Tips for talking about report cards

By Amanda Morin

Expert reviewed by Bob Cunningham, EdM

At a glance

  • There are different reasons you might be disappointed in your child’s report card.

  • What you say (and how you say it) in each situation matters.

  • Focusing more on effort than on the actual grades can help.

When kids bring home report cards, they may worry about how you’re going to react. And you may not always know the right thing to say. The truth is there isn’t one right thing to say. But it is important to look beyond grades.

Here are some five common report card situations and tips for talking about them.

1. Grades improved, but less than you expected.

You may want to say: “I was expecting to see better grades than this.”

Instead, try saying: “Nice! What do you think helped those grades go up?“

Why: Better grades means your child is making progress. And even a little bit can take a lot of effort. Keeping that in mind lets you talk about what’s working well. It opens the door to talk about what might help bring up the rest of your child’s grades, too. 

2. Grades and behavior “need improvement.” 

You may want to say: “You’re grounded until your behavior and grades improve.”

Instead, try saying: “I need to take some time to think about this. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

Why: When the news isn’t great, you might be tempted to jump to some sort of punishment. But punishment usually doesn’t help kids do better next time.

Take some time to think what “improvement” would look like for your child. Be realistic and talk it over with your child. Then come up with a plan to help make it happen. 

3. Grades stayed the same, but behavior and effort improved.

You may want to say: “I’m glad you’re putting in more effort. If only your grades were better, too.”

Instead, try saying: “It’s good to hear you’re getting the hang of what you need to do to work hard and behave in class. Let’s figure out how to get better at classwork, too.”

Why: When we look at a child’s report card, grades are usually the first thing we see. But don’t forget to look at teacher comments to learn about other progress your child is making. If school is hard for your child, putting in more effort is a big deal. 

4. Some grades got better, but some got worse. 

You may want to say: “What happened with the rest of your classes?” 

Instead, try saying: “Your math and science grades look great! What’s going on in the rest of your classes?”

Why: As kids get older, the expectations for learning change. It can be harder to meet them in some subjects.

Talk with your child about the classes that had lower grades this time around. Ask whether there’s anything about them that’s hard and what would help. Conversations like that teach kids to speak up for what they need in order to improve. (Learn more about how to give praise that builds self-esteem.)

5. Poor grades in most classes, even though your child is working hard.

You may want to say: “You’re failing everything?! But you’re working so hard!”

Instead, try saying: “I’m really surprised by these grades. I’ve seen how hard you’re working. We’re going to figure this out.”

Why: If kids are working hard and still struggling, there’s a good chance they already feel bad. Kids in this situation may be scared that nothing they do helps.

Kindly saying that you know they’re working hard can be a relief for kids. It tells them you know they’re not “just being lazy.” And showing that you’re committed to figuring out what’s happening can be a confidence boost. It tells them you’re in it together.

Find out what to do if your child is falling behind in school. And see what questions to ask teachers about how your child is doing.

Key takeaways

  • Don’t just look at the grades — read the teacher’s comments, too.

  • If your child improved in one area, talk about what your child did to make that happen.

  • If your child is working hard but still struggling, make sure your child knows that you see the effort.

About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.