Report card season is meant as judgment day for kids, but in many cases it is the parents who come under scrutiny -- most notably by the kids themselves.
How a parent reacts can bring a kid's self-esteem up or knock it down, can encourage them to put forth more effort or to become complacent and can send strong messages about priorities, values and dealing with being judged.
In a Jewish community where academic pressure is high, keeping things in focus during report card season is essential. Positive and specific feedback, goal-setting and, above all, open communication -- among the parent, the student and the school -- is essential.
"When the report card comes the parent should ask themselves a few questions and have a good conversation with their child," advised Ronni Ephraim, chief instructional officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). "The first thing you have to ask yourself is 'do I have good communication with my school?' and 'what can I do as a parent?' and 'what can I ask my school to do better to help me understand where my child is before I get the news in the mail?'"
Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, head of school at Temple Emanuel Day School in Beverly Hills, said most schools today see the report card as one part of an ongoing narrative of the child's social and academic progress through the school year, with conferences, progress reports and as-needed phone calls or meetings laying the context for what comes in the mail.
But even if the grade comes as no surprise, seeing the concrete letter or number on an official slip of paper acts as an important moment in a child's school year, and knowing how to interpret the grade is essential.
"If a child is far behind, you need to ask why," Ephraim said. "Are they doing their homework, are they attending class, are they attentive when they are in class, are they working as hard as they can? Depending on those answers, the parent knows how to engage with the school and the child."
If effort and assiduousness don't seem to be the issue, look to things such as the child's emotional and physical health, where she sits and what her learning style is and work out a plan with the school and the student to bring things to a better level, Ephraim said.
Mapping those strategies out before the report card actually comes can soften the blow of a bad grade.
Parents also need to be realistic about their expectations.
"A lot of parents want their children to do better then they did and are pushing them harder because of their own issues, but they are pushing past what a child is capable of handling," said Dr. Deborah Cutter, a family therapist who has taught classes in positive parenting.
But when a child is performing below his capability, Cutter advised letting the child know that while you expect better, your support and love is unconditional.
"You want to have an environment where the child can feel comfortable communicating and that they understand that you are there to support them no matter what," Cutter said. "You don't want to put the child on the defensive, because they are not going to listen and just shut you out."
Even when a child is doing well, let him or her know that maintaining that standard will take more work as the material gets more challenging.
"I think it is really important to celebrate good grades, but to always set new goals," Ephraim said. "A grade is just a grade in time."
Cutter said the old-fashioned idea of rewards for grades hasn't lost its power.
"I've found that using behavior modification with children really works," she said, for example, offering $5 or $10 per "A" for older kids or a trip to the toy store for younger kids.
Any punishments, Cutter said, should be a natural consequence. For example, if a child has procrastinated on a report because she was instant-messaging all night, limit computer privileges.
Schools are working to make sure that parents know more about what is going on with their children.
At Emanuel, marks are very specific, so rather than a generic math grade, children get marks in things like addition, subtraction and fractions.
Like many other schools -- including LAUSD elementary schools -- Emanuel has moved to a one-through-four number system.
LAUSD ties those grades to the standards set out by the state, so that if a child gets a four (exceeds the standards) or a two (partially meets the standards) a parent can go to www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ and www.lausd.k12.ca.us/lausd/offices/instruct/standards, and see what specific academic criteria the child is or isn't meeting. (Colleges expect letter grades, so high schools are still on the A-F scale.)
Going from letters to numbers also reduced the number of marks from five (A, B, C, D, F) to four, eliminating the default grade of C.
"You are either meeting or not meeting standards," Ephraim said. "The middle-of-the-road grade was taken out."
Whether report card day means a celebratory dinner or lots of slammed doors, Ephraim advises parents and kids to keep things in perspective.
"We have to be sensible about it and know that these kids have a long life of grades ahead of them, from kindergarten, through high school and even in college," she said (speaking more as a Jewish mother than an educational professional, she admits). "We have to be careful about how we react to those grades in a way that doesn't harm their self-esteem and at the same time that doesn't let them be lazy. It's a fine balance, and that is what parenting is about."
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