Academic Pointers for a New School Year

It’s tough these days to find balance in parenting. I’m not talking about social media, cell phones or wearing the right outfit from the right stores. I’m talking about my profession: education. Anyone who has kids under the age of 25 has experienced the inevitable end-of-the-year state tests. As a teacher, I understand the tremendous stress that educators are under to “grow” their students and to push achievement higher.

As I begin my twenty-sixth year of teaching, I have what most teachers would envy: High-achieving, motivated students. They do their homework. The majority of them make high A’s on every assignment. They listen to directions. They are thirsty for knowledge. A teacher’s dream!! However, my eyes were opened the other morning. While they were doing bell-ringer work, I went around to check off their homework. It was a workbook page or a sheet. I don’t remember. I came to one boy, and he was “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. I lost my paper, and I don’t know where it is.” Tears were brimming in his eyes. I stopped bell-ringer work, and we had a lesson in self-forgiveness and giving up the need to be perfect. I showed them my sloppy writing on the board and my messy desk. I told them I left my cell phone charger at home, and I forgot to copy something for class today. I saw a thousand pounds lift off of the shoulders of the entire class. Yikes. I am worried about the stress kids are under these days, and I have 12 year olds.

Boy studying

I have a few pointers for parents as we begin the school year.

1. Relieve stress from your child by not expecting all A’s. Parents of these students want their children to be challenged, but not if it means they may get an occasional B. We’ve fielded questions on GPA and class rank this year! (FYI…it doesn’t exist in sixth grade.) In addition, you may not think you are expecting all A’s but when your child overhears you talking about their math level and their grades to Grandma, they hear the pride in your voice and don’t want to disappoint you. Tell Grandma a funny story or about something kind that your child did. Pull the identity away from their academic and even athletic accolades.

2. Examine your attitude toward homework and quality of work.

I recently had a meeting with a parent who was very upset over the amount of homework and her child’s anxiety over the quality of her work. She feels she doesn’t measure up to her classmates. It was reported that the child spent three hours trying to complete an assignment that should have taken five minutes, constantly second guessing herself. The parent was at wit’s end. However, there were some signs of roots of this stress. The parent had emailed some of us LONG messages with multiple questions about assignments, quizzes and tests. The parent came in with a typed agenda for our meeting on her suggestions for what we could do at school. We acknowledged her suggestions and agreed to try some things but not all. We came up with some other ideas as well. What I wanted to say was take a deep breath. You are stressing yourself out and you are stressing your child out. Eventually, I will tell her.

3. Don’t push your child into a math class he/she is not ready to take.

Kids at my school who test high in 5th grade math tests are placed on a faster track, taking pre Algebra in sixth grade, Algebra I in seventh, Geometry in eighth and it goes on and on from there. This year, I have a student on my team who takes Algebra I in sixth grade! Most brains are not developed enough to understand Algebra until the age of 14. Kids are given placement tests at the beginning of the year because their parents believe they can handle a higher math. We have parents override the placement tests and the school’s decision regularly. I often wonder if parents want this more than the kids.

4. Hope that your child loses an assignment, forgets homework or fails a quiz.

I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I mean it. When it happens, reassure them that they are human. Share a story about when you had a similar experience to connect with your child. They need to know that you screw up too. Ask if they need some suggestions on organizing their papers or writing down assignments. They probably don’t need your help, but if they do, help them. Your love, example of self- forgiveness and attitude about the situation are like a safety net. They won’t forget it down the road. Mental health is more important than being in the top 10% of the class.


5. Don’t be an online grade book checker and instant emailer.

Oh my gosh. I have had parents who must have the online grade book open at all times and get alerts for anything below a 95%. We all know which parents are going to send us an email as soon as a grade is entered, and we laugh about it at lunch. One year I set a timer to see how long it took for the Mom to email me: 8 minutes!! Allow for some time for your child to get the grade back up, but if you see a pattern of low marks, talk to your child first and then email the teacher. Think about the message that it sends your child about being perfect if you are constantly bringing up grades that you saw online.

6. Be honest with yourself about your own experience

Are you tying your own “If I had only…” lessons and dreams onto your child? Do you feel your life would have been set on a different course if you had been pushed academically? Do you wish you had been in a “better” college? Would it have made a difference in your career? Over the past ten years, I have had several parents ask me to rank their child in the class. I decline. Is this about their child or about them? Hmmm.

7. Google the article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” It’s one of the most honest, thought-provoking articles I’ve read in awhile by an Ivy league professor. Kids today are becoming zombies, trying to get as many extracurriculars on their college application as possible, striving for highly ranked, prestigious colleges. And although I feel it’s important to go into college with a sense of what you may want to do and to pick a college that offers a good program, it’s more important to pick a college that allows kids to think, reflect and experience. My friend Steve Hoeffler, a professor at Vanderbilt has helped me with this.

I’ll admit that I have violated everything above as a parent. It’s true. I find myself asking about grades, signing Lauren up for ACT prep classes and asking Aaron if he’s had any tests in Organic Chemistry. What I feel I have done well is to always tell my kids to do their best, but to take time to enjoy their years in school. There are times when I know they are slacking, and I’ll point it out to them. They’ve also had bare bones honesty about where they stack in the deck. There will always be people around you smarter, wealthier, better looking and better networked. A truly successful adult is one who has balance of work and play and self-love.


  1. I needed this one today for “punishing” my child who is forgetting to bring home his homework folder by not allowing him ipad time until he remembers. He told me the punishment didn’t fit the crime and I am too hard on him. I am thinking, he is going to grow up to be a disorganized adult, who can’t keep a steady job. Or like his father loses his keys and wallet all the time, which is even worse!

    • There needs to be balance between setting expectations and letting go. All of our kids are different, but I think what is best for your little guy is to do exactly what you are doing. 🙂

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