Bad Grades Can Be Contagious

If a child comes home with just one D or F, sometimes parents say, “Well, that’s just in math, and math has never been his thing.” Watch out. A single bad grade can spread across your child’s report card, affecting other subjects as well. Here are four ways we’ve seen it happen.

  1. The spill-over effect. If your child is struggling with reading comprehension, it comes as no surprise that he may fail his math test when there are word problems involved. This is particularly hurtful because the child may feel that they have been robbed of a good grade, not because they didn’t study, but because they have trouble in a completely different area. And they would be right.
  2. The subject causing the struggle may begin to eat up a disproportionate amount of time, competing with other subjects for a student’s limited time and energy. If your student spends most of the night every night wrestling with Algebra homework, their English or Biology grade will likely suffer as well.
  3. The constant struggle may lead to feelings of failure and a subsequent loss of motivation. A few years ago we met Patricia, a bubbly and intelligent 14 year old. Well, bubbly until her parents mentioned her grades. Straight D's and F's. Then she was very serious, even subdued. Her parents said she could do better, that she had always had A's and B's except for math. Now, suddenly this year everything fell apart. I asked if I could speak with just Patricia for a moment so that she would feel to speak freely. Her parents said yes, they were more than willing to let someone else take a crack at figuring this out.

    I asked her about what her parents had said to me, and said I didn’t understand what had suddenly changed. She looked at me with sad eyes, and said, “ My mom and dad are right, I could bring up my other grades if I tried. But I’m going to get an F in Geometry no matter what. So one F or five, what difference does it make? No college wants me. I’m a failure.” And now it was clear why her grades had dropped so quickly.
  4. The fourth way that bad grades can be contagious is a little more subtle. When a student starts to struggle, sometimes they feel intimidated by their friends who are doing great. They may even start to spend time with other friends who are also struggling. In actual fact, a student may unwittingly develop a new friend group that discusses things like how much they hate school and can’t wait to get out of there forever. It amounts to developing a support group of friends with the same struggles, but unfortunately it also encourages the student to avoid the single most important goal they need to achieve at their age – getting an education

Grade Retention (Holding Back) Can Hurt Your Child

What? How can a time tested method like that hurt my child? Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of recent, unbiased research not only fails to support this practice, but has uncovered dangers to children that were previously little understood. Consider this excerpt from the National Association of School Psychologists, the largest organization of school psychologists in the United States.

Effects of grade retention. The body of research on retention indicates that:

  • Initial academic improvements may occur during the year the student is retained. However, many research studies show that achievement gains decline within 2–3 years of retention. This means that over time, children who were retained either do not show higher achievement, or sometimes show lower achievement than similar groups of children who were not retained. Without specific interventions, most retained students do not catch up.
  • In adolescence, retained students are more likely to experience problems such as poor interactions with peers, disliking school, behavior problems, and lower self-esteem.
  • Students who were retained are 5–11 times more likely to drop out of school. The probability is even higher for students who are retained more than once. Actually, grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school drop out.
  • For most students, grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (e.g., reading, math, and oral and written language) and social and emotional adjustment (e.g., peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).
  • A study of sixth graders’ perceptions indicated that they consider retention as one of the most stressful life events. This means students see being held back as being on the same level of stress as going blind or losing a parent.
  • Retention may help students who have missed many days of school, but only if their attendance improves and if the child will not be considerably older than the other students. At this time, however, there are no specific indicators that predict which children could benefit from retention.

Incidentally, we are not affiliated with the NASP. We have found, however, that their research mirrors our own findings and the personal testimonies of many of the parents whom we have met over the years. After over a quarter of a century in the education industry, I have still never met an adult who was glad they had been held back as a child. Like one father told me, “I know people say it’s a good idea, but it’s different when it happens to you.”

Stress Can Interrupt Learning in a Way You’d Never Expect

While everyone knows too much stress has bad health implications, not everyone knows that stress has another effect: When a person experiences high levels of stress, it actually chemically blocks memory formation. Put simply, it keeps your child from learning. So when you sit down to do homework with your child, if the tension builds to the point where you end up snapping at her and she ends up crying, it’s not her fault if the learning grinds to a halt. Despite your best efforts to be patient and her genuinely trying to learn, as soon as stress comes into the equation, the learning stops. Your child is not being lazy or failing to concentrate. The stress is blocking her learning in a way that she can’t control.

Homework can be ineffective or even counterproductive

With schools under more and more pressure to improve testing scores nowadays, homework is not going to go away. That’s a bit of a conundrum, though, when you consider that modern, well designed studies repeatedly show no correlation, much less causation, between doing homework and performing better on either tests or report cards. That’s particularly true for elementary school students. Unfortunately, by the time students reach high school, when they may actually benefit from doing homework, they often find themselves overloaded. Research indicates that high school students doing more than 2 hours of homework on a given night actually experience negative results.

