What to Do When Your Child Fails a Test

Illustration for article titled What to Do When Your Child Fails a Test

Photo: Iana Alter (Shutterstock)

As our kids begin to wrap up this Pandemic School Year From Hell, they are likely to face some final exams in the coming weeks. While it would be great for them to ace every single class and individual test, realistically, they may struggle—whether with anxiety, with poor study habits, or with mustering the enthusiasm to care about algebra. And that struggle may lead to a few bad grades.

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If your child’s report card is peppered with Ds and Fs when you expected something a little closer to the beginning of the alphabet, the first thing you should do is not overreact. As Cristina Margolis writes for PopSugar:

Whether it’s a pop quiz in math or a big history exam, it’s never fun when your child brings home a failing grade. Although you may be feeling angry, disappointed, frustrated, or all of the above about your child’s test score, they’re also probably feeling those things, plus anxiety about having to tell you about it (most schools require a parent’s signature on a failed test). As a parent, you might be feeling lost at how to best handle the situation, but the most important thing to remember is not to overreact.

In the same spirit, a “letter” from a principal is making the rounds on Reddit to remind parents that bad grades happen and yelling about it or shaming kids over it isn’t the way to go. That letter, which is allegedly from a Singaporean principal (one commenter said the last time he saw it posted, though, it was allegedly from a Canadian principal) reads:

Dear parents,

The exams of your children are to start soon. I know you are all really anxious for your child to do well. But, please do remember, amongst the students who will be sitting for the exams there is an artist, who doesn’t need to understand Math… There is an entrepreneur, who doesn’t care about History or English literature … There is a musician, whose Chemistry marks won’t matter… There’s an athlete… whose physical fitness is more important than Physics… If your child does get top marks, that’s great! But if he or she doesn’t… please don’t take away their self-confidence and dignity from them. Tell them it’s OK, it’s just an exam! They are cut out for much bigger things in life. Tell them, no matter what they score… you love them and will not judge them.

I don’t agree with all the specifics (an artist does need to understand some math if they want to make money from their art and/or operate as a person in the world), nor do I know if the author is actually a principal. But the overall sentiment offers a good reminder, particularly during this stressful time, while we’re already worried our children may have fallen behind academically. Here’s what you can do instead:

Be curious about the grade

If a child comes home with a failing or near-failing grade, particularly if it’s in a subject they usually perform well in, it’s not helpful to react with anger or disappointment. That is likely only to make a child feel worse than they already do, if not make them want to try to hide it from you next time. Instead, approach the situation with curiosity.

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Ask them if they know what might have happened to result in a low score. Did they not feel well that day? Were they distracted by something? Did they forget to study? Did they study the wrong material? Do they simply fundamentally not understand the questions? If they, too, have no explanation, you can ask their teacher, who likely has some insight into what was happening that day or whether the student is struggling in a certain subject or on a particular unit.

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Once you know the why, then you can:

Make a plan

If the failing grade was situational (say, your child had been absent from school and wasn’t quite caught up, or something distracting was happening in the classroom that day), the teacher may allow them to retake the test. But if not, you—and your kid—shouldn’t sweat it. A few bad grades are unlikely to haunt us for the rest of our lives.

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If, instead, the problem runs a little deeper—you now realize they’re really struggling to keep up in math or this is another bad grade in a long line of bad grades—it’s time to figure out how to best support them. They may benefit from a tutor or they may need help developing better study habits. Falling grades can also be a sign that they’re struggling in other ways, such as with anxiety or depression, so if this is becomeing a new pattern, it’s important to consider whether you’ve noticed other changes in their mood or behavior.

Don’t compare them to others

Whatever the cause, one of the most unhelpful things you can do is negatively compare them to others—particularly a sibling, but also any other student or peer. Saying they should try harder like their brother is not a motivating sentiment for a child and is quite likely to have the opposite effect of damaging their self-esteem. Every child learns in different ways and has different strengths and weaknesses; to compare their abilities or work to another child will only serve to diminish their confidence even more.

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Instead, think of the failure as an opportunity to home in on those strengths and weaknesses in order to help them in the best way possible. And remind them that although experiencing failure rarely feels good, it can also be an opportunity to learn and improve for the next time.

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