How to express academic disappointment to your children in a positive manner

I’m Disappointed; You Can Do Better

May 16, 2014 by Michelle

After my angst yesterday with the wee ones, I regained my composure, in no small part thanks to the sheer joy I get every time I look at the Mother’s Day card Little Miss made for me. That’s good news, because after I got her dropped off at gymnastics yesterday and Mister Man home to do homework, he handed me a math test. This is the first math test I’ve gotten home the entire year, and I knew there had to be something up because the grade he received last semester isn’t what I expect from him.

Now let me clarify to start. I care about grades in that they show what you are mastering and what you haven’t yet conquered. I don’t expect that the wee ones will get As in every subject all the time, but I expect that they will do their best and that their grades will reflect this. Mister Man scores off the charts in math and reading in standardized tests, and he quickly grasps concepts in homework once we explain them to him. Writing is a bigger challenge for him, both the physical aspects of it, as well as the confidence in feeling creative enough to complete all the requirements.

For that reason, I have slightly higher expectations for him in math rather than language arts, but not unreasonably so. I know we all make silly mistakes from time to time, but they key is to minimize this. Do your best is truly all I ask for. So when this was the first test I saw home all year, I was a little suspicious that this was his best effort.

How to express academic disappointment to your children in a positive manner

Yeah, a 72% on a math test – especially in a gifted class – isn’t what I’m looking for in 4th grade. When I went through the test with him, it was immediately apparent that the problem had nothing to do with his not mastering the material. Instead, it had everything to do with him not paying attention. He had four percentage points taken off for not labeling the answers in his word problems, nor for given answer sentences – something he’s been required to do for every word problem for the last two years. Ouch. Not reading the directions meant he got a problem he solved correctly marked wrong because he didn’t round to the hundredths place. And so it went.

That isn’t to say that simply paying attention to directions would have gotten him to a 100% score. Those little things would have gotten him to 92%, a vastly different perception by the teacher than the 72% he actually scored on the test. The other two problems he got wrong come to his other issue. He tends to make problems more difficult to solve than they actually are. In 4th grade, the math tests aren’t trying to trick you. If you’re getting a weird answer or having to go through convoluted computations to solve them, you’re doing something wrong.

After walking through the test with him, I sat him down to have a conversation. I came close to bringing him to tears, but not because I was yelling at him – he felt my disappointment deeply, and he teared up. But those tears didn’t spill over because I made sure to turn it around into something positive, giving him a reason for my disappointment, and I’m hopeful that this helps him understand a little and change just a touch going forward, knowing he’ll need reminders going forward.

That said, our chat had an immediate impact last night. He did his homework immediately, without fidgeting. When he got to a problem that frustrated him, he asked for help before working himself into a state – and once I had him draw me a picture of the information he knew, he was able to solve it quickly. He enthusiastically helped me put away laundry and empty the dishwasher. He even helped clean his sister’s room without my asking. I can only hope that his dedication will be more than a 12 hour fad.

So what did I do?

  • I explained that I don’t ever expect him to be perfect. Perfect isn’t normal. But I do expect him to work to his potential, and I know what he’s capable of – this isn’t it
  • I talked about what caused his score on this test to go down, and where exactly I was disappointed in his choices and why – not that I’m disappointed in him but in his choices
  • One of his challenges is that if he comes across a problem that he can’t solve immediately, he gets frustrated and winds himself up until all he can focus on is his inability to solve it. I suggested that if he gets to a problem where he starts to feel frustrated, he should skip it and come back to it at the end so that his frustration doesn’t spill over into other math problems on the test
  • We discussed together what he thought he could do to minimize the issues of making silly mistakes and not following directions and came up with a strategy of underlining the key instructions for each problem on the whole test before starting to solve the first problem, something we’ll work on making a habit with homework, too
  • We talked about the impact of making silly mistakes and not paying attention to the details. It isn’t just about getting a “good” grade on a test – and this turned into our major focus

Why do I harp on paying attention to the details? Paying attention to the details is something that will be important his entire life, long after he will need to translate fractions into decimals by hand. Paying attention to details will be the difference between being average at what he chooses to do for the rest of his life and excelling at it. Bosses want someone who pays attention to the little things and who cares. They want someone they know will do something right the first time. And that is why I care about his 72% on this math test.

If he doesn’t change the habit of doing things halfway and not paying attention to details, it’s going to be that much harder to change an even more deeply ingrained habit when he’s 14 or 24 than it is when he’s 10. I care because I want his life to be easier, and developing this habit now will make so many things easier for him down the road. Not having to redo work – whether in school or out – will save him so much time and frustration down the road. It’s about finding ways to ensure that his life is less stressful and more filled with joy going forward because he will be able to do what he wants to do and be successful at it.

He seemed to get it, but time will tell how much this chat sunk in. And I’m realistic, knowing that despite his best intentions, he may “forget” this the next time he has a test. I’ll keep reinforcing it in a way that motivates him and focuses on what he can do, rather than just denigrating and berating him. Because we all know that won’t do any good.


  • Angel The Alien

    LOL… I was just thinking how, when I got a 72% on a test, my mom bought me ice cream! But that was because I legitimately had a difficult time with math. It is important to avoid careless mistakes, because it sucks to get a 72% when you are actually capable of a 92%!

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