School Performance – Parenting Kids to be Good Students pt. 2

This is a followup to an article addressing school performance as our kids approach or enter the middle school years. As our children get older, they have to accept more ownership and we take on less responsibility. I suggest to any of you reading this article to stop and return to this article after reading part one. Please keep in mind that I hold the following beliefs as a result of a career in public education— as a teacher and as a guidance counselor.

1) We should be available to help our kids with their school work, as long as:
a.  We are enjoying ourselves
b. Our kids are working harder than we are

Helping our kids with their math homework, or with studying for a test should not lead to frustration. If our kids say to us with irritation, “I didn’t learn it that way,” or “I don’t want to do it that way,” or “I’ll do it myself,” we have to back off.  If helping leads to irritation or friction, we walk way. Working on school work with our child should be a form of connection. We enjoy working together or we don’t work together.

Secondly, we support our kids, not take over their work for them. If we are doing all of the thinking, problem solving, and writing, we are owning school, and that is unhealthy. It is their education, not ours. As importantly, they need to experience the feelings that accompany success and failure.

In my ideal world our kids know that we’re there for them if they ever need us, but they need to ask. The same philosophy holds true with respect to reviewing math homework or English papers. However, if we find fault with their work, they will stop asking.  I suggest saying things like, “You might want to look at your work on problem 28,” and “I think the third paragraph has a run-on sentence.” Think about, would you want someone to pick apart your work?

2) The most aggravating issue I faced with my daughter as she progressed through school was how distractions are a normal part of the lives of teens. As kids get older and decide how and when they do their work (we can’t micromanage them), they want to do their work listening to music, watching TV, have Facebook open, and/or text their friends non-stop all night long. Sitting in the room with my daughter while she did her school was torture— I had to leave. Why? Because it took her four hours to do work that could have taken two hours if she was isolated in a room somewhere.

As you read this, you might be thinking, “You’re the parent— why do you put up with it?  Do your job and demand that she does her work first and has fun later.”  There are three reasons I do not suggest that we be an authoritarian parent:

a. I don’t believe in getting in power struggles; they are lose-lose. I will give one example. If I tried to tell my  daughter to turn her phone off I would hear, “I can’t, Kara is helping me with Physics,” or “I am texting Josh about our History presentation.” The excuses would be endless.

b. What will happen when your child goes off to college  and she is in complete control?  If they never learned to balance work and fun, fun will win in college.   College is very expensive and I am not willing to risk  wasting tens of thousands of dollars.

c. We have the right to intervene when we have proof that our kids are underachieving.  But if they can juggle distractions and school work, all we should do is discuss what we are observing and hope they will take it into consideration.

3) School is our child’s responsibility, and that includes  respecting their teachers.  Our kids don’t have to like all of their teachers, but they have to respect all of them. It is no different than what they will have to do when they have bosses. Therefore, we as parents cannot trash talk teachers in front of our children. They will feel entitled pick and choose who they respect.

4) When our children experience problems at school, we have to expect them to solve the problems. We’re not at school– they are. They need to become comfortable talking with their teachers if they feel they weren’t treated fairly, or if they need to miss school. Their guidance counselor is also a valuable resource.  Should we ever get involved?  Yes, when a problem is greater than we can expect a fifteen-year-olds to handle on their own.

5) Make it clear to your kids that if a school official or teacher ever calls to tell you that your child created a problem (ie. cheating, discipline, truancy), they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise. Why? Because to buy into your child’s tale will likely to create a manipulative child who feels he can talk his way out of trouble. If he tells you a story, don’t support him and don’t tell him you don’t believe it. Just say, “I’ll look into it,” and talk to the appropriate school personnel.

6) At all costs, we have to prevent our kids from experiencing discouragement. When kids become discouraged, they conclude that nothing they do will make a difference. Solely focusing on grades can lead to discouragement. When our kids work hard and don’t achieve the outcomes we both would hope for, it is easy for them to conclude, “What’s the point?”

In these cases I think it is important to help our kids focus on and take pride in their effort. We often can’t control outcomes, but we can control how hard we work. Most kids improve significantly when they get one-on-one help from the teacher.

