School Performance – Parenting Kids to be Good Students

This i part 1 of a two-part series in which Alan Carson shares his experiences and thoughts as well as introduces you to a parenting philosophy that can influence your kids to be good students.

Several weeks ago NBC and its sister networks devoted hours of programming to exploring the wide-ranging failure of public education in the United States. As a person who spent 36 years in education, 21 years as a teacher and 16 years as a middle school guidance counselor, I completely agree that there is much to be concerned about. Specifically looking at the 8th grade Mathematics TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) results, the U.S. is significantly behind most Asian countries (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, S. Korea and Japan), but also behind Hungary— and only a few points ahead of Slovenia and the Czech Republic. This is surprising and should alarm all of us.

When we examine these statistics a little closer, we find that our Honors students do as well as any kids in the world. Simplistically, we have lots of kids who value education and are willing to work hard, but way too many kids who are unwilling to make the sacrifices to be good students. If you put student grades on a Bell Curve, there is no Bell Curve— there is a roller-coaster. Tons of phenomenal kids, way too many kids who don’t seem to care, and others in the middle.

Nobody can give students an education; they must earn an education. Of course all adults involved in education must love children and do their best for kids, but the bottom line is that you can’t make students earn an education. In my opinion, as a country, our thinking is codependent. We’re trying to control and accept ownership for the behavior and decisions students are making. When kids underachieve, fail, and/or drop out, too many people conclude it is the fault of parents and educators. We have to own our part, but we can’t own more than the kids own. When kids want to learn, they can achieve great things. You may have seen in the news that a girl who spent most of her teen years homeless gained admission into Harvard. My friend’s son struggled with ADHD growing up and is now a college Physics professor with a Ph.D.

It is time to get to the purpose of this article— presenting a parenting philosophy that influences our kids to be good students. When our children are in early elementary school, we have a great deal of control and can establish a routine for getting schoolwork done. The comments that follow are most applicable to parents with kids who are entering middle school and high school. As you know, when our kids start developing a “mind of their own,” our level of control diminishes.

1) School is our kid’s primary responsibility— it is their education and their future. Ultimately they have to decide when to do homework, where to do homework, how to study for tests, and how long to study. They have to learn how to be successful, which often is preceded by learning what doesn’t work.

2) Micromanaging our kids only solve problems in the short run, and creates huge problems in the long run. We’ll raise kids who lack the skills to succeed on their own. Therefore, a great time to begin letting go and turning more control over to your kids is when they are in upper elementary school. Sit down with them and have them create a plan for getting their work done. Hold them accountable to do what they agree to do. However, if they struggle with this additional responsibility and their grades dip, it is OK. I am not advocating completely letting go— but it should be a gradual process.

3) We cannot accept ownership for their education. How can we tell we’re doing that? We care more than they care. We worry more than they worry. When there are problems, we do more of the thinking and problem solving. Our kids have to care more than we do. I strongly believe that if we worry about their education, they will not worry.

4) What do we do if they flounder? We sit down with them and ask lots of questions. We don’t tell them what to do, we ask them what they need to do. If their grades go down or the teacher e-mails you that work is not getting completed, we have a chat and ask:

• How did you get into this predicament?

• What do you need to do differently?

• What do you need from me?

• Would you like to hear what I have been observing?

When our kids struggle, we do not overreact and return to micromanaging. We listen to their plan and give them the chance to fix things. When we see improvement, we recognize their effort and self-discipline by telling them so. If their performance doesn’t change after our discussion, we intervene and create structure. School is their job and we hold them accountable to take care of business.

5) If our kids are doing poorly in school, we eliminate distractions. There is a difference between what kids want and what kids need. They need wholesome activities, and I do not believe in taking those away from kids. They learn a lot about success and failure from sports and other structured activities. However, they don’t need Facebook, computer games, TV, and sleepovers. If they want those things, they will earn them. They earn them by displaying responsibility. They have to reach the conclusion that being irresponsible doesn’t pay.

6) I will finish part one of this topic briefly addressing motivation. Our goal should be that our kids are internally motivated to be successful in school. When they do well, we want them to be proud of their effort and the results, and experience a sense of satisfaction regarding their accomplishment. We also want them to enjoy learning math, science, and history. If we just focus on grades, we are making a big mistake. We fail to acknowledge our child’s effort, determination and self-discipline— because it is all about grades. And as just mentioned, we also probably don’t discuss what our kids what they talked about in history that day; we stick with outcome questions such as, “Did you get your quiz back today?” Focusing on grades undermines internal motivation and harms communication.

I will conclude discussing a parent’s role in their children’s education in my next article.

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. Alan Carson’ School Performance Part 1 was an excellent read.I am looking forward to part 2. I see my self in the 3rd comment. I sometimes think I care more than he cares. I worry more than he worries and think about solving the problem more that he does. I need to make him more accountable.

    I look forward to part 2 of this article.

    Rhonda Simmons

  2. Amanda Wages says:

    I teach science and get tired of being compared to other countries- we allow everyone to get an education, other countries do not. Children in other countries know that if they do not perform at a certain level academically, they will work in a factory. It is not an accurate comparison.

    • Amanda:

      I completely agree with you— drawing conclusions solely from data is not valid. But the bottom line is this: we have too many kids in this country who do not value an education. As a counselor, I was the contact person when kids arrived from Turkey, China, India, etc. I can tell you that virtually all of these students were hardworking, disciplined kids who were self-motivated to learn.


  3. Saima Adnan says:

    Part 1 is great! Look forward to receive part 2 ASAP. My 9 year old has been an average student and well disciplined in all routines of his life but he is bit slow in learning things. Currently he is in Grade 3 and showing worst of his performance this year. I have done all efforts including table talk, meetings with class teacher and presenting him gifts on good work but he is not serious at all in improving his performance. This is too depressing for me as he is loosing all of his grades this year. I am not interested in grades even but at least want to know what he did learn in class every day but he is zero, with no concepts and blank mind. How we, parents can deal with such kidz if they are not interested at all?

  4. I have one kid in 8th grade and twins in 5th grade. My 8th grader is doing pretty well, doing almost all of his studying by himself, planning his week etc., and he has a full school day: from 7:30 till 17:00.
    Thank you for this article, it will be very helpful to try and “teach” my 5th graders to take responsibility for their studying or the lack of, but at the same time also show them how good it can make you feel when you do accomplish something like a test, without much nudging of the parent.
    Can’t wait for the continuation.