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November 8, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 93

Should I Monitor My Kid’s Grades Online?

Episode 93

Grades can be a source of family anxiety and stress, and online grading portals can make the situation both better and worse. A dad writes in asking how parents and kids can better manage online grades. Reena explains that she gets pinged on email every time her kids’ grades are posted and Dr. Lisa has surprising advice for parents in the same boat. Dr. Lisa explains the upsides and downsides of having access to online grades, and how families can use these systems to help kids become more independent at school. In “Parenting-To-Go” Lisa offers one question parents might want to ask themselves to help keep online grading systems in perspective.

November 8, 2022 | 35 min

Transcript | Should I Monitor My Kid’s Grades Online?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 93: Should I Monitor My Kid’s Grades Online?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: Oh it’s the time of year, you’re starting to see the grades roll in. 


LISA: Yeah. No this is, the honeymoon’s over. The school year is in full effect. 


REENA: Well not only is the honeymoon over, it’s like back to normal school right? So I feel like you can’t run and hide anymore in your bedroom. Literally.


LISA: Nope. Nope. School is school and you know, not everybody is ready for it to be what it used to be, and it’s a hard time to be in school. No question. 


REENA: Yeah. So we got this letter from a dad who talks about technology and how to deal with it with online grades. I want to read the letter to you. It says, ‘Dear Dr. Damour, I have two teens and have been listening to your podcast since the very beginning. I’ve taken notes on many episodes and truly appreciate your suggestive words and phrases and in the right tone of voice. The real reason for my email is to suggest an episode on how parents and kids can better manage schools’ online grading systems. I believe these systems like Schoology, PowerSchool, and Google Classroom create as much anxiety as social media. Since teens are drawn to the real-time apps and immediately compare marks with their peers. Our school counselors confirmed that our teens check them 10 times a day for the latest test grade and potential negative impact on their GPA. Our schools also strongly encourage families to check them often with no guidance on how often or what to look for. Last year I told my teens that I would no longer check the system and we were all so relieved. Our only ask was that they’d let us know verbally when a grade was slipping toward a C, and they need to brainstorm ways to improve. What do you think of this approach? Are we missing something? With sincere thanks for sharing all your wisdom for free via your podcast and website.’ We are just starting to deal, because we’ve made the transition to middle school. So this dad’s letter just stood out to me, because wow. Just so many great things, I love that he’s already empowering his kids to let them know and come up with a solution. Isn’t that great?


LISA: It is good. And I will tell you, online grading systems are one of the stickiest trickiest topics in kids and school. I mean there’s so much angst around it, Reena.


REENA: Yep. 


LISA: And it’s a great letter and a huge topic and I think a lot of parents are in the same boat. 


REENA: I want to start with the question he’s asking. Is he missing something with his approach? 


LISA: I think his approach is great. I love what he said, I love the idea of saying to your kids, you know, him saying to his kids, I’m not checking and if you think you’re slipping towards a C then you need to get on it and let us know that that’s happening. Now here’s the thing, not a lot of parents are going to feel comfortable with that approach. So, great for him, and great for his kids if they’re at ease with that, which it sounds like they are. But I also imagine a lot of our listeners are like whoa, slipping towards a C? Like I don’t want it to get that far on before I’m aware that it’s happening. And so what I want to commend the letter writer on is a very rare ease with letting kids work their grades out over time, figure things out over time. I think so many kids and parents today are on pins and needles, and feel like everything has to be straight A’s all the time. 


REENA: Yeah. 


LISA: Which of course is not realistic for every kid, and of course certainly not necessary for every kid. But this parent can do a solution in part because this parent’s not on the ceiling about grades. But a lot of parents, and you know, I don’t say this with any judgment, a lot of parents are very anxious about grades, because they’re thinking about college, they’re thinking about scholarships. This is not a small issue. 


REENA: Yeah. So why do you think that schools even do this? Have this online system where you can find your grades instantly. Do you remember the time when you used to get midterm reports and then final grades and that was it?


