Dear Dr. Linda,

We have two boys, Dan in 11th grade and Luke in eighth. Dan always gets straight A’s while his younger brother, Luke, gets B’s and C’s. As the years have gone on, Dan has kept his grades up but Luke’s have gone down. Not only have his grades gone down, but he seems to have actually “checked out.” He goes to school but does poorly and doesn’t seem to care.

We’ve spoken to Luke’s teachers and they tell us that he’s simply not trying. We’ve grounded him, but nothing changed. We’ve bribed and preached, but nothing changed. The only thing that’s happened is that he’s doing worse. This first-quarter report card was a disaster. Any advice?

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Luke’s Mom and Dad

Dear Luke’s Mom and Dad,

For starters, realize that report card grades are primarily based on tests and homework. If Luke’s test grades are low, go over the tests with Luke and find out why he missed certain questions. You may find out that one of the questions was based on an assignment Luke didn’t do, or he didn’t understand the question, or he didn’t know the meaning of some of the words in the question. You may also find out that he is totally lost in the course and has no idea what is going on. Without this information, the test grade is useless.

If you discover that a good portion of the grade is based on homework assignments, review the assignments with Luke. If he didn’t hand them in or never did them, talk calmly with him to learn why this is happening. It could be that he truly doesn’t understand the subject or the assignment. It could be that he doesn’t want to ask you for help because he knows that he’ll have to sit for a long time with you or you’ll make him redo it.

A parent’s knee-jerk reaction to that is, “That’s just too bad. He has to learn it!” Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work. In fact, many kids who are trying to survive often lie so they don’t have to deal with their parents.

In addition to tests and homework, some children don’t succeed in school because they have siblings (or parents) who are/were straight “A” students. Even if it’s simply a perception, these struggling students shut down because they feel they cannot compete. These children view themselves as academic failures in comparison to “star pupil” siblings.

The most important thing to do is to talk to Luke and “listen” to what he has to say. Listen to more than just his words, though. Many children naturally try to protect themselves from punishment or avoid disappointing their parents by blaming their teachers for a poor grade: “The teacher hates me.” “I handed it in, but the teacher lost it.” You need to move beyond lies and cover-ups and identify the real cause. No child wants to fail, and Luke is no different. He wants to succeed, but something academically or emotionally is holding him back.

So, do your homework. Some parents and teachers blame their children’s poor grades on laziness when—in reality—their own laziness is the culprit. They don’t do the work to discover what are the real issues contributing to poor grades. There is always a cause and always a solution, but children aren’t equipped to remedy it by themselves. With respect to their grades as with virtually all else, be their allies, not their adversaries. No one is in a better position to advocate for their children than parents.

If things don’t improve, contact a professional, in school or out, to help you identify the problems that stand in the way of Luke’s success.