How to Set Realistic Grade Expectations For Your Teenager

Nearly every parent wants their teenager to achieve their best at school.

Perhaps you have a particular “dream career” in mind or maybe you would be happy simply knowing that your child is reaching their full learning potential.

Well, believe it or not, most teenagers do actually want to do well at school for themselves, as well as to make their parents and friends proud.

However, “doing well” at school can mean many different things to different people. Some parents will be happy if their child passes, while others will be satisfied with Bs and Cs. And then there are those parents that will settle for nothing less than straight As!

But what many people don’t realise is that the best way to motivate an adolescent is to set expectations that are in line with what they are actually capable of.

And it’s vital to communicate your expectations clearly and to listen to your child’s opinions regarding grades and future career prospects.

So how can you go about this?

The Problem With Unrealistically HIGH Expectations

By the time they reach high school, most kids will know exactly which subjects they are naturally good at and which ones they find more challenging.

Teenagers tend to compare themselves to their peers and, within each subject, each kid will usually know if they are one of those students who pick things up quickly with minimal effort, or someone who needs a little more support to grasp concepts and complete assignments.

The truth is, many students will never be able to achieve straight As regardless of the amount of effort they put in.

And what’s more, it is counter-productive to expect this!

One of the keys to successfully motivating your teenage son or daughter is to help them set goals that are realistic and achievable.

Setting unrealistic expectations for your child can cause several negative outcomes:

  1. Your teenager will probably be aware that your expectations are beyond their reach and will know that nothing they can do will enable them to meet these expectations. This is likely to cause them to lose motivation and reduce the amount of effort they invest. They will think, “Well, Mum and Dad aren’t going to be proud of me whatever I do, so why bother?”
  2. Your teenager may become resentful that you are putting so much emphasis on grades and (apparently) don’t value them for who they are. As a result, they may begin acting out and displaying problem behaviours. 
  3. Your teenager may desperately try to live up to your expectations. They may spend every waking hour studying (and, don’t get me wrong, their grades will definitely improve to a degree as a result!). But they will constantly feel as though they are still falling short. Emotional difficulties may ensue, such as low self-esteem, anxiety or depression.

The Problem With Having LOW Expectations

While it is not useful to have overly high expectations of your teenager, low expectations can also have negative consequences.

Having low expectations of your adolescent may lead them to resent you in a whole different way from the teenager whose parents have unrealistically high expectations. They may think: “Mum and Dad don’t even care how well I do at school, they’re not interested in my future. What’s the point in trying?”

If you are unable to set expectations that are challenging yet achievable your child is likely to struggle to create effective goals on their own. And without the right goals and challenges, their motivation will suffer.

(On the plus side, low expectations could mean that your child’s self-esteem will remain reasonably intact as at least they haven’t failed to live up to your expectations when they under-achieve. But clearly this is not the way to cultivate a successful career or a sound work ethic!)

How do I Know What is Realistic?

So how do you know whether you are pushing your teenager too hard … or not hard enough? And what level of expectation is “just right”?

First, talk to your child’s teachers.

If a teacher reports they are seeing constant improvement, hard work and a good attitude, this is a sign that your teenager is motivated and is trying their best. In this case, you should be reasonably convinced that their current grades are a good indication of what they are capable of.

If you feel like you want a little bit more, you might want to suggest that your child aim for a C+ instead of a C, or a B+ instead of a B. If the teacher gives good feedback, asking your child to improve from a C to an A may mean you are not appreciating their hard work and effort and are focusing too much on the grade.

On the other hand, if the teacher reports that your child’s grades and performance go up and down throughout the year, their attention and motivation are also inconsistent and that they are misbehaving in class, this is a sign that they may not be working to their “potential”.

Try asking the teacher the following questions:

  • “Can you see some improvement?”
  • “What do you think is realistic to expect from my child?”
  • “What do they struggle with?”
  • “What are their strengths?”

Second, talk to your son or daughter.

Ask them if they believe they are working as hard as they can. What do they think they could achieve?

LISTEN rather than telling them what you think. Asking the right questions can make all the difference!

Try asking these questions:

  • “On a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 represents the best you could possibly achieve in maths, where do you think you are right now?”
  • “What sort of grade would a ’10’ be?”
  • “What would be ‘good enough’ for you?”
  • “What is stopping you from getting to where you want to be?”
  • “How can I help?”

How do I Communicate Grade Expectations to my Child?

Let’s assume you have now established what you believe are realistic goals for your son or daughter. How do you communicate these without creating conflict?

Here are a few ideas to try:

  • List all the evidence you have for why you have the expectations you do. For example, “Based on the fact that you got Bs in English at the start of the year but fell off throughout the year, we think that you are capable of getting Bs for the whole year with some extra effort. What do you think?”
  • Discuss why it is important to create short and long-term goals.
  • Allow them the opportunity to tell you what they think is realistic.

While your teenager may have the potential to get into a particular university course, it may not be the same as the one you have in mind. They may want to be an artist, or a musician, or learn a trade. Ask yourself why it is so important to you that they follow a particular ‘fixed’ career path.

Lastly, remember that balance is important for all teenagers.

Do you really want your teenager to get straight As at all costs? Even if it means no social life and no exercise?

Have a think about the potential costs versus the benefits and discuss these with your child before you agree on some goals and expectations together.

Good luck and feel free to get in touch if you feel that you or your child would benefit from some independent expert help with goal setting and motivation.

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