How to Handle It When One Kid Isn’t Doing as Well in School as Another

Here I am, back for more immersion therapy. Leeann asked a question on yesterday’s post:

So, I have a topic that I’d love you to bring up on your blog because I am curious about how other people handle it.

I have three kids. Two are total meant-for-school students- they sit and listen, have great memorization skills, work hard-ish etc. They just do really well at the whole “going to school thing.” My third child, however, is not a meant-for-school kid. He is super smart but to sit and listen, to do redundant worksheets etc is NOT his thing. He works hard-ish but his hard-ish gets him low Bs and Cs (in advanced classes) while the other two get straight A’s. I’m never quite sure what to do when report cards come around. One is clearly not like the others. I don’t want to take away from the first two by minimizing their awesome grades but I don’t want to make child 3 feel inferior for his grades when I know his effort was there, it just that school doesn’t measure his particular strengths like it does theirs. Does anyone have any help for me in this issue? We do talk about making efforts and individual strengths etc but it feels a bit forced to my ears.

I’ve run into this, too. I’m finding it especially difficult with the twins, because they’re in the same grade and getting tested on the same things, so the comparisons are pretty obvious and exact. All of last year, they had the same spelling list, and Elizabeth was getting a much higher grade every single week than Edward; I didn’t want to praise her in a way that made him feel bad, but I also didn’t want to NOT praise her.

So far I’ve been doing a mix and match of these things with all the kids:

1) Emphasizing individual strengths, as you’ve been doing, whenever it comes up. We do a lot of frank  “Well, Elizabeth might just be better at you than spelling; you both spent the same amount of time studying, so it might be that it just comes more naturally to her. Other things come more naturally to you. [Giving example or not, depending on whether one comes readily to mind and/or exists.]”

2) Praising privately. I’ll wait until Edward isn’t around and then say, “Wow, Elizabeth, you did GREAT on your spelling test!” Sometimes I’ll mention to the praised child that I’m not making a big deal about it in front of another child, and I’ll re-emphasize the “People have different strengths” along with the “We don’t brag and make other people feel bad, especially if our strengths are inborn as opposed to coming from hard work.” Then I can also praise Edward separately, saying things like, “You did really well on your spelling test this week!” (if he did, for him), without Elizabeth pointing out that it’s not good compared to HERS.

3. Praising everyone publicly at times when things are more even. “Wow, Elizabeth, look at your spelling test this week! And Edward, good job getting your orange belt! William, this is a great painting!”

4. Finding other things for the doing-less-well child to thrive at. This one’s not always an option. But if the not-as-academic child could do really well at, say, karate, it gives another way to make accomplishments feel more balanced.

5. Just not discussing it much. It does feel bad to minimize someone’s academic accomplishments just because a sibling is getting lower grades—but on the other hand, there have been a lot of mixed reports recently on how abundant praise affects children. Looking at all three report cards and then saying an enthusiastic “Nice job, you guys!” (with no sharing around of grades) might make everyone feel happy. (And this can be combined with #2, speaking privately later to each of the two who got great grades, as if just bringing it up again as you would with any of them: “I just keep thinking of that great report card you got!”)

6. Additional private discussions with the child who gets lower grades can also help: saying that you know the child tries as hard (or harder) for less result, and that his effort is as important to you than the specific letter grade might help considerably. Rob has a lot of trouble with writing, and on his most recent report card he got a non-excellent grade in language arts—but accompanied by a note from the teacher that he was trying hard. I told him that was my favorite part of his report card—and it really WAS. (I’m not sure this method would work if it weren’t true.)

7. Sometimes it’s better to get A’s and B’s in regular classes than C’s in advanced classes. I’ve felt like there’s a lot of pressure from our school system to put kids in the highest possible level their test scores indicate they can handle—but as you’ve noted, some kids are just as smart but don’t do as well with the sitting down and worksheets type of learning. My plan is to whenever possible put kids in the classes where their grades reflect their effort. If that means letting them go down a level, I’m willing to do that. The GPA can even end up being exactly the same (I don’t know if all schools divide things the same, but at our school a C+ in honors/advanced class is the same GPA as a B- in an A-level class—but the B would feel a lot better, and be more comparable to his siblings’ grades).

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How do you handle it with your kids?

11 thoughts on “How to Handle It When One Kid Isn’t Doing as Well in School as Another

  1. Leeann

    Thanks for posting that for me, Swistle. You totally rock my socks off!

