Black Boy studying

Dear Mother Wit,

My sixth grader came home with a D in math and a C in science and I’m mad as hell about it. He always got As and Bs in school, but now he’s messing up his grades and acting like he doesn’t want to be bothered with his homework. When I was little, a whooping would be just the kick we needed to get the grades right, and if my kid comes into this house with another D, I might just go old school on him. But I don’t want to see another bad grade on his report card. How do I get him to get his grades up before the next marking period? — Frustrated School Mom

Dear Frustrated School Mom,

First of all, know this: hitting your son or taking away privileges for bad grades won’t magically make him get A’s.  You can’t beat good grades into him and never in the history of history has it ever been documented that a few well-timed, well-placed slaps will up a kid’s understanding of math and science.

What works?  Getting to the root of the problem—finding out why he’s all of a sudden not understanding or doing the work—then helping him fix what’s wrong.

Here’s what you have to remember: your son went through some big changes this school year.  He’s in middle school, which means he’s in a different, bigger building than the one he attended for all his young life, he’s rolling with new teachers he doesn’t know and who have different teaching styles than elementary instructors, and he’s navigating a new, more complicated schedule and a new student body that may include a lot of kids he’s never been around before.  Plus, he’s smack dab in the middle of adolescence: hormones are raging, puberty is turning his body inside out and his brain is having a helluva time controlling his emotions and judgment and impulses.  Mix all of this together, and you’ve got a Molotov cocktail of mess that could rock most adults, let alone an 11-year-old.

Now, of course there’s the chance that your son is getting bad grades because he’s not applying himself or paying attention in the classroom or he’s distracted when it comes time for homework and studying at home.  It’s not a stretch that at this age, your boy is testing his boundaries by acting out in class or shunning homework for some extra sleep or video game time after school.  But what’s more likely is he needs the help of a loving, caring, aware adult who can help him get organized, find his focus, deal with the stress of all the new stuff in his world and tap into all the different skills he needs to settle into this new normal.

Start by having a sit-down with his math and science teachers.  If anybody can put a finger on why your son is getting bad grades in those subjects, it’s the people charged with teaching him.  Set up an appointment time with them or reach out via email and get the 411 on what’s going on.  Ask for specifics on what it is your son is having trouble with: maybe he missed some assignments, which means he needs more structured homework time and better organizational skills; maybe he failed a test or two, which means he needs more instruction and study time; maybe he’s getting points deducted for classroom behavior, which means he needs some incentive to pay attention and focus in class.  You need to know and understand the problem in order to devise a plan of attack that works. The teachers are the key to figuring all of this out.

A note about reaching out to the teachers: I know this can be a scary, time-consuming thing, but trust me when I tell you, teachers appreciate it when a parent gets involved, asks questions and makes it clear that she cares about her kids’ grades and learning habits.  They don’t want your kid to fail any more than you do; in fact, they want your boy to win.  You have to trust that.  You have to trust, too, that you have enough skills and intelligence to walk in the room and advocate on behalf of your kid, even if you don’t understand basic physics or algebra.  This part is key, because please believe me when I tell you, I am not smarter than a 6th grader.  I haven’t one clue about how to do my daughters’ math and science homework.  But their teacher isn’t expecting me to.  What these teachers want from me is a partnership; they want to know that even if I don’t get what my kids are working on in class, I will work hard to make sure my kid gets the help he needs to learn both in school and at home.

How do you do that part? Here’s some tips that helped me with my own kids.

1. Get your son a tutor.  Maybe your son’s math and science teachers offer up extra hours after school for added instruction. Or maybe there’s a resource center at the school that provides tutors—whether adults or older students—who can help.  Free online tutoring is just a Google search away, and there are local tutors you can pay for nominal fees.  When my younger daughter was having trouble with math, I hired one of the gifted teachers at her school; she worked with my daughter on match and writing every week for an hour for $30 a session.  It was the best money I ever spent.