LISA: Absolutely, right? Like one question is, if this is so angsty for everyone, then why is this even available? And what I can tell you as someone who’s worked closely with schools for decades, and decades long before this was going on and then when this started happening, is that what schools will say, and I think this is true, is that parents requested this. That it was the parents who wanted more detailed information about their kids’ grades as the grades were coming in. That the parents were the ones who felt like they were in the dark too much, or they didn’t want to get the information from their kid, because they didn’t feel like their kid was always telling them the truth. And so they wanted a portal where they could go check and see how their kid was doing and get the information straight from the school. So I think that context is important, because so often we find ourselves, especially around schools and kids and grades and intense stuff and achievement pressures, where everybody’s pointing fingers at everybody else. Right? Like the parents are like school, why did you do this to us? And the schools are like, parents, why did you demand this? And so I think that it’s really helpful to take a huge giant step back and think, okay, the reason this all began is that there were parents who felt like they wanted more information about how their kid was doing in the day-to-day, and sometimes the moment-to-moment. And so one question I would have parents ask themselves is, is that you? Right? Because if it’s you, then this system is one you’re going to need to engage, but if you’re like, oh no no, I don’t want to know, or I trust my kid, or I’m going to let the chips fall and I’m going to ask to see midterm reports and final grades, you can ignore all this. Like just because the school is making it available, I don’t want parents to feel like, and I’m going to use finger quotes, ‘a good parent’ if they avail themselves of the data that the school is making available. The school is making it available because they think parents want it. If you’re not that parent, you don’t have to look at it. 


REENA: But I feel like it’s available there and I need to be the good parent. And also, I now get a ping every time my son has any sort of exam, or test. And it pings me his grade. I must have clicked something at the beginning of the school year. 


LISA: Whoa. 


REENA: So every time. And what I’m worried about is, like the dad says, if something goes below a C, every time he in theory gets something below a C, he’ll get that, and he’ll know, wow, mom and dad have just been pinged that I’ve got this, right? 


LISA: Okay so let me actually, let’s take a minute on this. Do you want this amount of information? Because he’s in the sixth grade, right? 


REENA: Yeah, because I feel like I need to set up proper, it’s like the tiger mom in me, I need to set up and get him prepared for high school, so he needs to know he’s got to, and he’s pretty independent, I don’t have to be all over him, he’s pretty independent. But I want to know, just like the dad said in this letter, if it drops below a C, I want to know instantly, so we can figure out a plan and deal with it, instead of waiting weeks down the road. 


LISA: Okay. And that totally makes sense to me, but here’s a question I think is really worth revisiting. Do you want to unselect whatever you selected that’s giving you that amount of information, and say instead to your son, you let me know if you’re feeling like a grade is having trouble, and like has dropped below a C. Because Reena, that’s a ton of information to have. And I will say especially in middle school is when it’s a great time to let kids fall on their faces. 


REENA: I never thought of that. 


LISA: In the sixth grade. Yeah. Like say he says, yeah yeah yeah, I’ll tell you if my grade’s bad, you know if it’s getting below a C, I’ll tell you that. And then he doesn’t. And then you discover this, which eventually you will, because schools still do report out trimester grades or end of semester grades, you want to have, I think, that conversation, where you’re like, hi buddy, what happened? Because we had an agreement. I think hashing those hard things out in middle school, which often you are hashing out in middle school, develops a lot of maturity, it’s often kind of painful. But I wouldn’t work too hard to hit that off at the pass, I would give him a chance to thrive on his own, and if he messes it up, which he might, you still have tons of runway before high school to get that sorted out. 


REENA: And I am all about independence. I want him to learn independence because I don’t want to hover, and quite frankly, as we’re back to our lives pre-COVID, or trying to get there pretty much, I just want him to have the bandwidth to deal with it on his own, because I don’t have time to be spoon-feeding. And we’re in the sixth grade. So I don’t think that I could bring myself to uncheck that box now. 


LISA: Really?


REENA: Yeah. Because I want sixth grade, at least for the semester, to kind of know how things are going. But then I realize, once I know, I don’t know that I can walk away now. Because I kind of like knowing, to be able to deal with it. 