Alan Carson is an ACPI© Coach for Parents and the author of Before They Know It All: Talking to Tweens and Teens About Sexuality. Alan’s website is


  1. This is a very timely article as homework has been a power struggle lately– my son wants me to provide him with answers, and I just want to give him hints so that he can figure out the work on his own.

  2. My daughter did wonderful at the very beginning of the year. Half way through the first semester she tanked. Her first report card she had all C’s. That’s ok but I know she can do better. I know she knows the material. She does poorly on tests and quizzes. She prefers to get help at school because of the frustration she feels when she gets help with us. Do you have any advice?


    • Sheri:

      When you said that your daughter did superbly at the beginning of the year, and then it has been downhill from there, the first two things that came to mind were:
      1) Most kids are excited to be back and school, but after 4-5 weeks the novelty of new year and new teachers wears off and the daily grind of school sets in;
      2) The first few weeks of the school year involves a great deal of reviewing concepts that were taught in previous years. With the onset of new material kids have to develop good study habits because classes will get harder.

      My first question is, how does your daughter feel about her grades? If she is fine with C’s even though she is capable of better, then I think her standard of living has to be impacted.
      We have to get our kids ready for the real world. If they don’t earn a good education, I doubt if they will be able to afford a nice standard of living.

      If your daughter is upset with her grades, and tells you she will take care of it in her own way (getting help in school), you should give her time to show you that she is fixing the problem. If her way isn’t successful, you are justified in establishing structure and expectations. But keep in mind, your daughter earns her own grades and has to care more than you care.

      In my role as a guidance counselor, we taught middle school kids learning strategies and test taking strategies, which I will make available on this site in the near future. For the time being, several major habits kids need to get into are:

      1. If students are given reading assignments prior to class, and/or homework, they need to complete these tasks so that they have a basic understanding of the material that will be covered in class.
      2. We learn through repetition. The more we look at or study material, the more we remember. We can’t take notes at the beginning of a chapter and start cramming for a test three weeks later and expect to get a good test grade.

      Let me know if I can be of further help Sheri.


  3. MarshellaSmith says:

    I have read your previous article. This one is also as good as the previous one.

    We, the parents have very less time to help our wards with their homework. As a single mother, I face the problem even more. That’s why, sometimes I have to depend on online tutoring services. I use for my daughter’s math homework.

  4. I am having a really tough time with my 10 year old 4th grade son. He would love nothing more than to escape in a book & ignore the rest of his school work. When he decides to do his work he is an unstoppable machine. We spend hours of frustration every day doing homework that could take less than 1 hour MAX. I feel like a helicopter and a drill sergeant, both things are unhealthy. He is so passive aggressive that if I don’t hover over him he just slips off to another room and finds something else to do. His teachers are very concerned about what is going to happen to him academically if he doesn’t take responsibility for his assignments. He has some foundational concepts in math & writing that he needs to learn & understand and is already slipping from above grade level to below grade level. I can’t seem to find a teacher, principal, counselor or support person in the school that can help me figure out what will be the clicker for my son. I have made the rule that toys, books, tv, wii games, etc are available to those that finish their “jobs” (homework, clean room). He wants to do those things, but it’s not always a motivater for him to get the work done. He also sneaks off and plays with his toys & reads or goes outside while I am distracted with my other children or responsiblities. This is no fun for any of us & I feel like he is getting away with irresponsiblity. I’m concerned about his future & his lack of understanding of his choices. I have been dealing with this since he was in 1st grade. please help.