2. Help your kid get organized and ready to do his homework.  I get it: after a long day at work, the last thing you want to do is stand over your kid and make sure he’s doing his homework, but really, this is when your son needs your help the most. When my daughter used to come home from middle school, she had to write a to-do list of her assignments and lay out everything she needed to complete her work.  Then I gave her a snack and let her rest for an hour before she dove into the work.  This part is key.  Your kid has been in school all day, learning, socializing, mind running a billion miles a minute. When he gets home, he needs to unwind and distress from a long day—just like we do as adults with full-time jobs.  My daughter knew she could do whatever she wanted with her hour of free time: she could sleep, watch TV, play on her iPod, look at YouTube videos—whatever her heart desired.  But when that hour was up, it was time to get to work.  Once she finished, she presented her work to me for review against her “to-do” list, then she packed it away neatly so that she could hand it in the next day.

3. Understand the role that stress may be playing on your kid’s abilities. Any deaths in the family?  Has someone he loves—his father, an older sibling, a friend he loves and respects—disappeared from his life? Have you been struggling with a relationship, finances, work or anything that’s had you lashing out at your child, or being extremely short with him?  All of these things could be contributing to the way your son is behaving in school.  Think about it, then talk to him and reassure him that things may be different now, but that the two of you are going to be all right as long as you do your job and he continues to do his—which is to do well in school.

4. Bribe him. Yes, punishing your son for bad grades could make him work a little harder.  But you know what will make him work a lot harder?  Positive incentives.  Money for every A on his report card.  Playdates with friends for every positive report from the teacher.  An outfit or pair of sneakers for any grades improved by a whole letter grade.  Exclusive one-on-one time with you.  Whatever it is that floats your son’s boat, offer it as an incentive to do well.  Yeah, yeah, we all want our kids to do well because it’s the right thing to do.  But positive reinforcement goes a lot longer way than  threats and physical violence.  He’s still a kid, and kids are relatively easy to win over with the simplest things, beginning with attention and promises from the person he loves more than anyone else in the world.

I can’t guarantee that these things will make your kid a straight-A student. But they’ll certainly go a long way in helping him get himself and his grades together, with help him understand that he can depend on you to have his back.

* * *

This post originally appeared on SPARE THE KIDS. Reprinted with permission.

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  1. Absolutely Agree, My younger sister (9) doesn’t get the best marks, and she’s downright horrible to people sometimes. Yet to my parents, she can do no wrong. I’ve always gotten fairly good marks. I’m currently 12, and my grades have slipped in the last year. But only a little! Yet every time I tell my parents my grades they just respond with “Why didn’t you do better? Why didn’t you get the extra two percent? Why aren’t you the best in the class?” They don’t seem to understand that I don’t understand things sometimes. Anyone touches my sister, and my parents will literally leap to her aid before you can blink. Anything happens to me, and I’m pretty much told to get over it. Including getting beaten up more than once, developing anxiety, my best friend moving, and one of my friends self harming and then later being rushed to hospital with heart problems.
    Basically, parents need to understand that punishment for bad grades (that often aren’t even bad!) just make the student feel even worse about themselves, and as a result do worse.

    • I would be extremely concerned. Most school systems now have “tracking” which starts very early. In most cases, it starts in elementary school. Early tracking makes it more difficult for your child to return to the academic path once off track. By this I mean that poor performance in middle school may limit his high school choices and thus exposure to advanced placement and college prep courses. Subsequently, his college codices will also be limited. I would have a serious motivational talk with my son. Often young boys don’t truly understand the consequences of their current school performance on their futures. Many think that things are like they were in the old days when one could “get serious in high school when the grades really count.”

      Having said that, corporal punishment is probably not going to be useful in a middle schooler. At this point in your child’s development, he should respond better to verbal discipline or withdrawal of privileges. However, before any action, you should ascertain whether your son is truly having academic difficulty or a failing to fully engage in academic pursuits. Middle school is a big advancement in one’s academic career and not all elementary schools prepare students well, regardless of the grades received.

      I would suggest a meeting with your child’s teacher to gain insight into the nature of your son’s problem. If it is lack of understanding, a tutor would be the next step, if you can afford it. Other less expensive options are Kumon Math and

      Good Luck
      Kapauner R. Lewis, M.D.

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