Focus on the learning process not the grade

6 minute read

Grades can be an inaccurate measure of knowledge

I used to think grades were the ultimate identifier of intelligence. Smart kids got good grades. If a student got a bad grade then it was assumed they didn’t try hard enough.

I defined my childhood and early-adulthood by grades. Getting A’s equaled being a good student. This was the only measure of success.

When I became a parent I expected my kids to go to school and get good grades. It’s just that simple, right?

When my kids were struggling to get A’s in elementary school I was surprised. I realized the my focus was misplaced. The focus should be on the learning process and not on just the grades.

School is harder for some kids because it’s not designed for their learning style

Imagine you are a swimmer. You pack you gear bag and get dressed to go to practice. When you arrive at practice you discover that someone filled the pool with marbles instead of water. And now you are expected to swim and beat your old times. You times are also compared to swimmers at other locations who got to swim in actual water.

This would be frustrating. You might want to quit.

Imagine a kid who shows up at school every day and the behavior expectations, pace of teaching, and the presentation of the content do not relate to them. These kids feel lost and might not know why or how to speak up for themselves.

Kids have the desire to learn.

Due to ADHD and/or executive dysfunction (in their brain) a few minutes into a lecture their mind might be thinking about another topic. Daydreaming causes them to lose focus on the teacher.

Now they missed a few sentences and what they do hear the teacher saying has no context. When the teacher passes out the corresponding worksheet it seems like brand new information. (This relates to parts of executive function like working memory and inhibition. I will cover those in another post.)

How do we see that the student is struggling and create appropriate supports? I think it begins with expectations.

Unfair school expectations for kids with ADHD

What expectations have our kids been given in school? Be correct and be fast. Some worksheets and quizzes are timed. Do you remember timed math quizzes where you see how many math problems you can answer in 60 seconds? Everyone rushes to finish first. 

Accuracy loses to speed. Many answers are incorrect because the student was trying to be first in time. Time was the focus and not effort and accuracy.

Return to the image of the kid sitting there with the confusing worksheet. They might be too embarrassed to walk up and talk to the teacher. Instead they start scribbling answers to fill in blanks but they are not trying to get any of the answers right. They are aiming for completeness.

The kid is lost in trying to connect the dots between learning, understanding, applying, and the final grade.

Adults put too much emphasis on the grade

Parents and teachers have all tried to convince kids that THE GRADES are the most important reason they go to school. A good grade is an A or anything over 90% and anything else is unacceptable. The letter or the number becomes paramount and overshadows true learning and curiosity.

Many children have heard, “Try harder” or “You must get an A.”

But what if the child has no idea how? We send them into a repeating do-loop of failure by expecting better grades without giving them the tools to learn and attain such grades.

So the child gets anxious and perpetually stressed about school. They have no idea where to place their effort and how. Their bad grades repeat and so does the external and internal messaging that they are not good students.

This can be emotionally damaging and discouraging to them.

Let’s change the message we are sending the kids.

Adults need to look for curiosity and creativity

Kids enter this world curious and excited to explore their world. If that spirit has already been dampened by parental and school expectations now is the time to change course.

Every kid is good at least one thing – although usually several things. Parents like to look for easy identifiers of intelligence and success, like grades. It takes more effort, time, and patience to truly observe your kid and see the many quality skills they possess outside of the narrow measure of school success.

Do they love memorizing lines from songs or movies?

Can they build a structure out of a haphazard combination of toys and household objects?

Do they draw exceptionally detailed pictures of objects they see in real life or in their mind?

These are AMAZING talents! And there is more to them than meets the eye. Ok adults, time to start looking at these skills from another angle.

Strong auditory processing and memorization skills are present in memorizing lyrics and lines.

Visual processing, spatial awareness, and an inherent understanding of structural integrity are present in building towers, forts, and 3D art.

Finely honed working memory, planning, and sequencing are required for drawing.

Just like when we talk about motivation don’t start from scratch and try to reinvent the wheel. We can’t create motivation where it doesn’t exist. We can help translate it from one activity to another.

Translate your kid’s skills and strengths into a repeating playlist in your mind. Recognize these talents for yourself and soak up the joy and strength you see in your kid when they are working on their favorite tasks. Be proud of these talents, not to brag to others but to truly see your child and tune out all of society’s expectations that are outdated and one-size-fits-all.

Reframe expectations to break the cycle of bad grades

You have already worked on viewing your kid’s talents and strengths from a new angle. You attach value and worth to these skills and your kid’s happiness in pursuing their passions.

Positive messaging from parents, guardians, and teachers goes a long way to creating a collaborative supportive dynamic with the child.

Instead of demanding good grades tell the child you see they are struggling with a certain task. Ask if you can help. Tell them you are there to support – not demand they do it a certain way.

Tell the kids you believe in them. You have seen them accomplish wonderful things such as (insert description of talents and skills here)________________________________.

Convince them that you are on their side. That you know they want to learn new concepts in school but maybe they are not sure how. Or they might not be sure where they are getting stuck.

You can guide and coach them to find the obstacles to their learning. If you honestly believe that there is value in the process of LEARNING ITSELF then that authenticity will come through in your tone and attitude.

Collaborate with the kid on focusing in the LEARNING PROCESS instead of the grade. Strengthening the learning process and the relationship between the parent/guardian and the kid will slowly lead to more effective learning and ultimately better grades. Be patient and commit to the process for the long-term.

You can also use this newfound dedication and perspective to understand the Mental Overload imposed on kids with ADHD as they try to navigate their day and learn.

Please email me if any of this sounds familiar to you and you want to know how to implement these changes for you!

My Learning Resources page shows just a few examples of how I have taken learning tasks, broken them down, and built them back up for my kids. I can help you do the same thing!

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