LISA: Right. You can’t unknow. 


REENA: Yeah. 


LISA: I will say also Reena, it just feels like a lot of information to have on top of all the other information in your day. Like we as parents are taking in a lot of information, we have jobs, we have stuff we’ve got to do, you know, we have obligations to other people. Like, do you want that much information hanging around in your head?


REENA: I do. Yes, I do. I really want that. Because I get so much other information in my inbox that whenever this alert shows up, I really pay attention. The only other alert is like the PTA where you owe money or this is a fundraiser coming up or this is a school event. I would like a ping for that too, but I have friends, PTA moms who help me remember. But for the kid’s grades, I really really want to know, but then I wonder, am I going to be that parent three years down the road where I’m still doing the same thing, and they’re a junior in high school. Which I don’t want to be that parent. 


LISA: Well it’s interesting, right. Because what you’re bringing to this is, in some ways it feels like a loving attentive connection with your son. And you like that. Like there’s real appeal in having that kind of awareness of how he’s doing and you see it as the path towards independence. Here’s something, I’ve never quite thought about it this way, there’s almost an inversion in terms of where it makes sense to supervise the most. I’m saying let the middle schoolers work it out, like let the middle schoolers make mistakes and let the middle schoolers get bad grades because then you can have conversations about what happened. And I’m also saying, and I’m questioning this as I’m thinking it through, but when they’re in high school now it’s showtime so you might want to keep a closer eye, or parents often feel compelled to keep a closer eye. And it’s just interesting to think developmentally where I’m saying essentially, what I’m saying is it’s not a big deal when they’re younger, but as they get older we actually clamp down further, or we supervise them more. Which makes no sense from exactly the perspective you’re describing of wanting to foster ongoing independence. 


REENA: So from your standpoint, what do you think are really the downsides of the online portal? Is it like a parent like me who’s just way too to the weeds with their kid that it just creates mass anxiety?


LISA: I think there’s that. I think there’s a lot of downsides. Let me just tell you, there’s a lot of downsides, and there’s some upsides too, but let’s go through the downsides. So first of all, as much as you are lovingly attentive to your son’s day and the various grades that come in, as your friend, I’m like, oh man, Reena, that’s a lot of information to have. Like I don’t know that, I think that’s a lot of bandwidth that’s taken up with something that’s very, you know, not yours, at some level. So I think there’s that. I also think, one thing that’s really interesting that I have seen is it does get in the way of kids sorting things out themselves. Because sometimes if a kid has gotten a grade they didn’t expect or messed up on a test or, and this is really important, the teacher has made a mistake in the grade, either put in the wrong grade or said that an assignment was missing when it wasn’t, and this happens not that rarely, if the kid has access, the kid can say to the teacher, hey, I did turn that in. And the teacher can be like, oh my gosh, there it is, I found it, without the parent being the one who’s like wait, why is that assignment missing? And then the kid comes home and then the parent’s like where is that assignment, and the kid’s like, I turned it in, and the parent’s like, well it doesn’t say so on the portal. And it gets all ugly. Whereas if the parent had been removed, the kid could have sorted it out. 


REENA: Wow. 


LISA: And I will tell you, and here’s the most painful thing I’ve ever seen on these portals. So, of course kids are kids. And of course there are kids who at points in their development are a little bit sneaky about school, like they say they’ve turned something in and then they didn’t, or they say they got a better grade than they did. And so for these kids, of course their parents are like I’m going to start looking at the portal, I’m going to start checking, which makes tons of sense. And for those kids, may not all bad at all. But the most painful thing I’ve ever seen is that invariably because they are humans, the teachers make mistakes. They say something is missing or they put in a grade that’s not the kid’s accurate grade, and then the parent who’s been monitoring closely because the kid has been dishonest in the past, is like, you said you had turned everything in, and this is missing. And the kid’s like, honest to goodness, I did turn it in. And the parent’s like, I don’t have any reason to believe you, and it’s just, it’s so painful because there’s so much water under the bridge. And so those are times, I’ve cared for families in those situations, where I’m like, I know your kid hasn’t’ always been honest with you, but I really need you to be prepared for the fact that teachers being human will make mistakes, take your kid’s, you know, word as much as you can. You know, trust but verify, but don’t assume that your kid’s lying when they said they turned it in when it’s not in the portal. 


