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The Dreaded Report Card

The Dreaded Report Card

“A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel.”
- This was according to The Missing Golden Ticket and Other Splendiferous Secrets, where the celebrated author Roald Dahl’ remembers how he was taken to task by by one of his disapproving teachers.

I have had my fair share of bad report cards. While I don’t clearly remember resorting to evasive, or simply duplicitous, measures (hiding report cards, changing letter grades, etc), I do remember being overcome by dread and loathing on the day report cards were distributed, and sincerely wanting to crawl into a hole where there were no grades or judgment to find me. What report card day meant in my house, was that inevitably there was going to be some sort of digressive talk – the kind of talk that was filled with rhetorical questions, but with very few answers. In my personal story, I don’t have any lessons of uplift or enlightenment to pass along, just coping skills to get through a handful of very uncomfortable and disquieting times.

Seeing as it is report card time for many (if not most) of the K -12 set, I felt inclined to start up a dialogue, of sorts, on the subject of report cards, and how they are received and/or dealt with. Ultimately, the report card is about two things for a child: approval and/or failure. Sure there are gray areas in between running the gamut from minor disappointment to relief, but the report card, however useful it may be in determining academic achievement and identifying trouble spots (for the parents), is a source of much anxiety and trepidation.

If the report card is bad, then it is fair to say that evasive tactics and procrastination will not help anyone, whether they are the parent or student. While the report card stands as an almost inarguable record of academic performance, the letter grades that fill the page are not the last word. A conversation between parent(s) and child (and sometimes it helps to get the teacher in there) is essential, but it should be a conversation, rather than a lecture or a forum to express dismay. Easier said than done, I know, but as parents, we must be sensitive to the fact that this sort of judgment (being hammered down from authority figures) has an emotional impact, regardless of how much of a screw up the student seems to be.

On the other side of the coin, there is the, seemingly less urgent, problem of too much acclaim and reward. A child who delivers the coveted report card with all A’s, and receives an overabundance of praise, will also receive a temporary boost of self-confidence, but might also internalize the achievement. Meaning, excellence becomes the standard, and intertwined with the identity of the child. Granted, this feels like a far more preferable problem to have, but still praise, like condemnation, can be a bit of a dangerous thing.

As might be apparent, I have no real answers, but am appealing to those of you who might. How do you deal with bad report cards in your house? How do you contend with good report cards? Is it fair to punish a child if expectations are not met, but they clearly tried their hardest? Does punishment ever work? Is there such a thing as too much praise when dealing with academic achievement? Is the report card just a symptom of a larger problem?

Read more: Children, Family, Healthy Schools, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

35 comments

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6:10PM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

Thanks

5:50AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

Thanks for the info.

1:53PM PST on Dec 19, 2010

something to think about!

12:40PM PST on Dec 11, 2010

Thanks.

1:07AM PST on Dec 5, 2010

Noted...thanx

2:58PM PST on Nov 23, 2010

Teachers seem to occasionally forget, when heaping various remarked "coals" of description on the heads of a low achiever, that they may be inadvertently critiquing their own teaching ability. Not that they really are, but it gives parents ammunition to fire back with. I hated Amity ville schools, I was so bored with it, I ignored the lessons and was in constant "hot water." It was worse at home where being the only, I feel tragically unplanned for product of a couple old enough to be my grandparents, I caught all sorts of psychological and mental 'hell.' The only reason I graduated high school at all, was that a Navy order for the fleet forced the teachers to write final tests for me, and boy, were they mad! In the long run they probably figured it best to get rid of me then. The school tried to declare me mentally unfit, but a NY State psychiatrist declared my IQ higher than the Schools Superintendent, so I had to stay for test. At 17 I found the navy full of sexual deviants, and idiots in charge. I switched to the Air Force, and retired after 20 years, into civilian careers. I began college, and sent for my required transcripts. 'Amitvile' returned an unreadable Ozalid copy, and the second time sent a duplicate, with apologies, they couldn't do better. I wasn't surprised, it typified my whole experience there. Eventually I earned a BSE and MSE in horology, so, I feel I was a bad student, partially because of Amity. School. Syst,! The rest was me. No motivation!

10:54AM PST on Nov 22, 2010

Montessori may not be for every parent, although I believe that the methods, properly applied in the classroom and adequately supported at home by parents, are well suited for almost any child. In any case, it does exemplify a carefully constructed, thoroughly researched, and proven effective system of education without the need for the external approval/judgment mechanism of grades. Children who learn self-motivation and don't have to struggle to learn that vital skill later in life--when you recognize early the inherent satisfaction of a job well done, the need for others' approval to validate your efforts diminishes considerably.

Reggio-Emilia is another, more recently designed system of holistic (i.e., whole-environment; meaning careful attention is paid not just to the curriculum but also to the aesthetic and functional design of buildings, classrooms, materials, and outdoor surroundings), child-centered education focused on growing creative, vibrant, healthy individuals instead of unthinkingly obedient, approval-hungry kids who are especially well-schooled in standardized-test-taking.

I do realize, of course, that plenty of creative, vibrant, healthy individuals come out of our public and traditional private schools. But unfortunately, as it stands, that's not the system's overarching goal.

3:28PM PST on Nov 21, 2010

I always got As and Bs effortlessly – except for math – I had to actually put some effort into that. I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of kids struggle with math and I think it is the way the subject is taught. My mom paid me for As on report cards (not a lot) and was never upset over lower grades (although I was). I always just tell my kids to do their best without stressing out. Excelling is its own motivation. They’ll voluntarily do extra work to bring a B up to an A. I don’t have to say anything.

Regarding the social issue: if others don’t like a kid who gets good grades it’s not really about the grades. The grades are just an excuse. Because of my grades I was grouped academically with the “smart” ones. But socially I hung out with the cool ones and was often emulated. Social standing depends a lot on confidence and how you treat others.

2:18PM PST on Nov 19, 2010

I always hated report cards don't think they radically show how all kids learn,but our education system has just plain failed our children and really needs a overhaul/reform no kid should graduate not knowing the basics.....

1:55PM PST on Nov 19, 2010

Computer froze up on me before I could add the second half of the comment (sometimes I REALLY hate dial-up!).

A's and B's get a small reward, ranging from a day off from chores to us splurging on a small present at the stores to getting to hang out at a friend's house that afternoon (if it's on a Friday, school days have early evenings). Our younger daughter isn't in kindergarten yet, but I plan to take the same approach with her-small rewards for good grades and no punishment for bad grades unless it's because the bad grades are actually their fault!

As far as punishing a kid for bad grades even when you know they did their darndest, I think it's a VERY bad idea. I used to study my butt off only to flunk tests and get C's and D's on my report card, and getting punished for that just made me even more frustrated. After a while, I would think "Why bother knocking myself out if I'm just gonna wind up in the doghouse again anyway?"

Bad grades that are the result of slacking off or not completing the assignments, however...that's another story! In those instances, punishment is definitely justified!

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