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How do I motivate my 4th grader to get better grades?

Dear Dan,

I have a fourth grader who, until recently, has been a straight A student. Last year he learned how to do short linear equations, and he enjoyed it! In fact, he has always excelled at math. However, this year I have seen nothing but low B’s, C’s and even a D from him. This this isn’t even the hard stuff! It is simply addition, subtraction and multiplication.

We have now had two very serious discussions regarding this problem. After the first I offered an incentive for good grades. That obviously failed and I have now resulted to punishment for the poor grades. Yet I am still not sure I am getting through to him. This is the first time I have encountered this problem and I have emptied my parenting toolbox. I am desperate for a solution and determined to correct the behavior. Do you have any suggestions?

Thanks, Desperate & Determined

14 comments
Stormyz Mom
Stormyz Mom

Thank you Dan for saying not to compare him to others. I was the youngest of 4 and all my teachers knew my older sibs. I got so tired of hearing how my oldest sister was "such a joy to teach". Anytime I brought home anything less than straight A's I would hear it at home, "why can't you be like your sister?" I loved my sister but hated that I was measured against her. Parents need to praise each child for their own uniqueness. I was a much more social child than my sister, I was outgoiong and never shy. Why wasn't this ever thought to be a strength? It sure helped me in my career.

freedastyle
freedastyle

Reward and punishment don't work if there's a real problem, though they sometimes (rarely) work for laziness. True comprehension issues need a solution oriented approach. Team up with the teacher and ask for ideas. Hook him up with a "cool" tutor he gets along with. Instead of waiting for his final grades to come out, check his homework every night!

Wally
Wally

Many good comments. My 2 cents - My son was in the 4th grade when he decided that he didn't need to do homework just because the other kids needed to have the lessons repeated over & over before they got it. Bored - yes. But a bad attitude. You definetly need to get to the bottom of this. The best thing I could have done was to switch teachers. While she was a good teacher, it just was a bad fit. His attitude continued and by the time he needed to study in HS, he had no study habits. ALL kids need to be challenged in the classroom. One teacher used to do things like ask him to write a report on the library book she noticed. He jumped on this because it was something he was interested in & learning about on his own. It takes extra effort to challenge gifted kids in the standard classroom, because the teachers naturally have to teach to the average student. Do talk to his teacher about what she thinks about his behavior. The "sudden" change is concerning. Hope this helps

Krikit
Krikit

I think you've been given some great start blocks. It's a matter of figuring out which one (or more ...?) your son has taken his stance at.

No one likes to think about this ...but don't rule out the possibility that someone -- a teacher, a janitor, another student, etc. has approached your child in a sexual manner, or even already made inappropriate contact. Cover all your bases as to what might have influenced the seemingly sudden change in his motivation and ambition.

I especially like what Dan said about praising your son's effort and ability in front of others. I never had that as a child, and as an adult, well on my way to citizenship in the senior's club, I love nothing better than when my BFF speaks highly of me to others, in my presence. ~:)

That' my 2Gz. ~:0)

SWJenn
SWJenn

Dan is right about making sure what other people hear about your child is that you are proud.

Oh, and the best advice I ever got was to make sure your child hears you bragging about them to others. It's really true, they'll live up to it.

SWJenn
SWJenn

One thing you need to consider is that even if he IS in the advanced classes is he might be bored. This happened to my son when he hit middle school. He went from straight A's to C's. When I went to talk to the teacher, it turned out he wasn't turning in homework. When he did turn it in it was sloppy and incomplete. When pressed, he said it was too easy and he didn't need to do it. The teacher and I worked to get him more challenging work, AND impressed upon him that you have to do things in life that are easy and boring just because. He brought the grades up but missed honor roll by 1 point. The teacher told me she felt so badly for him, he was obviously so miserable during the honor roll assembly when all his friends were getting awards and he was stuck in the audience. I told her it was a good lesson to learn. Ever since then he's been a straight A student, even into high school. So work hard to figure it out, the teacher should work with you, and don't discount that it just might be too easy and boring!

