Focus on Grades as Clues to What Still Needs to Be Learned

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My daughter just started the third grade. School has been very easy for her up to now, and she has been a straight-A student with very little effort. Although this sounds like every parent’s dream, I am concerned. On her own, my child now expects to make all As – in other words she expects perfection. What happens when she has to put in the effort and doesn’t make the grade?

Teresa B.

Oakland, CA

Dear Teresa:

Take heart, your fears are not atypical or unique. The major difference in your realization is that you were intuitive enough to sense that even though from the outside the situation is ideal, damage to your child’s notions of personal value could be threatened when she does not meet her own expectations. Many parents wait until a problem manifests before they take action, so I applaud you for being proactive.


In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, Calvin always carries around his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. Hobbes symbolizes the security blankets we all create for ourselves to keep us feeling safe and secure. Calvin without Hobbes? Unthinkable! The few times Calvin loses his beloved Hobbes, he is lost, devastated.

As we grow from children to adults, we do not stop needing these emotional security blankets. Instead, we learn to adapt the previous blankets as we discover that the old ones do not provide their same warmth and safety.

For children, however, the process is different. They hold their blankets without knowing, at times, they are doing so – and that makes it much harder to adapt or let go. Children who hold on to the blanket of perfection are doomed to let it go because they must inevitably face their own imperfection.

Parents need to recognize the fabric of their children’s blankets and help them be aware of holding on so they will not be devastated when they must let go.


The answer to this problem lies in how we as parents teach our children to interpret grades. Grades are not meant to be a badge of honor or shame to the recipient; they are simply notations that give a numerical reflection of how much our child has left to learn. When your child brings home graded work, even if it continues to be A level work, do not focus on the number or the grade as the end all be all of achievement.

Instead, look at the number as showing how much of the material your child still has left to learn. This can be tricky, but whether the grade is a 96 or a 78, celebrate! You now know how much your child has left to learn. Then, the missed learning becomes a sort of game in its own right, and is learned before your child moves on to the next chapter.

Dr. Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier

This is not to say that grades are not important in the long run. However, if you focus on the mastery of each concept and the grades as a measure of the learning that has taken place, your daughter will learn all of the material as it is presented, without focusing on the grade as the only important component of measured learning. As her scholastic workload and grade levels increase, this will help her avoid both cramming and the potential disappointment of a less than satisfactory exam grade due to compounding missed learning.