Parenting Q & A: How much emphasis should be put on children's report cards?

A parent admits to being cavalier about them.

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Meghan Leahy

Question: I have three kids, ages 7, 5 and 2. The older two are in first grade and kindergarten. Both like school and are doing fine. My question is: What emphasis do you recommend putting on report cards? Full disclosure: I put zero emphasis on them. I actually don't even comment when they come home. I sign them, put them back in the backpacks and send them back to the teacher (all that is required of me). I don't go over them with the kids, don't ask them how they feel about them, don't ask if they think they can improve, nothing. My first-grader is starting to mention the report card and ask how he did that quarter. I don't think he really gets the concept yet of quarterly grades, but he is getting the concept of performance and that this piece of paper holds some sort of significance in the world. I don't want to minimize school performance, and, honestly, I don't have to worry about this yet because both boys are performing above grade level. I think this makes me a bit cavalier about it all, and I feel like my question would be different if they were struggling. In general, what are your thoughts? Thanks.

Answer: Thank you for this question. Report cards are a charged issue for many parents. Your essential question is: "What emphasis do you recommend putting on report cards?" This is an interesting question, because the rest of your letter shows that you have a very distinct point of view on report cards: You don't like them. I gather that you want me to tell you it's OK that you don't prioritize report cards.

As a formerly awful student, I have a full appreciation of the anxiety that report cards brought me and my family. Aside from some good news in elementary school, I didn't receive many positive report cards until, well, college. When it came time to parent my own children, I ignored report cards; report cards don't give full (or even partial, in some cases) pictures of children, their strengths and weaknesses, their capability and/or what needs to happen next. As you mention, report cards can feel performative and unnecessary, placing focus on the wrong element of learning.

As a parent, you have the right to choose a school that doesn't use typical report cards. Depending on where you live, you may be able to choose another path: a different school, home schooling, unschooling, you name it.

But, if you are going to keep your children in their present schools (a more traditional public or private school), you are going to need to find the middle way between "cavalier" and feeling a slave to the numbers and letters on a report card. As arbitrary as report cards may feel, there are some teachers who thoughtfully fill them out. These teachers are trying to give the most accurate and truthful snapshots of their students, and if this is the case, report cards can be a useful tool. A good report card can flag learning differences, subject-area struggles, study-skill strengths and weaknesses, as well as how the child contributes to the class in a social-emotional aspect. I can hear some parents laughing out loud at that list, but, as a former teacher, I know I labored over my report cards. I did care about the child, and there are countless teachers who also care, which means that report cards can be useful.


You have some choices in front of you: Find a learning environment that doesn't use report cards at all, or choose to see report cards as only one piece of the bigger puzzle that is your child. The report card is only as important as you make it. Rather than allowing it to control you, you can decide how you would like to handle it. I have coached many parents to treat report card time privately, meaning there is no public announcement of grades to the family. There is no fanfare or party or rewards. A private meeting allows the child to have a fuller conversation about the report card, and if a strategy needs to be implemented, you can work that out with your child. This private meeting also allows for a celebration of growth and what is working. It is important that we parents say: "Jackie, last year you weren't able to count to 50, and now you are past 300!" Pointing out strengths can help our children take on a growth mind-set rather than the rigid mind-set of "I am good at math and bad at writing."

I feel fine about taking my child's temperature and, therefore, disregarding a report card. When my family has had a hard transition or there has been bad news or an illness, I am simply not going to give the report card the same weight as I would at another time in my child's life. If you are paying attention to the child in front of you, you will begin to instinctually see the ebbs and flows of these needs in your life, and, most importantly, you will spot your own fears and needs to go to extremes when it comes to the report card.

The report card is just one data point. Use it appropriately. Good luck.

Meghan is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach. Send a question about parenting to, and it may show up in a future column.
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