REENA: We talked a little bit about the downsides of it, but what are the upsides, Lisa, of being able to access grades online? 


LISA: I think there’s a couple. So one, let’s just assume it’s the kid alone who’s accessing. Let’s just start there. Because parents can access it, but kids can also access it. And for some kids sometimes, it’s nice to have a very clear picture of where they stand in a class. And so the best use I have seen online portals be put to is when it actually helps kids be more efficient in their work. And so what I mean here is, especially for very ambitious kids and kids who are feeling a lot of achievement pressure, they can make standards for themselves, like, I want all A’s this semester. Okay, so the kid wants all A’s. And what they can do is they can actually track very closely how they’re coming along in each class, and decide where they need to put their energy. Because they’re like, okay, I have a 99 in biology, I’m going to start phoning it in in biology. And I have an 84 in you know, English, I’m going to up my game in English. And that kind of close, you know, kind of constant data stream on how they’re doing, at it’s very best, can help kids to, you know, put their energies where they belong, and I know this might rub some people the wrong way, coast where they can, and flourish where they need to. And given how much pressure kids are under, I’m a huge fan of kids knowing when they can coast in a class. 


REENA: That’s so interesting. I never thought of encouraging coasting in a class, but I see what you mean. Like you can’t, and that’s real life, isn’t it? You’ve got to sort of pick and choose your battles. 


LISA: You do. And I think that can be a real benefit. Another real benefit of seeing, and this came up in my practice. A kid I was caring for, the kid went to a school where a teacher was actually not doing a good job at all, and was assigning a ton of content, and not grading it, and not posting kid’s grades. And so kept giving tests without actually giving scores on the previous tests. 




LISA: Which is actually not okay. Not okay in high school totally. And what was actually pretty wonderful is the online grading portal became an objective data set where the teenager could go to the principal and say, we keep getting assigned tests but we’re not getting our test grades back, and was able to open the online portal and show the principal, see, I have no grades. 


REENA: Oh my gosh. Wow. 


LISA: And so it actually became a mechanism where the principal could deal with it.


REENA: Accountability. Yeah.


LISA: And it was accountability for the adult. Now this is rare, most teachers are phenomenal, most teachers are overwhelmed and doing their very best. But occasionally there can be an issue with a teacher, and this type of objective measure can be useful, especially when kids are stressed about so many things and need ways that they can kind of raise an alarm around an unnecessary stressor. 


REENA: And I actually want to ask you about, naturally, kids compare grades with their friends, how do you deal with that?


LISA: This is fascinating to me. This is something I have observed in schools for years, where kids will take a test and right away want to know what did you get, what did you get, what did you get? And it’s a fascinating thing they do, and I’ve asked them, I’m like why do you do this? What’s the story here? And I’ve gotten a few different answers, and I think they’re all true. One, and first of all, let me just start my saying, the best thing about kids is that if you just ask them a straight question and they can tell you really want to know the answer and you really aren’t, you know, there’s nothing further behind it, they will give you incredibly honest answers. And so I’ve had kids say to me, we want to make sure that everybody got the scores they were supposed to get. Like, kids have a very clear sense of the pecking order in a class, and they have a very, it’s strange, there’s a very clear sense of wanting to know that it’s sorted itself out the way they believe it should have sorted itself out in light of their understanding of the relative intellectual activity of their peers. 


REENA: Oh. Wow.


LISA: And so I still don’t understand why they need to know this, but they seem to always want to sort of check, like okay did the kid that we thought was going to top out top out, did the kid we thought was going to bring up the caboose on this? Okay, okay. The world is as we expected it to be. So that’s super weird.


REENA: That’s interesting. 