    • Lareesa:

      I’ll do my best to be helpful, but with situations like this, you have to take into account your parenting philosophy. There might be a right answer for me, but others might think my response is unacceptable. Here is what we know:
      1) Even though your son is getting older and should be maturing, nothing is changing.
      2) Your interventions are not making an impact.
      3) Your son is breaking the rules you’ve established regarding work comes first, play second.
      4) If your son doesn’t turn things around, his academic skills will continue to decline.
      5) You are owning the problem, your son is not. I have an audio clip about problem ownership on my website (
      Here are my recommendations:
      a. Every time your son displays responsibility with respect to homework– notice and recognize this behavior. Don’t take it for granted— tell him what you saw.
      b. Have a talk with your son and say something like the following:
      “It is completely unacceptable that you aren’t doing your homework unless
      unless I step in and like I am your boss. School is your primary responsibility
      and thus far you aren’t anywhere near where you need to be. I am through
      micromanaging your homework— that is your job. I am here to help you, but
      refuse to fight with you about it. School is your responsibility— you need to
      earn your own education. If you fail to do the work necessary to learn, you
      will lose a lot of your privileges around here. I will be unwilling to reward
      irresponsible behavior.” Don’t give any more warnings that this.
      c. The first time time your son doesn’t get his work done,the wii games are gone! Not
      limited, not temporarily off limits— gone. Given away, hidden somewhere, taken
      to work, whatever. If that has no impact, toys are gone. Your son has to
      conclude that it is easier to cooperate than it is to fight. Secondly, your son
      isn’t respecting your rules. It is time to get his attention.
      d. Notify his teachers that you are to be told the first time he fails to have his
      homework completed, and completed with good effort.
      e. If your son doesn’t get the message, stop doing nice, but unnecessary things for him.
      Ex. Buying him CDs, DVDs, having friends over, sleepovers, etc. Your response if
      your son complains is, “You are completely responsible for the decisions you
      make. If you don’t like the situation, fix it.
      f. No anger, irritation, sarcasm, attitude, etc. on your part. Your mood should be
      neutral. If you get involved emotionally, your son will keep pushing your

      If anybody thinks this is a bit harsh, I have a question— what do you think life will be like when the teen years hit? Horrible! This needs to get resolved before 7th grade. Your son would have no respect for authority and I’d guess will be making poor choices in other areas of his life by the teen years. He needs to become a self-disciplined person.
      Your son is being irresponsible because the consequences are not strong enough to motivate him to shape up. You need to get his attention.
      With regard to finding a “clicker,” he needs to find his own clicker. Successful people are self-motivated, not externally motivated. Therefore, let go of this. I understand— we all want this for our kids, but it is counterproductive to dwell on it.
      Lastly, you have every reason to worry, but when you’re the one doing the worrying, your son doesn’t worry. When you stop worrying, have faith that he will at some point start worrying.


  5. Alan,
    Thank you for your response. I totally agree & have further questions. At the risk of coming up with excuses or sounding weak…What about family vacations? We are planning a ski trip next month. We want to create memories and bond. Also our daughters don’t have this issue and would be punished by the complete removal of the Wii or tv priviledges. How can we make this work for everyone? I’m asking because I need help and appreciate the honest and straightforward manner in which you respond.

    • Hello Lareesa:

      I think you have some options:

      1) You could look at your family vacation as an “escape” from the real world and forget about all of your frustrations with your son and just have a good time. Maybe the bonding/connection will be good for him. I am not optimistic that will be the case, but it is an option. For you to play enforcer on your ski trip will sort of ruin it for you, right?

      2) A second option is to tell your son he has to solve the problem, as in: “Joe, on our family ski trip, I am not going to punish your sisters for your irresponsible behavior, so they are welcome to play Wii and watch television. You are not. How are you going to occupy yourself if they choose to lay Wii or watch TV?” Joe caused this problem and Joe has to fix the problem to your satisfaction. Joe goes to a different room or has to face in the other direction, or some other solution you can live with. But I would also say, “Bring lots of books to read.”

      3) On the subject of siblings being punished when the brother (or sister) misbehaves. For big things, I would not want to consequence my other children for my other kid’s irresponsible behavior. But is removing Wii or TV a big consequence? No. Lots of other good things will happen as a result of no screen time– everyone reads more, the family will play board or card games together more, the kids draw pictures– the list is endless. Plus, we eventually learn that our poor behavior impacts others; another person’s poor behavior impacts me. That is the real world and, at some point, kids need to learn that.

      You’ll have to let me know what you decide Lareesa!


