The Paradox of Grades

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Hey Tribe!

I gotta start with a cheesy and genuine thank you to our Tribe. I just love when you reach out and share your stories or how the podcast reached you at just the right time. It warms my heart and drives me to do even more for our community of neuro-diverse humans! This week I heard from a few families who are innovating their approaches to school, in part because distance learning is forcing them to, but also in part because the old ways weren’t working well for their kids anyway. Way to go! I’m looking forward to sharing some of their stories on future shows. I took my own advice from last week’s episode and am working on starting some new holiday traditions—part out of necessity and part out of innovation. I mean, some of the things we did for years were just because they were always what we did, not necessarily what we actually liked. So, if there is a bright side of having our worlds turned upside down and shook a little bit, it’s this: we get to put our lives back in a new, and often better, more thoughtful way.

Today’s show is brought to you by the biggest paradox of school:

your child’s grades matter and they also don’t matter at all.

My  job as an executive function coach is to first teach and hone skills for life, yet I often do so in the context of improving academic outcomes (aka grades). So many of my clients are doing incredibly well by using their strategies and working with their awesome brains…yet sometimes they are tempted to slip into old compensatory habits (like avoidance) or feel defeated and unmotivated when their grades don’t reflect their progress.

Can you imagine if you joined a dance class where your peers already knew half the steps? Where your teacher told you that you needed to dance harder, “just try,” or accused you of not caring about the class? Where you spent so much time trying to catch up that you only partially learned the new moves? I think you get where I’m going with this analogy. Now, imagine that after trying your hardest and actually making some progress in your dancing skills, your teacher gave you an F because you couldn’t do the whole dance accurately. Yeah, that’s often what it’s like for our kids with executive function deficits. Now imagine that after that grade you still had to go back to class, interact with the teacher, be compared to the other dancers, and produce even more motivation in your head? I actually can’t imagine doing that for 13 years (Kinder through high school).

Today we’re going to explore how to support your child during grading periods, so that you recognize the dance moves they are learning and have learned, while still pushing them to dance more!

Grades are one measure of success. They often reflect completion and compliance, a “just get it done” attitude.

I can tell you, especially this year with online learning, teachers are tired and desperate for students to return any work at all. The pressures on teachers to improve grades have also led to a focus on gathering points rather than growing skills. Not a knock on teachers, trust me. I’ve heard the, “please at least turn in part of the work” come out of my own mouth lately, and redeeming partial credit is one strategy we explore. We can hate the system but still play within its rules, I’m afraid.

Grades often don’t reflect the growth that really matters. The math sheet that is turned in because we yelled and bargained with our son to get it done, finally, is worth just as many points as the math sheet that our son completed and returned on his own, for the first time. Grades aren’t sensitive measures for the growth that really matters in life. And, there are tons of stories of very successful people who made terrible grades in schools. There are also tons of studies that show certain personalities, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds are primed to do better in school. The system is set up to reward some and punish others, before they even get through the classroom door. And…if our students with developing self-control are kicked out of class for being “naughty,” then they’re missing learning, which means lower grades. So, grades don’t show an accurate picture of growth.

 Yet, they are still used by others (colleges, employers, car insurance companies) as a gauge of success. Yet, they are emphasized by teachers and parents. Yet, grades are rewarded by schools, scholarships, and even access to sports. They matter for our children’s future, which is why we still play the game.

So if grades matter and yet they don’t, how do we approach finals for our kids?

 We focus on the skills, not the content.

Helping our child improve their grades is an opportunity to improve so many executive functions: We build their self-monitoring through practice of studying. We teach them about their brains and learning while they use the understanding to improve their grades. We teach them how to prioritize, meet a deadline, to study…

 Many of our kids have tests or finals this month. Their teachers will remind them to “study” and admonish that they must not have “studied hard enough” if they don’t do well on exams. What does studying hard even look like? And why would anyone sign up to do something “hard?” Let’s reframe studying with a quick reminder of study tips and how, as a parent, you can make sure they go into use (ps if you want to go really in-depth, listen to episode 5)

