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Supporting learning

Little boy showing off his paper with an A+ on it

Grades at school

Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for school success

Revised July 2014 by Silvia Alvarez de Davila, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency. Reviewed May 2016 by Lori Hendrickson, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.

It happens to almost every parent; your son or daughter brings home a report card that doesn’t meet expectations.

What are school grades?

Grades are numbers or letters that show the quality of a student’s work. Most school grades are a summary of a student completing homework and participating in class, whether homework is turned in on time, regular attendance, and classroom observations. Report cards give you an idea of your child’s progress across subject areas.

How to talk about disappointing grades

First ask yourself, “Do I have a reason to be disappointed?” Grades alone may not be the best way to judge performance. In some classes, a “C” or lower may be cause for celebration if the subject was challenging and your child gave their best effort.

If you feel your disappointment is legitimate, however, follow this outline for talking to your child:

  1. Begin with the positive. Most report cards have a mixture of good and bad news. Recognize the good, especially if your child showed improvement or met a challenge.
  2. Understand your child’s point of view. Is she satisfied with the grades? Does she feel they can improve? If so, how? “Tell me about how things have been going lately” starts a safe, open discussion about any challenges she might be having with the subject.
  3. Explain why you are unhappy. Let him know what you expect
  4. Determine the real cause of the problem. It is generally study habits or a more particular problem? Is it something that can be changed at home?
  5. Come up with a plan with your child. Make this plan as specific as possible. Include yourself in the plan: what can you do? If you are not sure how to help her, call the teacher to set up a conference.
  6. Implement — and monitor — your plan. The next report card or progress report will almost certainly be an improvement. And, most importantly, it won’t be a surprise.

Set up your child for success

At the start of the year, talk to your child about your expectations. Expectations are what you hope your child will achieve: the quality and quantity of school work required and when it will be done. Set clear, consistent expectations about school work and behavior. Follow through with consequences if expectations are not met.

These three tips will help you set up yourself and your child for a pleasant conversation when report cards come home:

  1. Pay attention to how your child is doing in school throughout the year. The content of report cards or progress reports shouldn’t be a surprise. Most teachers work hard to talk with parents if a child is having difficulty in school. If that is not the case with your son or daughter, contact the teacher.
  2. Let your child know that he is more that his report card. Remind him of all the things that make him special and important in your family.
  3. Don’t shame or demean your child. It only reinforces poor self-esteem and underachieving behavior. Show interest and try to listen and understand first.

Too much focus on grades may increase the amount of stress your child feels. An open, ongoing communication is the best way to manage everyone’s expectations.


Clark, R. M. (1993). Homework-focused parenting practices that positively affect student achievement. In N. F. Chavkin (Ed.), Families and schools in a pluralistic society (pp. 85-105). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Guskey, T.R. (2006). Making high school grades meaningful. The Phi Delta Kappan, 87(9), 670-675.

National Education Association. (n.d). Research spotlight on parental involvement in education.

U. S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (1994). What do student grades mean? Differences across schools. Washington, DC: Office of Research, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U. S. Department of Education.

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. (n.d.) Grading student work.

Related resources

Has your child missed school lately? — Learn the definitions related to school absences, and how to encourage school attendance.

Homework: How to help — Explore guidelines for helping your children with their homework.

Communicating under pressure — During stressful times, it is easy to experience misunderstandings that sometimes result in adding more stress to the situation. Part of the Getting through tough times series.

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