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Hassle-Free Homework:

Child Sets Himself Up For Failure This School Year

Dear Dr. Fournier:

School has just started and my fifth-grade son is already making promises about his report card yet I know his habits. Last school year, we had problems with his underperformance every time report cards were issued. We would talk with him sternly about it and he always promised the next report card, he would have all A's. His father and I made very good grades when we were in school. So I know our son could make straight A's if he wanted to. What do I do?

Elizabeth M.
Allentown, PA.

Dear Elizabeth:

Most parents send their children to school expecting them to live up to their "genetic inheritance." When children don't achieve to this level, parents assume they just don't want to do it.

Your son wants to please you and his father by making good grades as evidenced by your comment that after each report card scolding, he promised to have better grades.

My experience with the parents I have counseled in this situation come to me not realizing that the child, post-scolding, is almost always going away and quietly saying to himself or herself, "This time I'm going do it. This time I'll show them. This time, I'll bring home all A's because all I have to do is try harder. I'm going to show everybody I can do it."

These children are setting themselves up for another letdown.


Elizabeth's son and the many others like him set themselves up for failure with the promise to be perfect. Perfection is not a goal for this child; it's a dream that invariably becomes a nightmare. Attempting perfection has only resulted in his frustration, hurt and disappointment thus far.

Many children use this unrealistic promise to help them face their own disappointment as well as their parents' dissatisfaction. The short-term fix - a fantasy promising perfection - is not worth the long-term pain.

Parents need to teach children how to set goals that are achievable with effort. To set goals, all academic subjects must be considered. Just because a child is good in math doesn't mean he or she will also excel in science, history, English or foreign language.

In establishing a goal, students and parents must consider that one of three things happens with report card grades in this situation:

1. They go up - favored by most parents;
2. They stay the same - usually acceptable unless staying the same means D's or F's; or
3. They go down - unheard of according to most parents (and unacceptable)!


Elizabeth, first be willing to consider that all three possibilities listed above could happen with your son and second, know that there may not be any genetic connection from yours and your husband's scholastic accomplishments to your son.

When report cards come home, take your child's grades as a baseline for planning. Together, establish goals for the next report card period. Make sure the goals are achievable with effort so that your child may savor success. This way, achieving long-term goals is possible with short-term successes.

As you and your son set goals consider the following guidelines:

• If the goal is to raise a grade, remember that giant steps are for giants. Strive for reasonable growth in goal expectations. Resist the temptation to encourage your C student to mark down A as the goal in a subject even when he says, "I can make an A in this class." Remember, he's said this already but to no avail. Keep each goal achievable with a reasonable amount of effort. Going from a C to a C+ or B- may be the mini-step he needs to learn to go forward with the assuredness and self-confidence that he is capable of bringing up his grades.

• Allow him to stabilize at a certain grade. This may be a very valid step if developing consistent performance is a goal. For example, he gets his math grade up from a C to a C+ between first and second report card issuance. Then by third report card, he is up to a B-, but seemingly plateaus by having a B- in math on the rest of his report cards issued the remainder of the school year. As much as we want to see our children progress, they cannot do it all the time. Just as their bodies seem to get stuck at a certain size, they also need to learn that maintaining a certain grade is a job in itself. This B- in math is his stabilization.

• It may be worth lowering an A to an A- or B+ in a subject he handles well to bring a D up to a C in a subject that challenges him.

Setting a goal and falling short is always a big disappointment. But setting a modest goal and achieving or exceeding it is cause for celebration!

And Elizabeth, remember to celebrate when your son meets each academic goal. Help make report cards moments of accomplishments together with goal setting to direct future efforts, and see your child strive for the pleasure of celebrating with you.

More Stories By Dr. Yvonne Fournier

Dr. Yvonne Fournier is Founder and President of Fournier Learning Strategies. Her column, "Hassle-Free Homework" was published by the Scripps Howard News Service for 20 years. She has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. Dr. Fournier, arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today, has followed her own roadmap, calling not just for change or improvement in education but for an entirely new model.

She remains one of the most controversial opponents of the current education system in America.

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