  1. Stay hydrated. Dehydrated brains lose an average of 12% of cognitive function. As a bonus, if you get your child their favorite sports drink as a special thing during finals, it will also give them a little dopamine boost, providing that magic brain juice to focus and attend!                                                                                                 
  2. Use active studying! Ditch rereading. It doesn’t work. Instead, help your child make flashcards. Ask your child to teach the subject to their siblings. Have your child redo old test questions or cover up parts of the materials to see if he or she can recall the info. Engagement is key to studying! A tired brain may allow its owner to think they’re studying, but active brains are actually learning! And, sorry-not-sorry, but unless your child has learned how to highlight, you can’t count coloring the sentences as active studying. Until college, I used a fake-them-out strategy of highlighting every first sentence and a couple subheadings to make it look like I was highlighting, but in reality, I didn’t have a clue how to do it. I’d recommend moving past highlighting into even more active methods.                   
  3. Encourage self-monitoring. Teach them to pay attention to when their brains wander during studying, as well as some tricks to make studying more fun and interactive. How do you coach this? I’m glad you asked! You can prompt your child to notice the signs of mental fatigue when you see them in him or her. Is she slumping, yawning, looking around? Instead of getting mad that they’re not “focused,” ask, “What do you notice about your body right now? How is brain doing?” Your child will either get back on track because you pulled their state into their awareness or they will acknowledge that maybe they need a break. I can tell you, for sure, though, if you just tell them to push on, they will spend a few minutes focusing on looking like they’re on track—but complying with appearing to be focused will be their actual focus. No studying will happen when they’re worried about pleasing you. And, keep in mind, our brains can process 3-5 items in short term memory at a time. Psychologists recommend we only sit and attend for however many minutes we are old in years. For your ten-year-old, that’s 10 minutes before he needs to switch up the activity to regain optimal focus.                                                                                                             
  4. Prioritize what you study. When was the last time you jumped in on something you really sucked at doing? It’s probably been a minute, right? Adults are very good at avoiding things that are difficult because we like to feel competent. Your kid is no different. They’ll be drawn to study the easier things, but don’t let them. Encourage them to spend time interacting with the “almost” classes; the classes whose content your child is almost understanding or the classes in which your child is almost passing. You can ask your child which classes he thinks he could pass with just a little extra boost or eliminate the classes he knows he will do well in. This act of prioritizing will pay off in the short term (his grades will improve) and is great practice for long-term prioritizing.                                                                                                                             
  5. Teach about the brain: Our brains have a few main jobs, the most important of which, biologically, is to keep us alive. Because of this protective perspective, our brains pay extra attention to new things and things we got wrong. Help your child use this to their advantage. When she misses a flashcard, put it in a special pile to review later. Her brain won’t like feeling wrong and will boost her focus juice so she can more easily learn the material. Don’t waste study time going over the flashcards she already knows. Her brain and learning won’t benefit from this practice, especially during crunch time. On a related note, if your child is developing acronyms or analogies to support memory, allow her to think of really weird ideas. These brains of ours are drawn to strange things, so using things that don’t belong together or things that are a little naughty will help support memory. I had a student make up a story about a naked horse once, to remember something in a high school science class, and it worked for him! I wondered how many clothed horses the kid was hanging out with, but that’s a different story!                                                                                                          
  6. Make Space: The days and weekend before finals might be pretty low key around your house, and that is okay. Maybe the whole family takes the weekend to engage in quieter, slower activities, so that the environment does not compete for attention. And again, if you give it a fun name or announce it on the calendar (maybe even coordinate some slow meals, like slow cooker foods or special comfort food), it will feel special—and special means more dopamine. Yes indeed, people you can call it a study-jam or finals-prep-party weekend. Oooh! Even a classical music soundtrack could be fun! Set the tone for studying, and it will pay off in reducing anxiety and increasing focus. (I always made salmon the night before my husband had a physics test. I’m not sure it helped a ton, but the ritual was fun and seemed to take some of the sting out of having to study so much)

Helping your child study may leave you feeling like you’re walking on the border of your normal self and helicopter parent. That’s normal. If you start to falter or don’t know what to say, that’s normal too. Revert to asking questions as your default. Curious questions, like “tell me about…” or “how is your brain feeling?” instead of accusations in question clothing, like, “Why didn’t you…” or “Why is this so hard?”

Grades matter. Grades don’t matter at all. We live in this paradox, and that’s ok. While we work to improve the school systems to better serve all kids, we can use playing the game as a way to boost our kids’ skills. After all, skills are what really matter.

Time for this week’s pep talk:

Hey Kid!

When you’re a kid, your job is school. School expects you to be good at everything, from PE to math to science to writing. When you’re a grown up, however, you can pick your job. You can work doing things that you’re good at and avoid some of the things that don’t match up well with your style and brain.

Grown ups forget how hard school can be. And, if your grown up happened to be really good at playing school, they might not understand at all. That’s pretty rough at times, but you are strong. Please remember that school is not everything. Your grades are not who you are.

Your grades can certainly help your future. You can get people to pay for your college or even win prizes if your grades are excellent. You can get a chance to intern with cool companies or stay on sports teams with good grades. They can definitely help your future.

But, your grades are not you. You are not your grades. If you get an F in history, let’s say, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It probably means you didn’t turn in some work or you didn’t do so hot on a few tests. That F does not represent the 10,000 things you do right or the 12,000 you’re getting better at every day. That F does not show that you helped your neighbor last week or that you’re getting really good at origami. Grades are just one snapshot, and they usually show how much and how well you followed directions, not how much you actually learned.

Today your grown up learned about a paradox, two things that are opposite but they’re both true at the same time. Your grades matter a lot and they don’t matter at all. You have to live in that paradox, too. It’s ok to feel resentful at the school system or frustrated that the school skills aren’t as easy for you. Any way to feel is just fine. But, you’re going to say hello to that feeling and then move into grade-improvement mode. Because even though they don’t show the fabulous you, grades are still a key to your future, so they still, sigh, matter.

Today your grown up learned a few ways to help you have a much better experience getting ready for finals and the end of the semester. Don’t be surprised if your grown up asks you to make a classical music soundtrack for studying or wants you to think of super weird analogies. They’re using brain science, and they’re doing their best to help you succeed. I am too.

You got this, kid! All my love to you,


Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash