How Important are Report Cards–Really?

Let’s be honest. Grades are overrated. But for many of us, they are a central part of our children’s educational journey. Do report cards accurately reflect a child’s progress in school or their underlying intelligence? Most experts would say “no.” Some kids are simply better than others at taking tests or they have a sharper memory for certain subjects.

So what can we do to motivate and encourage our kids? How should we be responding to the grades we see on a report card – good or not so good? Fortunately, research is helping us understand that grades actually are a strong indicator of a child’s character – opening up a new way for parents to think about and respond to the grades they see on their child’s report card.

Researchers from the Mellon Foundation found that academic success actually is a reflection of character strength. So the more As your child receives, the more likely he or she is to possess qualities like self-control, motivation, and perseverance. “Character clearly matters in school,” says the study’s co-author, Matthew M. Chingos, Ph.D. “Things like curiosity and grit translate into better grades.” In fact, the Downey, California school district saw a 5% annual increase in district-wide standardized test scores in the four years following the implementation of a program aimed at promoting character.

So if you want to put your kid on the fast track to success – and make those report card grades have real meaning – have some fun while cultivating their social skills. Here are some ways to do it.

Teach Your Child Chess

Key character builder: Perseverance

It takes logic and foresight to win a game of chess, and your child will lose a lot of games before he or she develops those skills. “Chess is one of the best ways for kids to learn that loss is something they can learn from,” says Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. And every time you stomp them, they’ll have an opportunity to rebuild their strategy and come back stronger. “It’s a great opportunity to show them how to deal with setbacks.”

Report Card Booster: The parents of 75 students in the Chicago Public Schools likely agree with studies showing that kids who play chess have stronger numerical and verbal skills. Their children, who participated in a program integrating chess into their math and reading studies, saw a 26% gain in reading scores and a 24% increase in mathematics standardized test scores after 60 hours of tutoring.

Climb a tree with your kid

Key character builder: Emotional control

Stepping between branches presents the threat of falling, and even children are smart enough to realize that, says Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D., co-author of The Art of Roughhousing. That means your little one will have to tame her fears, even if only for a moment. “Kids can’t climb a tree if their emotions are all over the place,” he says. “Some climbing moves are easy, but others are challenging and downright scary.” And that emotional focus will serve them well at test time.

Report Card Booster: Kids who take on some form of exercise for 20 to 40 minutes a day increased brain activity associated with executive function and improved math skills in just 3 months, say researchers at Georgia Health Sciences University. And if that exercise includes tree climbing, an Australian study reports your backyard adventurer will be better at problem solving and creative thinking.

Teach Junior to juggle

Key character builder: Commitment

Unless your kid’s a circus-clown prodigy, it’s going to take him some practice to keep three balls in the air. “Juggling’s hard enough that kids can’t master it right away, but not so hard that they quit,” says Dr. DeBenedet.

Report Card Booster: Keeping track of moving items requires spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination, the combination of which seem to bolster brain matter. Oxford researchers discovered a 5 percent increase in brain white matter in novice jugglers after just 6 weeks of daily practice.

Praise Their Efforts

Key character builder: Self-confidence

It’s good to cheer your child, but rather than focus on skills and achievements, direct your loudest cheers toward hard work. “If we just tell our kids how brilliant they are, we make them afraid to struggle,” says Tough. “But if we praise how hard they’re working, we give them the gift of self-confidence.”

Report Card Booster: Kids work hardest when they believe they can affect the outcome, says Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a Stanford University psychology professor. Good grades don’t happen unless children trust their ability to improve and grow smarter.

Make them earn something

Key character builder: Patience

At some point your child needs to learn that games, toys and treats come at a price. “Don’t immediately give in to your child’s every whim,” says Tough. “It’s important for them to sometimes hear the word ‘no.’” So your boy wants an iPad? Have him mow a few lawns to save up half the money himself. It might take him a couple months, but if he wants it bad enough, he’ll stick it out.

Report Card Booster: A Stanford study shows that students who exhibited patience as young children scored measurably higher on SAT tests years later, and a more recent follow-up with those same kids found that their willpower stayed strong well into adulthood. Helping your kids develop invaluable skills, like patience, now can help them the rest of their lives.

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