Dear Dr. Michelle:
My 7th grade daughter has failing grades in several classes. This has been a problem for several years. We have taken her phone away many times, and while that does persuade her to complete her homework, it does not last, and the bad grades continue. It’s a constant battle. What can we do to help her manage herself and change this behavior for good?
I am sorry to hear that your daughter is struggling in school. It can be disheartening and frustrating as a parent, so it is good you are trying to find effective ways to help her.
When school is an issue for youth, start by managing your own expectations. School problems usually take more time to change and often need ongoing support and intervention, sometimes over several years. If you hold on to an expectation that your daughter will resolve this quickly, and she does not, your frustration will only grow. If you can come to terms with the fact that your involvement will be necessary on an ongoing basis and treat this like a long game, it will help you to pace yourself and accept your ongoing involvement as part of your daily parenting.
Let’s break down the four areas that need the most attention:
1. Set Expectations
Start by having a conversation with your daughter about your expectations for her homework being completed and turned in on time, and the minimal grades she must carry. For instance, are you expecting a minimum of B’s or C’s? I recommend avoiding the expectation for straight A’s. This may feel unattainable to your daughter and could cause her to give up or shut down. You may feel you have already set these expectations, but I recommend having the conversation again.
In addition, prepare your daughter for the fact that you will be staying very involved in her school performance and that your involvement will only lighten up once she demonstrates consistent improvement.
2. Daily Parental Involvement
Rearrange your family schedule so that every day, your daughter presents her homework and discusses any quizzes or tests with you. Praise her when things are completed and create a plan with her when assignments are off course. Make sure that every week you are reviewing her grades so that you are aware of the necessary interventions required. In addition, make yourself available to support her when she is completing homework so that you can help solve problems or redirect her as needed.
Be sure to make observations about other issues that might be going on in your daughter’s life and rule out friendship issues, bullying, self-esteem concerns, identity questions, etc. that might be distracting her and making it difficult for her to focus on schoolwork. If you suspect there could emotional or mental health issues at play, like depression, then explore therapy to assess the need for more support.
3. Partner With the School
Set up a meeting with your daughter’s teachers. Ask each teacher about her positive performance and her challenges for each class, not just those in which she is struggling. Perhaps you will learn something about her success in one class that can be transferred over to others.
Find out about her behavior in each class and ask about her capacity and ability to do the work. Assess with each teacher if the grades are related to a skill deficit or a lack of will. In other words, does she struggle with the cognitive ability to comprehend and do the work or is she just not applying herself.
If there is a skill deficit, ask for education testing, and based on the results, follow up with the necessary services, such as specialized tutoring. If it is a will issue, this is best handled through managing her behavior, which we will continue to address in this article.
Be aware that in many cases, a skill deficit and a lack of will can be tied together, one feeding into the other. So be sure to address “both sides of the same coin” and don’t think of her problems as being all one or the other.
For the classes with the greater need, create regular and ongoing communication with those teachers. This will put you in a position to be aware of immediate issues as they emerge so that you can address them quickly. At the same time, you will be able to immediately praise her accomplishments and successes, even if they are small.
At the beginning of a new school year meet your daughter’s teachers and learn about their style and expectations so you can prepare your daughter for how to manage unique teacher characteristics. Inform her teachers what they can do to help your daughter be successful. Be sure to tell them that you will be monitoring your daughter’s school performance closely and ask them if they would be willing to send you a message or call if there are problems.
4. Establish Child Responsibility
Teach your daughter about the concept of “work before play,” meaning that we don’t “play” until our “work” is done. For your daughter, her “work” includes completing homework and having passing grades. Help her understand that she will no longer be able to play until her work is completed. Be sure you identify all things that are considered “play,” things like the privilege to use her phone, parents buying her things, hanging out with friends, or using electronics.
Help your daughter understand that if her grades are up and her homework is completed, she will be able to have her privileges and “play.” If grades are below expectations and/or her work is incomplete, she will not have her privileges until expectations are met.
The key to this working is immediately reinstating all privileges once the grades are up and/or the work is turned in. You want your daughter to understand that she is in control of when she gets her privileges. If she refuses to do the work, she is choosing to not have her privileges. However, if she chooses to complete her work, all privileges are reinstated immediately.
Because your daughter might cycle through rough spots and could go a week or two where she has no privileges, you will want to decide ahead of time what larger events may count as privileges lost when performance is down. For instance, are special outings going to be lost, attending a friend’s birthday party, an invite to join a friend on a shopping or sporting event, a family vacation, attending team practices, games, or youth groups. Make the decision that is best for your family and be sure you only include events that you know you will have the heart to take away if the time comes.
Do not expect these tactics to work right away. Your daughter will need to see that you are serious and that you have the capacity to follow up and follow through. She will most likely need the experience of losing privileges and then gaining them back to realize the choice is in her hands. Once you get through this cycle a few times, it will come more naturally. Your involvement will become a natural part of your parenting, and your daughter will know what to expect and will follow your lead more readily.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
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