Monday, December 01, 2008

Smart boys, bad grades: tips for parents

Picking up on my anguish, with his ever-sympathetic eye, Harold Jarche sent me a link to this site, which addresses the issue of bright boys whose scholastic results don't reflect this.

I homed in on the section titled 'Tips for parents', which I'd like to reproduce here, verbatim, for the benefit of other parents in similar situations, with a thinking out loud reaction to each:

  1. Ask your boy, “How was your day?” Do it every day, and of course listen to his response. If you get too short a response for two days in a row, ask a follow up question. Do not always inquire about homework or school as the only area of concern.
    Check. I do this every day in the car on the way home, and at various other moments when the context is right.
  2. Every day, tell your boy, “You are a good kid.”
    Check. Several times a day. Together with "I'm proud of you, you know."
  3. Allow and encourage computer work. Instead of saying “playing on the computer” ask your boy “what are you working on your computer.”
    Check. Except my son appears to have developed an addiction to a particular game and times supposedly allocated to work often wind up being spent in the game instead. We're pretty flexible on the subject of Internet access, social media and computer usage in general, but we've had to put a ban on this game - it was taking up every waking moment!
  4. Minimize punishment for behavior that does not hurt others.
    Check. But we also point out how it might hurt him. At 17, he needs to start swallowing the 'big boy pill' and facing up to reality.
  5. Give him $10. Immediate, unexpected reward is great reinforcement.
    No. No. And thrice no. I will not bribe my children to produce what they're perfectly capable of. If he's not prepared to do something because it's important to him, bribery isn't going to change that, and it will send him all the wrong messages.
  6. Advocate for your boy. It is important for your boy to know you are supportive and willing to help.
    Check. But he must not abuse this knowledge. When he has misrepresented the situation to me and I am left defending a position on a false premise, I become incandescent. I will not tolerate dissembling. My view is that when you screw up, you man up.
  7. Talk to teachers. Engage with teachers as often as you need to.
    Check. And this isn't always easy.
  8. Talk to your doctor, and get a second opinion if you feel it is warranted, on medicine. This is not medical advice, nor advocating medicine.
    Ha! On the NHS? Don't make me laugh.
  9. Guys are critical. Dads, older brothers, male supervisors at work, help your boy have a male role model. Guys don’t need to do a lot, they just need to do and say a little and it goes a long ways. Talk to your husband/companion about a few positive things to do or say. Explain the ‘deal’ with boys (neurology).
    Hmm. This point seems to presuppose that only mothers are reading this article. Interesting. My husband is pretty good at this - it is something for which he been commended on many occasions by other dads.
  10. Explore alternatives to your current school. Not every situation is right for everyone. Explore other public schools, virtual schools, home schooling, tutoring.
    Worth considering. Sadly, a virtual school would require a higher level of self-discipline than he possesses, home schooling is out, since I work and tutoring is very pricy. Nevertheless, it is an option we're considering. We might also have to consider another school. The school he attends at the moment is very highly regarded, but he just doesn't seem to be a very good fit with its ethos. This is not a new scenario to me. In fact, it takes me back 30 years to my own high school years!
  11. Talk to school counselors. If you get a good school counselor, use her or him when you need to. They can be a positive help in working with teachers.
    Good point. Need to get on this right away.
  12. Ask about modifications. Changing a teacher, course subject, day or time. Just as your boy has a certain learning style, a teacher has a given teaching style. Not every teacher can respond to every student. So see if you have options.
    Sadly, this is not an option. I say sadly, because there is at least one teacher who has pigeonholed my son in the 'naughty boy' slot and will not acknowledge anything he does at all.
  13. Talk to other parents. It helps.
    Check. But I find other parents in this school are totally married to traditional mores. I find parents in the blogosphere far more informed and helpful.
  14. Let your boy know what is up with Smart Boys, Bad Grades. It’s not an excuse, but it is a reality. Go with your hunch. As a parent, you know the most about your boy.
    Check. He also knows that my own grades in high school were little better than mediocre, even though much was expected of me. He knows that school isn't his last shot at it, but he also knows that later shots at it will be undertaken under far less conducive circumstances. It's tough trying to get your degree while earning a living and raising a family - ask me, I know!
The site also includes a 'tips for teachers' section. Any suggestions as to how I might persuade his teachers to visit?


