Grades Detective: Investigating Your Child’s Report Card

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When it comes to a student’s grades, book smarts are only part of the equation. There are many reasons why a child could be having difficulty in school, and the list has gotten even longer during the last two years, according to Dr. Maria Zimmitti, Founder and Clinical Director at Georgetown Psychology. 
 
“Low grades can have numerous causes, including learning differences, attentional disorders, anxiety, depression, trauma, problems with peers, etc.,” explained Zimmitti. “With the pandemic, I frequently work with students who have lost academic footing due to emotional factors. Youth are experiencing high rates of anxiety and depression globally, and that affects school performance.”
 
So, what are the possible reasons behind the grades on your child’s latest report card? In this blog, we’ll help you turn into a grades detective to investigate some of the reasons that could be impacting your child’s academic performance. Then, learn how you can help!

Are my child’s grades dropping because of missed class time? 

If your child was doing well in school before the pandemic but has experienced a sudden drop in achievement, recent disruptions including prolonged virtual classes, quarantines, teacher shortages, and transitioning back to in-person learning could be to blame. 
 
Dr. Rebecca Resnik, a licensed Psychologist and Present-Elect of the Maryland Psychological Association, says it’s difficult for kids to just pick back up where they left off in March of 2020. 
 
“Kids may need a lot more review to get back to a level of full understanding or return to their previous level of efficiency,” said Resnik. “Young brains are highly plastic, and they are quick to recycle neurons/circuits that are not getting used or are under-used.” 
 
For instance, this could be especially evident with subjects like math or reading. 
 
“Complex skills such as how to solve a long division problem or early reading/decoding skills fade very fast. We cannot assume that just because a child learned a skill, and could do it at one point, that their brain has been able to hold on to that skill,” Resnik explained.  

Is stress causing my child’s grades to slip? 

Any type of stress can impact a child’s performance in school, and Zimmitti says that certainly includes Covid-related stressors.  
 
“When children are anxious and stressed, it impairs their prefrontal cortex which is responsible for many aspects of the learning process. They struggle to regulate their attention, initiate and complete academic tasks, shift between tasks, store information in memory, and engage in flexible thinking,” Zimmitti explained. “Our kids need us to listen and validate how challenging it is to be a student these days. Now more than ever, we need to prioritize mental health.”

Why does my child seem so disorganized or unmotivated? 

unmotivated student

If you’re noticing that your child is having trouble paying attention, completing assignments on time, or staying organized, it could be a sign they are lacking adequate executive function skills. These issues, if not addressed, can easily lead to lower grades
 
“It is a mistake to assume that a child ‘does not care’ or is actively choosing to fail,” explained Resnik. “As parents and educators, we are quick to think that children are making choices with a full understanding of what is likely to be the outcome. Kids, even very smart kids, are immature. They not only don’t make great predictions about the consequences of their choices, they have a tough time understanding how to fix problems.”  
 
Since children do not naturally develop executive function skills, they need to be taught ways to manage their time, get organized, and study effectively. Simple strategies like using planners and setting small goals can make a dramatic difference in a child’s academic success.  
 
If your child needs constant reminders to get started, focus, and finish, they could benefit from an executive function coach, who can provide accountability and teach the life skills they need to succeed in and out of the classroom. 

My child seems to be putting in the effort, so why are they still struggling?

If your child’s grades do not seem to match the effort you see them put in, it could be a sign they have an undiagnosed learning difficulty and could benefit from a professional evaluation
 
But something simpler, like ineffective study habits or a lack of notetaking skills, could also cause grades to slip.

We have some practical tips to try at home in our blog, 12 Habits Of Successful Students

How grades can impact a child’s mental health 

No matter the reasons behind your child’s grades, Resnik says it is important to remember that many children do want to please their parents and teachers
 
“Young people tend to take outward signs of success, like grades, friends or accomplishments, as indicators of their self-worth. For a kid who is struggling, the impact on self-concept can be devastating,” she explained. 
 
Above all, focusing only on the letters on your child’s report card, instead of working to address the bigger issues, can cause lasting harm. 
 
“Waiting to see if a problem fixes itself makes no sense with kids, it just costs you valuable time to turn the Titanic,” explained Resnik. “Getting professional help from someone who can give your child their full, undivided attention is critical.”  

How can parents become a grades detective and help?

parent conversation grades detective

Zimmitti says the best thing you can do for your child is talk to them. And let them know you’re always there for them. 
 
“If your child receives a low grade, ask them how they feel about it with curiosity and kindness. Relate to them and share a time when you received a low grade in school. Ask them if there is anything you can do to support them. If it is one grade, support and let it go. If it’s a pattern, talk to teachers to help understand the ‘why,’” Zimmitti said.  
 
And Resnik recommends bringing in backup, as needed, to help your child succeed and to alleviate your family’s stress. 
 
“This is where the wisdom of a caring tutor helps a lot. Parent-child interactions about low grades are rarely helpful— they are so emotionally charged. They tend to devolve into frustration or even power struggles,” explained Resnik. “Kids do best with a calm, professional mentor who can teach them the soft skills needed to course-correct and do better next time.” 

Could your child benefit from personalized one-to-one attention from a subject tutor or executive function coach