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Front Line Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management / Storytellers

How to Talk with Kids About Grades

By Renaye Thornborrow

Checklist and A Pen

Whether kids tend to earn A’s, B’s, C’s, or F’s, kids often define “who they are” based on the grades they receive.

“I’m an A-student.”
“I’m not very smart.”
“I’m an average student.”

Unfortunately, when kids label themselves based on grades, it can have a negative impact on their self-esteem — even for “A-students.” If they bring home an A, they feel great about themselves. If they bring home a C, they get down on themselves.

Creeper picture of a dude’s shadow and face

Creeper picture of a dude’s shadow and face

As an after-school professional you have a unique opportunity to talk with children about how to think about grades — especially when you see them getting down on themselves.

Here are some tips on how to talk with kids about grades, so that their self-esteem doesn’t rise and fall based on their grade point average.

The key is to talk about grades as feedback.

Feedback is just a result that occurs based on an action that was taken — it is a measure of how well they learned the material.

Grades don’t mean that they are “smart” or “dumb”… ”good” or “bad” — it just means they either learned what they needed to know, or they didn’t.

When kids learn to interpret grades as feedback and not “who they are,” it enables them to deal with both good grades and bad grades without impacting their self-esteem.

So how might this work? Say a child shows you a paper with an “A-grade.”

Instead of saying something like, “You’re so smart. You’re an ‘A-student!’” You could say, “Wow — you made some great grades. Looks like you really learned the material.”

Do you see how the first comment labels the child, whereas the second comment is objective feedback on the child’s work?

What if the child is upset about a lower grade — maybe a C or even a failing grade? This is a great time to say something like, “Doesn’t look like you learned the material that you needed to know for this test. Do you want me to help you put together a plan to learn what you need to know to achieve a higher grade?”

Do you see how this approach tackles the low grade as a problem to be solved? This enables the child to focus on improving the grade versus feeling bad about himself for making a poor grade.

The most important takeaway is to help kids see grades as a feedback tool and not as a reflection of who they are or of how smart they are. When kids learn to see grades as feedback of their effort instead of as a “label,” they are able to separate how they feel about themselves (their self-esteem) from the grade.

For more information about how you can use stories to empower kids, visit Adventures In Wisdom to check out a free story.

For breakfast, I had an egg-white omelet with fajita chicken, fruit, and my dark chocolate cafe mocha!

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1 Comment

  1. Profile photo of Bobby Klein

    Great article, I completely agree. In a world where we put such a huge emphasis on grades, those kids who are not “good at school” get diminished and may feel called out when their marks are not up to standard. These very kids might be amazing at other things, but they feel like they are less than. Thank you for the instructions on how to formalize inclusive language around how we speak to students concerning grades.

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