  6. Thank you Alan,
    I will keep you posted!

  7. Hi Alan,
    I want to give you an update on my son. In a nutshell….. his room is completely empty except for clothing and furniture and blankets. For the first 3 weeks, he was taking ownership of his homework and getting it done. Finally he received “Friday Reward” at school. He felt good about himself and expressed how much better it felt to just get the work done. He began to earn his possessions back and then as much as he improved, he is back to his old ways. His things are once again gone and He could care less! He is perfectly content to sit at the table every day and do nothing. He is not getting assignments done in class and now his teacher wants to conference with us again. I am stuck AGAIN. I spend quality time with him every night reading a favorite chapter book together. We chat and snuggle for a while before he goes to bed. I’m not sure what is going on. His needs are being met & we are being consistent in our expectations/consequences and now we are back to square one? Is this normal? What else do we need to do. What am I not understanding or doing? Please help some more!

    • Lareesa:

      Sorry it took me a few days to respond to your email— but I have been thinking about you!
      Anytime we discuss trying to motivate another person, especially a 10-11 year old, it is tough. You could be doing all of the right things, but your son isn’t ready yet. As I would have mentioned previously, I gained a lot of wisdom working as a middle school counselor. One of the experiences that struck me was this– when I would go to the high school and look in the display case and see the pictures of the kids that just were voted into the National Honor Society. There was always a shock or two or three. Same thing when reading the list of where kids were going to college. Kids who were mediocre in middle school were accepted into very selective schools. They grew up and became self-motivated.

      On the bright side, your son is 10– or 11 by now. Time is on your side, and as I stated earlier, better to go through this now than try to influence a teenager.

      I don’t know how long you waited until you began to permit him to earn things back, but I suggest you not let up next time for at least six weeks. If your grading periods are nine weeks, nine weeks makes sense.

      With respect to the “he could care less,” I do not buy it. The only time kids truly become like this is when they feel powerless and give up. Over the years I have talked to a lot of parents about their underachieving kids. Parents would say the same thing (“I consequence, but he doesn’t care”), but when I talked to the child 1:1, I got a different story. The consequence bothered him, but he wasn’t going to let his parents know that.

      When he sits and does nothing, I hope you are able to stay calm and detached, and say things like, “You are responsible for your own decisions. It is your life and your education.” I would not say much at all, or you’d be owning the problem and your son would not own it.

      With respect to the parent conference, I would contact the teacher and say, “I would be happy to come in for a meeting, but my son will be there, and the conversation will largely take place between you and my son. I have removed all distractions from his life and when he gets sick and tired of the consequences he’ll shape up.” If the teacher(s) want to implement a plan, I’d cooperate unless it requires you to own the problem.

      Lastly, and I know it must be incredibly annoying, but keep the connection going.


      How are you handling playing with friends, sleepovers, birthday parties, etc. Restricting everything might come across as punishment, so I’d limit these types of fun things to once a week.

      Does your son get activity– does he play sports, go to musical lessons, Boy Scouts, etc?
      I’d permit structured activities and sports– they teach life lessons and he gets to hear about things he misses.

      Can you think back to when things started to regress? Did anything specifically happen about this time? Do you remember saying anything?

      Lastly, sometimes we sabotage effective discipline by saying and doing the wrong things. Examples:
      1. Feeling sorry for our child
      2. Saying “Keep it up.”
      3. Offering rewards such as , “If you can…”
      4. Being sarcastic, “Well, you finally are getting the message, huh?”
      5. Removing a consequence in an attempt to motivate

      I will conclude by saying that, as a child, I could never get my daughter to do her chores. After giving her ample opportunity to change her ways, I gave up and used her normal allowance money to pay myself for doing her work. It took over two years for her to finally fix the problem. You may have to wait your son out; that would be tough because we’re dealing with school here, not simple chores. But I strongly believe that as long as you don’t own the problem, and don’t reward him for being irresponsible, he’ll realize that his life will be much better if he just fulfills his obligations. I am here if you need me.

  8. Lareesa says:

    Thank you so much Alan. I will read this again and digest it further, but I want to thank you for your help!!!!!! I will keep you posted as things progress.