last minute, stressing everyone out? And why, when help is clearly needed, do these kids push their parents away?

The Real Reason Kids Are So Scattered

Let’s start out with one of the most common reasons kids underperform in school — weak executive functions. Executive functions (EF) refer to cognitive processes occurring in the frontal lobe of the brain. They have to do with focus, problem solving, planning and organization. As you can imagine, these abilities are incredibly important in school.

So when kids aren’t all that focused or organized and have a hard time thinking ahead, we often assume that they’re lazy, unmotivated, or just don’t care about school. But actually this isn’t the case at all. It’s often that their executive functioning abilities, which do get better with age, are weak.

ADHD vs. Poor Executive Functions

Sometimes, parents wonder if a child with weak executive functions has ADD or ADHD, because the symptoms seem similar, and there definitely is overlap. A lot of kids have weak executive functioning abilities, but the problem might not be significant enough to warrant a diagnosis of ADHD. However, everyone with ADHD has executive functioning deficits.

The Disconnect Between Ability and Achievement

Regardless of whether your child just has weak EF or ADHD, it doesn’t really matter. The symptoms are similar and there’s almost always a divide between ability and achievement. Kids with weak EF are capable kids who underperform. They have the potential to get As, but they’re earning Bs and Cs, stressing you out, and falling further behind. The work they turn in to their teachers is not always in line with their intelligence. We see this a lot in writing. Very verbal students have a tough time organizing their ideas and sustaining focus long enough to get all their thoughts down on paper.

smart but scattered image 2

Now, not all kids who have executive functioning weaknesses have problems in writing, but what they almost always have in common is difficulty staying organized. Their binders, backpacks and oh yeah, even their bedrooms are not the tidiest in town. And so often, when things are scattered, time management isn’t so great either. Prioritizing is not a natural ability. The students we see don’t think about homework in an organized fashion.  They don’t think to ask themselves “What do I have to do tonight? And what should I do first, second, and third?” Getting organized enough to prioritize homework is tough for some, but what’s even harder is planning out that book report that’s due in two weeks or that science project not due for another month.

What the Research Says: The Impact of Disorganization on GPA

For years, we’ve been helping kids to get and stay a bit more organized, and it’s not an easy process. Most kids need regular upkeep to develop “habits of mind,” and for many, this takes a long time.

As a classroom teacher, I always knew that the students who came to class prepared had a leg up. There was a clear difference between the ones who did their homework and had it filed away in the right folder and those who slapped down a few answers on a piece of paper and had to dig through their backpack to find it. But I never saw research on the impact of disorganization on homework completion. I just knew that my disorganized kids chronically underperformed, even if they could do well on tests (because they were indeed intelligent).

A few weeks ago, I was reviewing some new research when I ran across a study from The Journal of School Psychology. Here’s what I found: kids with attention difficulties turned in 12% fewer assignments than kids without attention problems. Although this doesn’t sound like a big number, the impact on grade point average for these kids was significant. The researchers found that the culprit wasn’t behavior during homework, like lack of focus, it was actually organization (bringing home the right materials, bringing the completed work back to class the next day, etc.). Disorganization was the most important predictor of homework completion and GPA.

What You Need to Know

The bottom line is that when your child has a poor sense of time and seems to have trouble keeping track of his things, it’s not intentional, and no amount of nagging or reprimanding him will help. Instead, what really helps is simply understanding that your child needs more structure than the average kid. Simple measures to set up routines and structures can work for all your kids.

Personally, I’ve found simple systems to be the best, and that’s because although I love to be organized and tidy, I have to work at it. It doesn’t come naturally for me and I’ve found that other parents have similar struggles.  By targeting a few easy-to-implement routines and strategies that can be done on autopilot, virtually any parent can help their child even if he or she is resistant.

The key is choosing the right strategies and using them consistently. Both elements need to be present to see lasting and positive change. If you want to reduce the stress in your household surrounding your kid’s organization and time management (or lack thereof), check out my online course Getting Past Procrastination: Get Organized, Beat Procrastination, and End The Homework Battles In The Next 3 Weeks.

Careless Errors: How To Fix Them Without Fighting

shutterstock_252865087“How do I help my child fix careless errors they made in their work?” is a question we probably get every day.

Do you let the mistake slide and have the teacher correct it? Do you fix it for your child so their homework is marked 100%? Or, do you show your child why the mistake was made in the first place?

When you remind your child not to make these mistakes and they continue making them, you run the risk of spending all night arguing with your child.

Here are 3 common situations regarding careless errors and how you can help students correct them without causing an argument.


  1. My son came home with a math test where he didn’t do as well as he had before and I saw that he made lots of very careless, silly errors. How can I let him know to double check his work once he’s finished, without sounding like I’m being negative or giving him a hard time?

Getting kids to check their work is really hard work! “Checking their work” can feel very overwhelming. And frankly, that’s why kids don’t do it, especially with homework. If your child’s homework is done and you say, “Now, go back and check your work,” what you’ll typically hear is “Yep, I already did that,” when you know that it’s nearly impossible that they went through every answer in such a short period of time. In testing situations, when teachers remind their students to review their work, this overture is rarely successful. Kids simply don’t have the mental fortitude to review every last answer on the test.

So, what can you do?pic-1

Encourage your child to highlight or circle the problems that are hard for them as they complete their homework. Have them go back and check or redo only the problems that are circled or highlighted. This reduces the amount of checking they need to do and makes the task more approachable.


  1. What can you do about the child who rushes through homework and puts little attention to detail in their work?

Ah, the rusher! This trait is really common, especially for younger kids. They don’t really see the value of homework. They will often slap down a few answers and call it a day because getting outside and playing with friends or jumping onto the X-box is far more exciting than homework.

If that is what’s happening in your house and it’s a chronic problem, consider Designated Homework Time.

Designated Homework Time is based on the principle that homework should take about 10 minutes per grade level. If you have a third grader and he’s doing homework in about seven minutes flat on a regular basis, tell him, “You know what? Your homework should be taking about 30 minutes so I’m going to set the timer for 30 minutes. I want you to sit here and do work for 30 minutes. If you really don’t have any homework (which is hardly ever the case, by the way) or you’re finished, you can read for pleasure or get ahead on an assignment.” By encouraging your child to use that whole half hour, you’re less likely to fight battles over rushing through assignments. Kids are more likely to stay a little bit more focused and spend an adequate amount of time on each problem instead of merely doing the work hastily.


  1. My daughter is constantly making careless errors in math. When she has a problem with long division, I say, “Check every long division problem by multiplying and do it after every single problem.” Would it be less overwhelming to remind her problem by problem or does that add too much time?

Certainly, there are some tasks in math that can be checked very easily. For example, a long division problem can be checked by multiplication. That’s a really easy way to find an incorrect answer. The idea of checking the problem right after as opposed to the end is a good one because waiting until the end to check work feels very, very overwhelming for kids. But most kids are not that diligent and when left on their own they will not take the time to review every last answer.

shutterstock_142812715If your daughter comes home with an assignment or a test with lots of careless errors, you can ask her, “What might you do differently next time?” Always look to the future. Don’t ask questions that require her to think about the past such as “What did you do wrong?” or “Why didn’t you check your work?” To kids, asking them to reflect on the past often feels punitive. I also like the question, “Knowing what you know now, what changes would you make on the next test?”

For homework, you can make checking work a game. Say to your child, “I wonder if you can check five problems on this worksheet. For each one, give yourself a tally mark and see if you can get to five.” Giving kids a goal for how many problems that they can check on their own makes something arduous a little easier.