V Yonkers said...

I would add that 1) the age of your son is typical for "breaking out" of the institutional norms. My nephew went through the same thing and my sister made my nephew take responsibility for his choices. This meant a dismal year for grades when he needed it the most. But he knew it was HIS choice. Things turned around the next year when he realized what this would mean for his future.
2) Have him work with those that are less advantaged. One thing that turned my nephew around was going to work with my sister in areas of abject poverty. First, his work made him feel as if he were accomplishing something. Second, he saw where the path he had chosen would send him and how hard it would be to get out of there once he was down in the depths without an education.
3) Ask him what he wants to do with his life. My nephew is a freshman in the university in a field he loves (construction management). Things really changed when he was able to speak to people who were in the field that told him that the program he is in would give him an advantage. But to get into the program he would need to do well in high school. Perhaps if your son has something to work towards, he will put more effort into his schoolwork.
4) When he is on his computer game, ask him what it is that compells him to be on the game. Then see if there is some way through his studies that will help him with the game. For example, can what he is learning in math help him to "win" the game?
5) Make him speak to his teachers. I have found that having a mediator, such as yourself, or the school master, helps the teacher and child communicate.
6) I have found (and I know there is research on this) that boys tend to open up when doing something physical, like walking or playing basketball. I find a walk around the block helps me, my son, and our communication.

I think the medication thing is way over rated, as is blaming the teacher. My kids will always have to deal with superiors and coworkers that don't mesh. They need to learn how to deal with those situations without self-destructing. It is important that they know you know the score, sympathize, but still hold them accountable for their decisions.

The upsycho said...

@Virginia Thanks for your input. I'll respond as follows:

Right at the outset I hope that your point about the 'medication' doesn't refer to my crack about a 'big boy pill' - the expression simply means to 'take his medicine' in the idiomatic sense. I am not in favour of drugs, either - don't even take painkillers myself if I can avoid it. We were offered Ritalin for him when he was 5 and we nearly collapsed in shock.

As to your numbered points:
1) Agreed. It's hard, but he has to take that big boy pill I mentioned! He lives in denial most of the time. It's the invincibility of the child who has been sheltered by loving parents - "somehow it will all come right" or "it'll never happen to me". Well I've been there and said that and it did happen to me!

2) This is such a good idea. The difficulty is (a) finding the time in between his long school day, homework and sporting commitments and (b) finding these groups with the legislative rigour that is in place. However, I will look into it. He has indicated that he wants to take a gap year and go and do mission work somewhere like central Africa or the Philippines. That'll be a wake-up call! Mind you, you would think that his visits to South Africa would have given him insight into how the other 9/10s live!

3) After a recent change of heart, he has now decided to do something along the lines of sports science: physio, osteopathy, sports injury therapy, coaching or even teaching PE. I think he'd be better suited to that than his previous choice of forensics. However, that doesn't seem to have motivated him to up his game - to get into university to do forensics, he would have needed 2As and a B! Physio will take the same, because it's heavily over-subscribed.

4) Good suggestion - will give it a go!

5) He does this regularly, after which they and he report completely different perspectives of how it went!

6) We used to play squash together every week, but since I lost my job, we have had to cut back on these costs. My husband takes him to breakfast once a month and they chat together. It's good for them both.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Karyn

I agree with you about bribery - for boys OR girls.

I would also add to that list.

Tell him (or her) that you love him. Okay okay - you might get an odd reaction if you've never said that before. But say it and mean it. And say it every day at an appropriate time.

I have always hugged my children (I have 6, ages 14 to 38). Y'know, none of them have wriggled - ever. I have also often told them I love them. And it comes back to me.

So does the hugging.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

The upsycho said...

@blogger Thanks Ken - you're singing my song... again. I refer you to this old post of mine as evidence! About halfway down is the point you're looking for!

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I'm right there with you - frustrated with grades. I'm going to stand up for the bribers among us though. A bribe is quid pro quo - and that's life. So if $10 will prove to me that you are capable so it goes. I work for money. No different IMHO.(although this no longer seems to be working...) so I'm just blowing smoke about now. (Thanks for this great blog post!!)