LISA: It’s super, I mean yeah, kids are fascinating, I love them. There’s also, I mean, an element of this that none of us like, and I think that’s really worth talking with kids about, which is that kids who are very very anxious about their grades wanting to reassure themselves that they’re doing well, and doing that at the expense of their peers.


REENA: Oh wow. 


LISA: And that piece isn’t good. Right? Where a kid’s like, oh, and sometimes they’ll do in this way, like oh my gosh I got a 97, I really messed this up, what did you get? And then their peers are like, no you did great, I got an 84. And you know, there can be this weird dynamic where under all of this achievement pressure, kids don’t always handle themselves well and can lean on their peers to reassure them that they’re doing great. It’s not my favorite aspect of adolescence, but I will forgive it in light of how much pressure we put on kids. And so, there’s that. 


REENA: This is my thing though. So do we need these systems that emphasize grades over learning? It’s creating so much anxiety. Like when are we going to rethink education in America? Do we have to put them through this?


LISA: That is the billion dollar question. Right? I mean it’s so interesting, because so many of the adults around teenagers will say it’s not about the grades, it’s about the learning, it’s about the mystery, it’s about finding your passion. And then in the same breath, we, and I’m putting myself in this category, are like you’re going to need some pretty good grades to get into the colleges you’re talking about. Right? And so we need to know what happened at 2:04 yesterday and 10:17 this morning. And that mixed message, and actually contradictory message, teenagers are like, this is bologna you guys. Like you are saying two very different things to us simultaneously. And when teenagers complain about that, they are 100 percent right. They are 100 percent right. 


REENA: It just really bothers me. I think there is so much pressure about colleges and all this pressure, testing, and I was never a good test-taker, to this day I’m not a good test-taker. And there’s so much that people extract from these tests that, I don’t know, I just wish we could rethink the system in a way, not to pander, but that plays to the strengths of kids and helps build them up instead of tearing them down. 


LISA: Okay. I totally agree. So this, it’s interesting, because the topic about online grades and the incredible letter we got, really does open that conversation up in the family, right? Like it really does open it up. And what I wonder Reena, if we’re stepping way way back, which I think is really warranted, and we think about, okay, so you’re a parent, the school has said you have access to this online portal, you can, down to the nanosecond, know how your kid is doing. I think that when parents get that email from the school or get that sign-up from the school, I think what we’re getting at as we think this through together is that is a high time to sit down with your kid and think about what the priorities are, what as a parent you want in terms of that kid’s grades, what the kid wants in terms of grades, a very deep conversation about who’s responsible for the kid’s grades, a very deep conversation about what will happen if the kid is not doing their part to meet their goals or their parent’s goals or some agreed upon set of goals, but what I do think is probably the best possible use of an online portal system is that it becomes a catalyst for all of these critically important conversations in families. 


REENA: See this is what it always comes down to, I feel. You, in every podcast, somehow, you’ve got to have these conversations early and often. And I didn’t think that online grading was an issue until this dad’s email came into our inbox and realizing that you’ve got to talk to them because it’s unfair to be on their backs every time you get these grades and creating anxiety and stress for the parent and your child. 


LISA: Yeah, I think it’s unfair to sort of everybody. I think it’s unfair to the kid, I think it’s unfair to the parent to have you know, that sense that they are responsible for the moment-to-moment of their kid’s education. I think it’s actually really hard on the schools. I mean, can you imagine how demanding it is for teachers to have to stay on top of this knowing that they’re going to get a kid or a parent, asking, you know, my kid took that test two days ago, where is the score? 


REENA: Exactly.