    Love your ideas; you’ve given me much food for thought. Re: the advanced classes- this is a whole different can of worms. This child was on ADHD meds for half of third grade and all of 4th and academically it helped him to focus, so he was comfortable in those upper level classes. This year we did not medicate him, nor do we intend to for the foreseeable future, thus the dip in grades in said classes. Had we actually *planned* to not medicate him, we might have tracked him down. The good news is that he switches to a private parochial next year (which his sibs also attend(ed) and they are much more back to basics/developmentally appropriate- meaning less pressure, less homework especially in middle school. I think he will feel more comfortable there.

    I am really eager to see how other people handle this. Thanks again for your posting this and your thoughtful response.
    -Leeann
    ps- I had no idea how much I would miss the little skirt that so signifies “SWISTLE” to me!

  2. Gigi

    Seeing as I only had the one child, I really didn’t have this problem. But I agree with you completely about praising the effort. If they are doing their very best, then that should be noted and praised.

    I have never understood that about the grades in Honors Classes vs. Regular Classes though. In my mind, you’ve either made an A or you’ve made a C.

  3. Ms. Key

    I’m a teacher, but in Ontario, Canada… I am always quite confused by the American school system and can usually never quite figure out how it works…

    I definitely think that grades, especially in elementary school, need to be less of a focus. It should be about transferable skills, and effort levels as Swistle has said. So, even within the praise… look for what transferable skills your children are gaining from their learning, praise that, or help encourage it. For example, did your child collaborate well with some peers on a project? Did your child take responsibility for chores at home (which transfers to being more responsible in the classroom too, believe me)? Did your child have a difficult moment but learn to reflect on it and set a goal for next time? It’s really important not to put too much stress on the individual letter grades, it can be so upsetting for kids and what does it really mean when it’s not even high school yet?

    This is hard, because in my school where I teach the parents are grades obsessed and if their child isn’t receiving an “A” you will hear from them… but it just isn’t how school works for us, the A isn’t automatic (the B is “grade level”, so the A is above and beyond), and we aren’t based on standardized tests either (I think the US system may use a lot more standardized tests and grading systems than we do). It’s just such a point of struggle for us even though we are just teaching such young kids! Grr. I wish we didn’t have letter grades this young, as I would love to be able to work on the bigger ideas and more important lifetime learning skills than simple fact memorization or spelling, etc.

    Anyway, just a bit of a rant… but yes, praise for so many things, and keep an eye out for special things beyond academics that you can build the self-esteem of your child with. Don’t make grades competitive or comparative in the home, they can be private. I always tell my students, your marks are for me, you, and your parents… that even their big brothers and sisters shouldn’t open their report cards on the bus. That marks are for reflecting on, and setting personal goals, as they are to learn from for the future… even if that lesson is “this is clearly not my subject area, I will look for other areas to focus on in high school and beyond”. I also agree, finding some other programs outside of school that will build the self-esteem of a child who is less inclined for today’s classrooms will give them a space to feel confident and successful beyond the school walls. :-)

  4. giselle

    I don’t think you should praise effort privately…it is a lesson for everyone. Because even your high performers will eventually find something that doesn’t come to them…no matter how hard they work.

    I find it difficult when my youngest out performs hisbolder sister. We’ll be playing a board game, and I’ll ask her to add up her money or whatever. She’s six…so it is an appropriate thing for her to struggle with it. But then her 4 year old brother figures it out way quicker than her and bluffs it out. So I shush him…which is bad because he should be figuring thisbstuff out to. And she is left thinking she must be terrible at math because her 4 year old brother can do it. When she is actually right on track…if not a bit ahead of school expectations.

  5. H

    I lived this. My children are now 21 and 24. Our younger child is academically gifted and our older child is academically average to slightly above average. When they were young, we approached the situation much like you are, Swistle. However, as they got older and more mature, the focus became individual strengths. It was, at that point, clearly the only way to look at the situation. Their interests were more focused and unique so it was easier and necessary to talk about the fact that everyone finds their own way and uses their talents to the best of their ability. Comparison and competition are part of life so we tried to teach them (both!) how to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, understanding that everyone has weaknesses.

    I do think twins might present a unique challenge. We have close friends with twin daughters (now 21) and not only was it hard for the girls to deal with their unique talents, it was also hard for the parents. This was particularly evident when the girls were tweens and beginning to find their own ways.

