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It’s December! For students in the US, that means we’re in the home stretch for the fall term. For many, the semester ends in a couple of weeks before a break for the winter holidays. Others will return in January to finish up their work and take exams. We’re so close to the end and it’s a time of year where I often hear from concerned parents, worried because “my child’s grades are dropping!”
Why does this happen and how can we support students to help them finish the term strong?
Why are my child’s grades dropping now?
It’s partly the kid…
In most middle schools and high schools in the US, the school year is divided into 3 marking periods – the first ends sometime in October or November, the second sometime in January, and the third at the end of the year. Eight or 9 weeks is a long time for a student that age to focus on and work toward a goal like getting an A in English.
For young students, teachers set very short-term goals – read this chapter today, or learn these vocabulary words by Friday. As students enter middle school and high school, the deadlines get farther out and the assignments get bigger. But their brains don’t necessarily grow at the same pace. Sometimes students’ grades drop because they don’t understand (or can’t do) what it takes to get a good grade on an essay, or a mid-term exam, or a large project.
If your child’s grades are dropping, sit down with them and look at the grade book. Make a list of any missing assignments they can still turn in, and look at the big projects ahead. It’s a good idea to take the December calendar and write down, in pen, any firm due dates or commitments. Include sports, dance or activity meetings, and family commitments like holiday travel.
Then look at the list of what needs to be done and plug that work into the “white spaces” on the calendar. If there’s a math test on Wednesday, but your child has events on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll have to make sure he does most of his studying the weekend before. This type of planning doesn’t come naturally to adolescents (or to me, for that matter!) so using concrete tools like paper and different colored pens or highlighters is much more effective than just saying it out loud.
If there’s no way to fit everything in, it’s time for triage! It may be that your student has fallen behind this term, or that her courseload is just overwhelming right now, or she has overcommitted to activities. It does happen that sometimes there is just more work than time. Some things to think about as you prioritize together what work absolutely needs to get finished:
- Value of the assignment – If making and studying flashcards will take hours, but the Spanish quiz is only worth 5 points, that might be low on the list. On the other hand, if a large history project will make the difference between passing and failing the class, it should get a lot of time on the calendar, even if it’s not due for a few weeks.
- Grade goals – if your child is a straight-A student, you probably stopped reading this post a while ago. Students who are struggling in a few classes might need to prioritize to get the grades they need. If they are failing one class but could turn in missing work and get the grade up to a C-, that’s probably more urgent than doing great on the math test that could take them from a B to a B+. Every teacher will say their class is important, or they are all important, but if your child’s grades are dropping, you need to do the math and find the true priorities.
- Motivation – Sometimes it’s a teacher they don’t get along with. Sometimes it’s a subject that they just hate! For some students, they idea of pouring all their effort and time into their most hated class just feels like torture. Pick your battles. If they understand the consequences of neglecting that awful class, and it’s the best way to get them to move forward in their other classes, that may be the best option. As a parent, it’s very difficult to say “well, don’t do that one, then.” But if they are making the choice between a bad grade in one class, or bad grades in multiple classes, the choice is pretty clear. If putting aside the requirements for their hardest class gets them moving on other things, it can be the right tradeoff – in the short term.
It’s partly the school…
Isn’t it weird that one summer, we pick up an elementary schooler at the end of the last day of school, and somehow, magically, we send a middle schooler back to school in the fall? All of a sudden, they enter this new world of junior high with lockers, and changing classes, and maybe a new device, and new people. But they are the same kids!
Nothing magical happens during that summer, so it makes sense that lots of kids are still learning skills they need to succeed in a more challenging junior high environment. Too many middle and high school teachers have an attitude like “they need to be more responsible” or “they need to understand that they can’t wait until the last minute” but they haven’t taught the skills that lead to “being more responsible.”
Some skills and tools schools should be offering include:
- One consistent system for notifications/reminders and assigning work. Students shouldn’t have to check Google Classroom and Canvas and that one teacher’s website and the school calendar to find out everything that’s going on.
- A practice of consistently and effectively using planners. Students need to be taught what to write on today’s planner page, what to write on the assignment’s due date, and how to use all that white space to, well, plan their week. Learning to do this can take up a significant amount of time at the beginning of the school year, but I believe it pays for itself for the rest of students’ lives by giving them a set of tools for managing their work through school and into adult life.
- Instruction on goal-setting and planning. Not everyone is shooting for 100% in every class. But students need to understand how to calculate their average and understand what a poor test grade or missing assignment can do to their grade for the term.
- Models and templates. Especially at the beginning of the year, students need their teachers to model what an organized notebook looks like. Also, a clean locker, a completed page of homework, an effective paragraph. We cannot take for granted that kids just know what we mean when we tell them to produce these things!
If poor or disorganized writing is holding your child back, you may be interested in our small-group paragraph writing class. These classes are short and focused on the academic paragraph, the basic building block of longer writing.
It’s partly the world around us…
My focus isn’t at its best in December, either. There seems to be a tipping point around Halloween and after that the year just flies by! All those things we need to do before December 31st make us busy and stressed. For young children especially, the anticipation of the holidays can take up a lot of room in their brains! But older kids are feeling it, too.
In September and October, we’re very focused on our school routines, and by December, some things have started to slip and others have been totally replaced by seasonal needs. Gotta go Christmas shopping. Gotta rehearse for the winter concert. Gotta go to Aunt Sally’s this weekend for her annual cookie swap!
With so much going on around us, it’s especially important to go back to basics. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, and getting some time to rest and relax. We can combat that seasonal and end-of-term stress by keeping the predictable routines that worked for us last month. Those routines will give them the support and structure they need to focus on their school work.
This, too, shall pass
It’s temporary, this seasonal stress. The marking period will end. The gifts will get wrapped. The concert will be performed. The days will get longer and we’ll turn our attention to the next challenge. But don’t forget the tools and skills that you and your child needed most in this challenging time. What lessons can you take from this situation that will help your child avoid the pain and stress of getting overwhelmed by poor grades. Next year, instead of “my child’s grades are dropping,” I hope you’ll be saying, “OK, December is coming. Here’s our plan for prioritizing, using tools from the school and managing our energy so we can all make it through in one piece!”
One way to help your child manage their energy in a difficult class is to make sure their basic skills are solid. That’s why I’m offering our paragraph-writing class this winter for middle and high school students. Check it out and leave your name in the contact form to make sure you catch the updates!