A+ Advice for Parents

Son's Academic Failure Prompts Parental Soul-Searching

Q: My son is failing ninth grade. For years, I've reminded him to do his homework, and then checked with his teachers. When I back off, he slacks off. His teachers say he can still pass if he shows effort. He admits he's lazy. I've grounded him and removed digital devices, but it's always the same old pattern. So I'm going to let him make the decision to fail. Am I doing the right thing?

A: This is tough. I gather that you've worked with his teachers to rule out learning disabilities and determined that he isn't an under-challenged student who needs acceleration. And I assume you've checked to make sure that he has mastered the necessary skills for high school work.

"Assuming you've pulled out all the stops -- consulted with teachers and counselors and they're as perplexed as you -- I suggest one more thing: Let's call it the positive consequences system," advises says Jane Bluestein, Ph.D., a New Mexico educator who coaches teachers and parents on student behavior.

This works by replacing threats ("If you don't do your homework, you're grounded!") with positively framed statements ("When you have completed your math homework, you can shoot baskets with your friends for a half-hour," or, "You're almost finished with your report? Great, finish it, then you can have your phone back.").

You're still tying privileges to responsibilities, but you're switching the dynamic, says Bluestein, author of "Parents, Teens and Boundaries" (HCI, 1993).

"Threats provoke resistance, passive-aggressiveness and flat-out defiance," she says. "Emphasizing positive consequences helps avoid negative reactions, and it puts all the responsibility back on your son."

For this to work, de-stress his after-school time. Make it friendly, neutral and nonconfrontational.

"Kids need a transition after school," says Bluestein, "and many teachers give more homework than is reasonable. Without babying him, be sympathetic. Some students can start homework once they've had a snack; others need a longer break.

"Since scheduling is a skill he needs to develop, give him a chunk of time and ask him to allocate blocks of time within it that he'll need to finish each assignment. Weave meaningful positive outcomes into his schedule if he meets his goals."

What if this doesn't work? Parental encouragement and engagement are just two factors in school success and you've given those a good shot, says Bluestein.

"Kids learn much from the outcomes of the choices they make," she says. "I can't think of many things harder than watching a child 'choose' to fail, but ultimately, despite your best efforts, he may be fighting you for power and this is his way to prove you can't control him. If it's a power play, you may want to seek the help of a family counselor to learn how to break destructive win-lose (or no-win) patterns."

Have a very frank discussion with him about the consequences of failure.

"Ask him how he will feel and what he'll do if he finds himself next year sitting in the same classes again," Bluestein advises. "In the same discussion, be very clear about which privileges come with improvement and success."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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