  6. Lawyerish

    I wonder if one approach is to talk to each child individually about how they feel about how they’re doing in school generally and in specific classes or areas. Not to put them on the spot/interrogate them, but to determine if there are areas where they really feel like they’re struggling, or if there’s some way you could make things easier/better for the not-meant-for-school kid. For Leeann, it sounds like you know all of your kids really well and have a great grasp of their strengths and weaknesses; this suggestion is because I think it helps kids feel in control/empowered if they’re given a chance to talk openly about their experience. Of course, depending on the kid, the answer might end up being a disgruntled, “That teacher is dumb/hates me” or “School is so boring and I hate it”; but maybe the mere exercise of talking about it would give some kind of boost. That conversation would also be a great opportunity for praising effort and pointing out what you think the child excels at, although it sounds like you’re already doing that (but maybe it would arise more organically this way and feel less forced).

  7. Laura

    My boys are 16 and 19 and so different academically. Older son muddled through school with an Asperger’s diagnosis that allowed him to have extra time and quiet space for tests etc, and now he’s apprenticing to be a cook with an excellent work ethic and good friends etc. My younger son cruises through his advanced classes and gets mid to high 80’s, and also loves art and construction, and has a wide variety of friends, so in school, he’s a renaissance man; at home he is Lazyman the Unmotivated. And i worry that his lackadaisical work ethic is more of a longterm concern that grades ever would be. Sometimes this parenting thing, this realization that “omg, i made PEOPLE!” just requires me to lay down for a nap. Still so hard. :)
    My point, and i do have one, is i’m unconvinced that school is the be-all and end-all. Homeschoolers don’t get hung up on grades, and i admire that. Good teachers that engage can make all the difference. So grades and school experience has to be taken with a huge grain of salt.

  8. Robin

    I don’t have kids yet, but I can speak to it from the perspective of being a child in a family of six. I’m the youngest, and the two oldest are super-smart: national merit scholars and all that. Us younger two always got good grades, but neither of us were national merit scholars, and I remember telling myself that the older siblings were just better test-takers than we were. Which may seem to be a cop-out, but also is true. It also helped that we had diverse interests: the oldest was into science and engineering; the second oldest was into art and literature; the third oldest was into choir and tutoring; and I was into theater and band. We could all support and congratulate each other when we did well in our areas, without feeling threatened or sub-par, precisely because we hadn’t chosen topic x as an area of expertise. It helped that my parents were always very equitable and always told us that there are no dumb kids in the family. The self-confidence they gave us, as well as their encouragement for us to try different activities, is something I hope to replicate with my own kids.

  9. Rosa

    This is a very touchy subject for me. I don’t have any children yet (I’m 22), but I’m an example of how this can go wrong. My IQ is sky high and my parents were very competitive about it. My grades were not that good so they always told me I could’ve done better. Even now I’m struggling with the feeling that nothing I do is good enough because *I could do better*. With my IQ I should be able to do anything, so why don’t I? My parents answer: because I’m lazy.
    Phew, lot of emotion there, sorry. Please teach your kids to value their strengths, instead of complaining about their faults!

  10. Elizabeth

    It sounds to me like you’re handling this well. I only have one child, so I don’t have this problem really, but I have a similar problem in that school comes quite easily to my daughter. I want her to have to work a little, since she’s not Einstein, and I expect she’ll have to work in college, if not high school, and I don’t want it to come as a complete shock to her, in the “Well, I can’t get this right away and I always have before, so obviously I just can’t do it” way. I suspect that she’s the kind of kid honors classes were designed for. Everybody should have to put out some effort, and those who are more academically gifted should appreciate how very lucky they are and realize that other kids excel in other ways. I don’t want her to feel like she’s better than anyone else because she’s got a good mind, but I think it’s weird that kids who have other gifts (such as athleticism) are expected to gloat about that. The practice and effort parts should get the kudos, it seems to me, not the natural aptitude. Does that make sense?

  11. MrsDragon

    I am not a parent but I am fascinated by this list. So much good stuff!

    The only thing I would add to #7, having been a “good student” but one who was not fond of worksheets etc. I went down from AP history in 9th grade to regular history in 10th grade and it was terrible. We had less work, but we read the book aloud in class (soooo sloooooow and boooooring) and filled out ditto after ditto after ditto. I switched back into AP for 11th grade because I couldn’t stand the monotony. So, lower grades in harder class MAY be better depending on the actual work they are doing in the next class down. (That said, I also did fine when I went up a level so take with a grain of salt.)

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