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Tips for Balancing Academic Standards and Mental Health

Learn to reward your child's effort rather than their grades.

Source: Pixabay/Pexels

I ask parents all the time: What do you want for your kids? The most common answers are health, happiness, confidence, friends, success, etc. Seldom do I hear “high GPA” or “straight As”—that is, until their child’s grades start to slide.

Under normal circumstances, most parents can tell if their child is providing a good effort towards their studies or if they are taking it easy. These patterns usually result in grades that correspond to the effort. A good effort usually results in strong grades; poor effort usually earns not-so-good grades. Unfortunately, things have taken a dramatic change over the past (almost) two years, and it is much harder to equate effort and productivity when it comes to grades.

Remember, none of us were prepared for what our children’s education turned into. Many teachers were never appropriately trained in how to properly conduct distance learning. Some of the more “tech-savvy” ones had an easier time with the transition, but many teachers and school districts never embraced the change.

Fast-forward, and we are mostly back to in-person classes but not everywhere or all the time. The pandemic resulted in some schools giving out “free grades,” where students earned high marks just for logging into a digital class; in other instances, teachers attempted to do their in-person curriculum on a digital platform, but sometimes it just didn’t work. There were no right answers, and there wasn’t much consistency, but the result was that in some classes, almost no effort was rewarded with high grades, and in some cases, a full effort resulted in poor grades simply because the class didn’t work online very well.

One middle school counselor I spoke with shared that her school has never had the dramatic range in grade-based competencies that they are experiencing in the classroom this year. She theorized that some parents did a great job of supplementing their child’s education during the distance learning periods by utilizing tutors, learning pods, or simply spending a lot of time becoming their children’s home teachers. Other families may not have had the time, financial resources, or family health to participate in the supplemental support. The counselor also said that it was hard to predict ahead of time, but some kids seemed to do really well with distance learning, and others really suffered.

The following are strategies that might help you and your kids balance high academic goals while maintaining, or even strengthening, their mental health and resiliency.

1. Set reasonable expectations.

Maybe “straight As” is the goal that you set for your children, but is it realistic? Very few students get a 4.0 GPA every semester. All students have academic strengths and weaknesses that help them in some classes and make others more challenging.

When you set reasonable goals with your children, and then they achieve them, you feel a sense of pride. However, when you set lofty and unattainable goals, you set your children up for feeling bad about themselves—even if they gave a great effort and worked close to their top ability. The objective is to build self-esteem and confidence by achieving reasonable goals, not to set yourself or your children up for a letdown.

2. Reward the process, not the product.

We have all heard about rewarding good grades. Maybe it is money for A’s or special treats for a great report card but consider rewarding your child’s effort rather than the letter grade. By rewarding how hard they worked, you are reinforcing that work habit. The last thing we want to teach is that extra time and effort don’t result in meeting our goals.

3. Practice self-care.

Parenting well is a difficult job. You need to be focused and try to do your best, so take care of yourself. The following examples of self-care practices are just a few of the many ways to take better care of yourself. Without proper self-care, you are likely to be less effective, more emotionally unstable, and may be at a higher risk of developing mental health issues yourself.

  • Sleep. Healthy sleep is vital to your overall health. It rejuvenates you and gives you the ability to focus and concentrate on important tasks. Try to avoid eating and consuming caffeine right before going to bed.
  • Nutrition. Maybe it is too much starch or not enough vegetables. Maybe you just generally don’t eat enough. Either way, a healthy diet is associated with lower stress levels and a decreased risk of depressive symptoms. Eating natural foods, including plants, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and lean proteins, can also impact your mental health positively.
  • Make sure to stay active. Setting aside space in your schedule a few times a week for exercise can do wonders for your overall health. Luckily, it doesn’t really matter what kinds of things you do; just about all exercise is beneficial. Exercise promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. Before beginning any new rigorous exercise regimens, please consult your physician.
  • Decrease your caffeine and alcohol consumption. You may think you need caffeine to keep you focused or to stay awake, but caffeine has been proven to negatively affect anxiety symptoms. A cup of coffee or an energy drink shouldn’t be a problem, but when you have too much of anything, it can become harmful.

School was always difficult on children, but today it is even harder. The impact of the pandemic has caused havoc with our educational system and the mental health of some of our kids. A parenting approach that balances academic expectations with mental health makes the most sense under the circumstances. Remember to set reasonable goals, reward the effort your children put forth rather than the letter grade they earn, and above all else, practice your own self-care to be the best parent you can be during this incredibly stressful time.