T. Atilla Ceranoglu, M.D.

Helping smart kids with poor grades

Being a parent is a tough job. But being a child is not altogether easy, either.

Children are often under pressure. Parents and teachers expect complete homework, good grades, obedience and respect while the fun stuff such as playing with friends almost always comes 'after homework is finished.'  What then follows is a series of behaviors (refusing to do homework) and a host of excuses for these behaviors (losing homework list, etc.). Frustrations ensue. Parents may feel an urge to provide consequences to ensure their child is studying well and getting good grades. Yet, all the trials with restrictions, grounding, etc. often lead to more frustration and are met with a stubborn resistance. Seldom successes come in the expense of the child's enjoyment and are short lived. Soon, the poor grades and incomplete homework dominate home life and sucks the fun out.  

The cause for a child to underachieve may be biologic. We know that some  children have difficulty in participating fully in conventional or mainstream methods of learning such as listening in class, reading an assignment and doing homework. These children may also have a difficulty in focusing and sustaining their attention while staying calm and not fidgeting. A more hands on teaching style where information is broken down and delivered in small portions may be all they need.

For other children, the underachievement may be the result of a barrier in communicating with their parents. Following two points about child development are often relevant:

     Children are not little people with adult brains.  A child does not have all the skills necessary to plan ahead of time. Ability to plan is a culmination of different skills: Setting up goals and prioritizing among them, avoiding or eliminating distractions, identifying inner emotional states and commanding self to start working no matter in what frame of mind one is at the

     Children assume the values of their parents.  These values are transferred by constant reactions and responses to the child's behaviors or achievements.  Which successes do you acknowledge? Do you favor some areas over others? Do you comment a good grade in history or math the same? How about comparing to gym class? Children pick up the differences in reactions of a parent and over time assume them as their own.

If you have a child who is underachieving, then what are you to do? Before anything, first prepare yourself for a long ride.  If your child is underachieving, the change you may be expecting in grades is often slow to come.  So, be patient. Here are 7 things you can do to help your child:

First of all, avoid using grades as a basis for your child's efforts and intellect. In case of a good grade, praise the effort, not the grade, because in case of a poor grade, it will imply to the child that he is 'dumb.' Nor say something like “See?  If you study, you get good grades.” No one likes to hear 'told you so' at any time, be it good or bad.     

Remember, grades are not altogether in your child's control. Afterall, he may decide what to study, when to study, where to study, even how to study.  But it is not your child who is preparing the questions, or who is grading them.  So,   focus on things that your child can control then you are for a good start.  

Find out what your child does well, then emphasize them. If it is the failures that you keep finding, that will lead to resentment for both of you and your child, and then build a barrier between the two of you. Does you child enjoy sailing? Good at soccer? Then sign them up for a sailing program, or a soccer team, and take your time in driving to these. Enjoy a sailing trip where your child takes over the helm. A sense of mastery is very important for a child and quickly spreads over to other activities.

Hold important conversation with your child while you're doing something else together. A perfect way to do is to play or do chores together. Kids talk much easier when they are busy with something they enjoy.

When you think about spending time with your child or rewarding, remember the best reward is not necessarily the biggest reward. Small rewards can be much more powerful. Frequent small rewards are way more powerful than occasional big rewards. What is the biggest reward which also happens to be cheapest?  Attention.      

Accept and acknowledge your mistakes and share your experiences. Knowing that you too can make mistakes but work to fix them is a very powerful message to your child. How you survived your past failures also helps your child to understand that a failure is not necessarily final.

Finally, it is not uncommon for a child to complain that a particular teacher does not like him. Guess what:  It may be true!  Even if it is not true, the child still feels desperate and wants to know that he is taken seriously.  Let your child finish before dismissing or minimizing the  complaint.  When finished, redirect his thinking towards a more constructive approach.  You can ask: “Ok.  Let's say that you are right that Ms. Rose hates boys and favors girls. What can you do to minimize the damage?” Such a question frees the child from having to defend his position and start to focus on other