LISA: Like teachers don’t exactly always love these things either. Like it’s too much information. Or, and I think you especially raised the question of like learning versus grades, so often, what teachers are trying to show kids is how to do work in my class. Like how to do tests on this topic. And it is almost always the case that over time, kids improve. You know, the first test in any new subject with any new teacher is kind of a curveball for kids, they then learn how to manage that and then they improve over time. And so a lot of these really wise teachers have a very kind of semester-long view  of the grade. They are completely at ease with the idea that kids will start the semester with lower grades and then it will all come out in the end to a pretty fair assessment of how that kid did over the entire semester, but that any week-long or day-long snapshot of the kid’s performance is not a good measure of their overall learning and mastery for the semester. I mean teachers know this, they are smart people. And so for them too, they’re like man, I’d love to give a hard quiz just so kids know what they didn’t know, but if I give a hard quiz, and then the grades get posted. I mean this sometimes happens Reena, there are parents who will see a kid’s grade before the kid sees it, and they will text the kid at school about it. 


REENA: Oh gosh, that might be me. I’ve got to stop.


LISA: Okay, stop Reena. I’m just going to tell you right now, never do that. Never do that. 


REENA: Well he doesn’t have a phone, as listeners of the podcast know, but no. I want to be a good parent, but I am just learning so much in this process of dealing with online grades for the first time. So big picture Lisa, what do you think parents need to keep in mind? What really matters as you’re helping take the training wheels off and making them independent, not breathing down but still hovering over a bit?


LISA: Yeah. So I think the number one thing in this is know your kid. Like really know your kid. And Reena, I happen, just by really luck of the draw, to get two kids that are really strong at executive functioning. And so I happen to have been in the position where I can say to them, they’re your grades, I’m not looking at them because they’re not my grades, and we’ll see at the end of the semester how you’re doing. And you know, for my middle schooler I’m like, if there’s an issue, we’ll deal with it at the semester, for my high schooler, I was like, you want your grades more than I do, like you want higher grades than the grades I want, so I’m not really worried about this. So that was an enormous luxury to have as a parent, I know it’s a luxury. So I don’t want any parent to think whatever works in your home will work in every home, because I have taken care of a lot of kids across a lot of different domains, and I know there’s not one right answer. There are also kids who, you know, wonderful wonderful kids, their executive functioning has a lot of room to grow, we would say. And they do need a lot of outside support around managing things. 


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And so if that’s your kid I would say, here’s what we’re going to do. On Fridays, or maybe so as not ruin the weekend, on Wednesday nights, you and I will hop on the computer and we will look at your grades together, and you will tell me where things are, and if things are missing you will tell me if it’s really missing of if the teacher just didn’t put it in yet, and if so I will give you Thursday and Friday to see if you can get that fixed, but that it’s done together, that it’s done to help that child in developing executive functioning skills, and that it’s done again, with the full awareness that these are the kid’s grades. They belong to the child. And if the child doesn’t feel that way, they’re not going to take them seriously. So what I would say is, the big picture is know your kid, and then do as little as possible in light of who your kid is, and as much as possible to help them take ownership of their learning and their grades and the executive functioning that’s required to do school. 


REENA: Wow. This is going to be hard. And I can’t bring myself to uncheck that box and not be pinged every time, but let’s check back in in a few months, at the end of the semester.


LISA: I love how honest you are, and I think you speak for so many parents. You speak for so many parents. Right? We just love our kids, and we don’t want to feel like we didn’t do something we should have been doing.


REENA: That’s it. That is exactly it. So what do you have for us Lisa, for parenting to go?


LISA: One thing that comes up around grades a lot when I hear from kids about it, when I ask kids what they wish their parents knew, is they really don’t want to be compared to anyone else. And so to just extend that idea a little further, that these are your kid’s grades. What I would say to parents is watch for any moment where you might be comparing your kid to a sibling, comparing your kid to a cousin or some other kid you’re aware of. It is always well-meaning when parents do this, but I will tell you that I’ve heard over the years that that’s another way that grades can become unnecessarily painful for kids. So what I would say if you find yourself doing this as a parent or attempting to do it, thinking about what you’re aiming for, which is usually trying to encourage your kid, and see if there’s another way you can go. And the way I would suggest doing is asking what your kid wants for themselves, which is usually to do well and then asking how you can help them get there. 


REENA: That’s really good. I’m going to use that one for sure. And next week we’re going to talk about how you can help a clingy teen who might not like going to school. I’ll see you next week. 


LISA: I’ll see you next week. 


The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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