The upsycho said...

@Janet I disagree with your analogy. I have an agreement with my employer/customer. Services/goods for money. I give them x and they pay me y.

When my son sits an exam, he isn't giving me anything - there is no 'quid' for which I should pay 'quo'. The work (or lack thereof) is his, the grades (for good or ill) are his. He isn't demonstrating to me what he is capable of doing - he's demonstrating it to himself, to his teachers and to his potential university/employer.

If all indications are that he should get a B and he comes home with an A, I might reward him spontaneously in some way, but I'm not going to buy his grades from him. "You want it? Go get it!"

That said, I'm not going to fall out with you over it! Many of my kids' friends get paid for grades. Indeed many of my own did, too!

Anonymous said...

There are school systems in the US that are offering to give students money based on grades. I don't recall where, I think New York. This has caused quite a bit of debate among educators. The question is two fold does it encourage learning only when there is a tangible reward? Will a student become so focused on the 'grade' as to get little or no long-term learning?

The upsycho said...

@Michael I see that with my own son who has resisted my efforts to interest him in Spanish pod. He has no motivation beyond passing the exam.

No matter what form of incentives are offered, they have to be related to a child's own potential and circumstances or they will become a nonsense IMHO

sadunkal said...

Well, I'm not a parent but as a fresh young man I'd suggest that you don't overwhelm him with hugs and constant admissions of love and how proud you are of him. It's enough if he's aware of it, I'd suggest that you just check every once in a while, keep it relatively minimal. (This might be hard for you if you got too used to it though.)

The reason why I say that is because you don't want him to get too dreamy about life, you don't want him to get the impression that even if he just sits in front of a computer game throughout his entire life it won't be any problem.

Other than that it's more important that HE can be proud of himself and love himself. He should have higher expectations for himself than you do, this would enable him to get stronger independent from you.

If you get the feeling that he's not living conscious enough, try to get him to question his decisions, his desires etc. I personally feel that the awareness, open-mindedness and curiosity are the most important things in life. They disable the limits "normal" people perceive in their lives.

*By the way, I used to be more or less addicted to certain video games, although I don't regret the time I spent for them and although I have very fond memories, now I don't care for them at all. I think I could've spent that time more efficiently, but I had no such desires back then. It's all about motivation in the end. He'd stop playing if he finds something more meaningful in his life too. Again get him to question his actions, but don't push it, such addictions can be pretty serious, I know. ;)

And I really wouldn't put so much worth onto his grades. Good grades might make some goals easier to reach, but in the end they're just a bunch of numbers. Pay more attention to his ideas and actions in life than those numbers.

And do me a favor and introduce him to Richard Feynman please:

He's one fella I wish I had gotten to know earlier in my life...

By the way, doesn't your son read your blog? :) How does that work exactly?

The upsycho said...

@sadunkal Thanks for your perspective. I think this is your first comment on my blog, so: welcome! If you follow the link in my reply to Ken (blogger in middle earth), you will see that it is way too late for your sage advice about telling my boy I love him! Unfortunately, my own weak, needy nature has manifested itself there! That said, he knows that my love does not preclude incandescent rage in response to dissembling, nor does it relieve him of the responsibility of pulling his weight.

I long for him to have higher expectations for himself than I do. I also long for him to show the slightest bit of motivation to do anything towards achieving the expectations he does have!

You're absolutely right that grades are just numbers: numbers applied based on a single,flawed system to which he is ill-suited. However, as you also point out, they are the currency in which he must trade if he means to attend the university of hos choice. The sad reality is that he is going to have to learn to play the system, or at least to make it work in his favour, if he is not to find himself on the wrong end of a handicap.

Thanks for the link to Feynman. I think I encountered some of his material when we were exploring thinking skills on my Masters' programme.

And no, my son does not read my blog. He couldn't be less interested. You see, I am all about learning and having been subjected to several years of negative reinforcement in school, he is at a stage in his life when he thinks he hates learning. Of course he doesn't - no-one does - but he needs to figure that out for himself.