By the way, this is not to say teachers are being mean and deliberately assigning tons of homework! What we’re talking about is a student who is struggling, say with Algebra II, and the homework that they should be able to do in 30 minutes drags on to 2 or 3 hours. If they still have Chemistry and English waiting, there are no bad guys here, there is just one exhausted, overwhelmed student.

Labeling Can Harm Your Child’s Identity

If you’re thinking this one sounds scary, you are correct. The truth is, a person’s identity is potentially the single strongest force that influences their actions. If you think of yourself as a hard worker, you’ll probably get a lot done. If you think of yourself as a social butterfly, you probably have a lot of friends. Whatever labels you use to identify yourself will have a powerful effect on how you act. This can be a good thing. Unfortunately, it can also be a bad thing.

Imagine the damage done if a child labels himself as “the dumb one”. We have had many students tell us “I’m a slow learner”. And we have had a teary-eyed college freshman explain to us why she had come home just a few weeks into the first semester: “My counselor at school said I’m retarded”. (No, her counselor had not said that. She had been told, however, that she “might qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act”, which to her meant the same thing.)

Understand, students don’t just make these things up or occasionally overhear them. Frustrated adults can accidentally say things that might be misinterpreted. One student took his report card out of the mail, hid it, and then denied it when he was later questioned. His mother said she feared for his moral character as much as for his grades. When he tried to downplay it and said it was no big deal, she looked him straight in the eye and said, “You are a liar. I asked you where it was and you said you didn’t know.” Her intention was not to label him as a liar, but rather to let him know that she was worried about him and willing to do whatever it took to make that dishonest behavior stop. The look on his face said the label was the last word he heard before he quit listening.

If Your Child Won’t Pay Attention, It Probably Isn’t ADD

With all the media hype this may sound incredible, but it’s true. First off, only about 5% of all children are actually diagnosed as having ADD, so your child has a 95% chance of not having it. If you consider that the chances of misdiagnosis may disqualify many of those so diagnosed, the chances drop even lower.

Consider this. The diagnostic instrument used in the United States to determine if a child has ADD has been the DSM IV (it is currently being replaced by the DSM V). In Europe, a different diagnostic tool is used – the IDC 10. Here’s the disturbing news. If you took all the students in the U.S. between 6 and 17 years old who have been diagnosed with ADD and used the IDC 10 to come up with your diagnosis instead, 2/3 of them would not be considered ADD! Somebody’s got to be wrong here.

Even stranger, in a study to determine how best to treat the symptoms of ADD, a large set of subjects was split into several groups. One group did nothing new. One group started medication. And one group of children was given no medication but instead were allowed to roam around a park with no structured activities for 30 minutes a day. Their improvement in the ability to focus was almost the same as those children put on medication!

So how is this a Hidden Danger? Well, truth be told, the number one response to an ADD diagnosis is to begin medication. But if ADD is not the real cause, then of course medication won’t be the real solution. Yes, we’ve all see the commercials on TV where the boy with bad grades begins taking that little white pill, and the next thing you know he’s popping in the door with A's on his report card. But parents have told us time and time again that not only did it fail to solve the problem, it inadvertently set their child up to fail. Long story short – it’s probably not ADD.

Your Child’s Self-Confidence Begins to be Eroded Immediately

When a student attempts to learn something new, there is always some lag time. That is only natural. However, when a child tries repeatedly to master a new skill and despite their best efforts they do not make progress, their self-confidence comes under fire. As soon as they start making comparisons between themselves others, saying things like “Everyone else in class can already do it, but I can’t” then you should be aware that they are already suffering internally. The more this goes on, the more their self-confidence will be eroded and they will start to feel unwilling to try again. Not out of laziness. Out of humiliation and frustration. Out of the (incorrect) belief that they’re just not good enough to overcome this new challenge. Sadly, this can take place in a surprisingly short period of time.

Your Child’s Self-Esteem Can Drop Permanently

To fully appreciate the magnitude of this hidden danger, take just a moment and remember back when you were a child. Think of an adult in your life who thought you were just the best thing since peanut butter. Now picture a very happy, successful moment when you had accomplished something and that adult was telling you how proud they were of you. You were amazing. You were awesome. You were so smart, or such a fast runner, or so beautiful! Imagine that scene for just a moment, and pay attention to your feelings as you picture those memories. Don’t you get the same warm feelings in your heart that you did back then? Feelings of self-worth, of being loved, of being valuable just because you were loved. That’s the basis of our self-esteem.

Now the other side of that coin. If your child spots a momentary look of disappointment on your face, when she hears that irritated tone in her father’s voice when she gets the problem wrong again, when it’s never her report card up on the refrigerator, or when the awards she gets at school are always for attendance and kindness, not for academics, how will she feel? (One student told us he didn’t want those awards because “Those are the dumb people awards.”) If a person truly feels, based upon very real life experiences, that they can’t really do anything of value, how will they ever build self-esteem? The truth is they won’t.

Cutting Out Sports and Other Activities Can Make Things Worse

When sports and other structured enrichment activities are cut due to poor progress in school, the result can be depression, weight gain, and the replacement of healthy habits with activities are neutral or even unhealthy and can make matters worse. Unfortunately, this is a very real danger. For a child who is struggling in school, sports, music, dance and other similar structured activities can help that child feel capable and confident even when their school struggles are hurting their self-perception.

When these successful extracurricular activities are taken away, the last means of shoring up a child’s self-esteem is removed as well. The result can be feelings of despair or depression, and the resulting inactivity can lead to decreased fitness and increasing weight. And surprising new research even indicates that exercise is a key component in the way the body and brain interact to make learning possible.

To make matters worse, when beneficial, structured activities are lost, free time that would have been invested in healthy pursuits is then often directed towards other neutral or even unhealthy activities. How many children in America really need to watch more TV? With regard to video games, a landmark study of over 3000 children showed that their ability to sustain focus dropped significantly when they began to spend more time playing video games.

If All This Sounds Alarming…Well, it should be. But remember an alarm is not there scare us. It’s there to warn us that there’s a problem. And the more we know about a problem, the better equipped we are to solve it.
There are real solutions to every one of the hidden dangers described above.

What You Can Do

Nine Questions To Ask

  1. How many kids who are great at math will get an F just be make their parents mad?
  2. How many students who are at the top of their class get held back?
  3. How many people feel a ton of stress about doing something they do easily and well?
  4. How many students are overwhelmed by homework that feels easy and turns out right?
  5. How many children who love reading deliberately stop while reading a great story?
  6. How many kids with A's and B's get removed from a sports team due to a low GPA?
  7. How many students lack confidence doing something they can do easily and accurately?
  8. How many students who are proud of their grades feel like they can do nothing of value?
  9. How many kids who say, “I’m smart now!” still label themselves as “the dumb one”?

What we have found to be the most powerful remedy to all the dangers listed is to employ a clear, structured instructional strategy that deals with the real underlying cause to the struggles and at the same time gently diffuses the negative emotions that have built up. This allows the student to build up positive feelings that are based upon real-life experiences, and the stress, fear, and self-doubt quite simply go away as a natural result.

Okay, so what does that mean in practice? Well, it means that the teaching will be most effective when it’s done one-on-one. If a student is working with an instructor and even one other student is there, the student will only get about half of the teacher’s attention. With two other students, it drops to one third of the attention. In an hour, this means the student would actually only get about 20 minutes of help even though they were sitting there for a full hour. Further, if another student is there, your own child will typically become cautious, not wanting to give answers that might sound silly or not wanting to read out loud because they feel inept. The safer the student feels, the faster the learning will take place.

It also means that the teacher will need to be thoroughly trained in both Instructional Scaffolding and Emotional Scaffolding. Instructional Scaffolding is a term that describes teaching in which the instructor begins by giving the student as much help as necessary, and then eases back with each successive step and has the student do more and more of the process independently until the student can do it on their own. A typical description of this is, “I do, you watch. I do, you help. You do, I help. You do, I watch.” Emotional Scaffolding is a process by which the instructor safeguards the student’s feelings, creating a safe environment in which to learn. When a student accomplishes a task successfully, it is important to help the student to focus on what they did right and how to remember to do it that way next time as well. However, if the teacher asks, “How did you get that answer?” most students will immediately backtrack, thinking they have it wrong and try to come up with another response. If, instead, the teacher says, “Yes! That’s right. Nice job. Now, how did you figure it out?” then the student will immediately feel success, then focus on how they can repeat that positive outcome. This is just one example, there are many such phrasings, and they should be studied, role-played and come naturally all throughout the learning period.

Lest we go into too many details, you can probably see by now that there is a great deal to the process if it is to be done effectively. So let’s skip to the end and look at exactly how each of these dangers can be eliminated. It comes to this:

When students enhance their underlying skills to the point where they can easily do the work they are being assigned, in virtually every case we have ever encountered, the students suddenly show a tremendous boost in their grades, focus, motivation, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-image. When this happens, their risk of being held back disappears, along with their stress and worry (not to mention the stress and worry felt by parents), and their newfound ability gives them back their free time to either participate in structured activities or maybe to just be a carefree kid again.

Sound too good to be true? You be the judge. For each danger, ask yourself the following questions.

Add up all your answers. The total should be zero. And that zero represents all that is left of these dangers when they are dealt with properly.

If your child is struggling, it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. It can, and should, stop now. Please don’t hesitate to call, even if you live too far away or can’t attend for some other reason. If we can help, we will. Sometimes one of the most important steps is for a confused and frustrated parent to finally have a chance to see what is going on and how they can get their child help.

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