P
P

As a former teacher, I say the first thing said parent needs to do is talk to their child's teacher. What does their child's teacher think about the learning going on? Is the math getting harder? Is school in general getting harder? Is the teacher at all concerned? It's somewhat uncommon these days to see letter grades on elementary classwork over a rubric. I'd collect some sample assignments and arrange a parent-teacher conference. Questions to ask:
--How is my child doing compared to the standards for the grade he's in?
--Where might he be struggling? How can I support growth in those areas?
--What are his strengths, and how can I use those to keep him excited about learning outside your classroom?
--What types of data do you use to evaluate his progress, and what should I know about them? (Teachers are going to tell you what they are worried about, but they spend a lot of time talking parents off a ledge because they are reading too much into something and are afraid their child is broken.)
--What kind of goal-setting occurs in the classroom? Can you recommend strategies for supporting those goals/setting some with my child that are worth something but set to be achievable? (Learning how to work towards longer-term goals, breaking big tasks into manageable actions, seeing the fruits of their labor and occasionally failing. Success is how we build that internal motivation, failure is where we learn the most about the task and the values of work.

Dan is right about making sure what other people hear about your child is that you are proud. Don't lie, he's a 4th grader, they KNOW. Be specific about your praise, for actions you see you like (i.e., "Johnny looks up new words in the dictionary to use in his writing) if that's what he's doing- once or all the time (it'll turn into all the time because he heard you said it.)

Always be aware of EFFORT over outcome. Remember the marshmallow test? Those who are rewarded for their effort understand that when they are successful it is because they worked hard, and that if they failed, it wasn't "for lack of effort." In order to keep grades up when they matter, which is more like 6th grade, developmentally he needs to start making the connection between effort and work ethic and results, and this knowledge builds slowly and steadily.

Don't forget- 'tis better your kids learns what a "D" assigment looks like in 4th grade than 10th grade when it might matter for h.s. GPA. If you falter early, you have a better change of picking yourself up and getting back on the horse before anyone else is watching.

Amy
Amy

Something my stepdad did that I found very useful, even though it wasn't more towards middle school, but I bet even a fourth grader has things he wants. He did a payout system based solely on improvement, well, mostly.
It kinda went like this. C was the middle of the road for him, so anything below a C you paid out 5 dollars for, unless there was supporting evidence that you had worked your heart out and done your best in which case you could be deamed safe (ie: i royally sucked at history and still hate it so did poorly). Any grade you improved from the previous term got a five dollar pay out for every letter grade it jumped (so D to C would be $5 whereas D to B would be $10) In the event that you got an A+ that was an auto $10 grade and straight A's would earn you 50 plus any improvements. If you had A's the previous term and kept them, then you still got your improvement$5 because he figured you'd worked for the A and it still deserved a payout.

JM
JM

It is different for every child, but this is about the time when it begins to become "uncool" to look smart. It may not be bullying or one specific instigator, like Dan proposes, but your son wanting to project an image to his classes or, as someone else says, wanting to stay with his friends in some regard.

Dawn
Dawn

I agree with Claire, that you should find out if he is bored with his classes. Bright students who are not challenged will not excel and can, in fact, fall behind because they see no point in putting in any effort in something that is 'lame'. It would be good to discuss this with his teacher. A good teacher will find ways to challenge and engage a bored student.

jbmthinks/sportsparents
jbmthinks/sportsparents

Dear Dan,
Would you consider me copying you if I did this "Dear Dan" idea, but switched it to "Dear Janis?" I get a lot of people asking me questions about their sports parenting issues...and quite honestly, I was thinking of doing this before I saw your column. Just wondering...

Claire
Claire

If you say he used to excel at Math but is now failing the easy stuff, could boredom have a role to play in it? I know my parents had that problem with me at school, I was years ahead in some stuff, so things that didn't challenge me I didn't bother with and failed.

Beth
Beth

Another possibility: My niece, in 3rd grade last year, was in the accelerated math group at school. She was doing well and completing all her homework. Then, when her parents were talking to her teacher, they found out that she was back in the "regular" math group because she was not turning in her homework (even though it was completed and correct). Turns out, all her friends were in the regular math group and she wanted to be with them. They had a good talk about always doing your personal best, no matter what your best is.

AprilJoPerez
AprilJoPerez

This is so true. My brother was held back twice in school, 6th and 9th grades, and both times it was because he was so BORED STIFF in class that he would sit and read a book instead of paying attention. At a parent-teacher conference, the teacher complained to my dad about it, while admitting that any time she wanted someone to give the right answer, she could call on him and he would give it. But because he wasn't hanging on her every word, she failed him. I also went from straight A's in Math one semester to C's and D's the next in high school, because we changed teachers, and the new teacher assumed we knew things we didn't and never bothered to explain anything... so there could be many different variables at play here.