How much emphasis should I put on grades?

Article at a Glance

  • Grades are not a perfect measure of intelligence or effort.
  • A reward system with frequent, positive reinforcement is more effective than a cash reward at the end of the term.
  • Keep your child’s learning style, special needs, and schedule in mind when you decide how to handle poor grades.

It’s natural to want the best for our kids, and encouraging good grades may seem like the path to academic success. However, earning a good grade is not always straightforward, nor is it consistently an accurate measure of how your child is learning.

While putting an emphasis on grades can help some children maintain or aspire to high grades, not all children respond the same to the added stress. Instead, use a balanced approach that recognizes their effort and takes children’s specific needs into account.

What grades are and are not

Grades are an indicator. They can tell us if performance is going up or down over a semester and across multiple semesters. They can tell us which subjects come easily to our kids and which do not.

Grades are not perfect.  If you’ve ever drilled the spelling list with your child until they’ve mastered it, then had them come home with a poor test score, you know the frustration of grades. Some kids have a harder time demonstrating what they know on tests. And just like us, kids sometimes have bad days.

Ideally, grades would measure the amount of effort your child put into learning. In reality, grades measure everything from the effectiveness of the teaching method and the shape of the class curve to your child’s effort, recall, interest level, and mood on test day.

Grades are not a life sentence. Several failing grades should raise questions about whether your third grader needs additional help, but the difference between an A and C will have no bearing on her adult life.

Should I pay for grades?

Paying for good grades can be problematic because it puts the focus on the outcome and not the effort. It can also feel like a bribe. There is a thin line between a bribe and a reward, but a chasm between their effects. A reward system is clear, rewards specific positive behaviors, and makes children feel proud of their accomplishments. Bribes are usually used to stop a bad behavior. A bribe is often offered in desperation and the child who receives it might feel a sense of power, but not of accomplishment.

Instead of paying for grades, consider motivating children with a chart that tracks their efforts at reading, spelling, math facts, or whichever subject they struggle to master. Rewarding effort shifts the emphasis to something children can control and lets them experience more frequent positive reinforcement. This approach works particularly well for children with shorter attention spans.

Tips for establishing a reward system:

  • Discuss the reward in advance to make sure it is something your child finds inspiring and motivating.
  • Think outside the box. Experiences and privileges are often more motivating than toys or cash. Getting to choose dinner on Friday or skipping a chore can feel incredible to a six-year-old.
  • Keep the system sustainable. If you start out with a huge reward, it will be difficult to keep the system going term after term.
  • For some children, an entire semester is also too long of a time period for an incentive to be effective.  Consider small, weekly, or daily rewards for their efforts.
  • Don’t renegotiate. A reward system, once established, is not an auction. Once you’ve set reasonable expectations, let your child rise to them.
  • Keep it positive. An effective reward system doesn’t require penalties.

Other factors to consider

Busy or overscheduled?

While research shows most children can lead a busy and active lifestyle, this has its limits. The specific pace of a balanced life will vary from person to person. Striving to “do it all” can quickly create a vicious cycle of fatigue, stress, and physical ailments. If your children participate in many after-school activities, pay close attention to their behavior and health. Changes in either area can forecast problems that will later manifest on their report card.

Learning disabilities and special needs

Grading students with learning disabilities or special needs can be especially tricky. The average grading system doesn’t always work for students who learn differently or who may be progressing at their own pace. The challenge for teachers and parents is how to measure these students’ progress and efforts while not discouraging them or allowing special needs to become an excuse.

Luckily, putting the emphasis on a reward system like the one described above can help encourage students to do their best while tailoring the goals and rewards to their individual needs. Parents can also use things like IEP objectives to help monitor how their child is progressing. Children with special needs may feel bad about their performance in school, so the focus should be on their efforts and dedication. If you are concerned about how your child is being graded at school, meet with your child’s teacher or school administration.


Share this article:

Further Resources

Stay connected to your children’s health:

Want pediatric news, kid-friendly recipes and parenting tips?
Sign up for our patient parent newsletter:

Other great ways to connect: