Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My Kid Will Become Even Lazier Now That Grades Are Pass-Fail

A boy focused intently on a video game, holding a controller and wearing a headset.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sigrid Gombert/Alloy via Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My child’s school recently sent out a notice that students will not receive letter grades for the fourth quarter, and students will just receive a pass or fail. While I absolutely think this is the right move by our district, I’m anxious about the thought of how to keep my somewhat lazy eighth grader on task without the motivation of grades. Any suggestions?

—Should I Let It Go?

Dear Let It Go,

Honestly, I’d frame this to your kid as a golden opportunity to finish the school year with minimal parental involvement and prodding—which, to a 14-year-old, is the most precious currency there is. In my experience, eighth graders appreciate feeling like you’re leveling with them, and appealing to their burgeoning maturity and desire for autonomy tends to go over well. On top of that, kids who aren’t inherently motivated by school are sometimes skeptical about the value of the work they’re being asked to do—often shrewdly so. Because of that, I think a realistic, clear-eyed conversation where your kid gets to feel like the veil is being pulled back a bit and that you’re on their team, willing to meet them where they are, is your best bet to earning their buy-in for this last quarter.

“Look, your school understands that this is a really unusual situation in which the typical standards don’t apply, and I agree with that. Since the last quarter is pass-fail, whether you push yourself to do your best or complete just the bare minimum won’t be reflected on your academic record, so I’m going to leave that decision up to you. I’ll be checking in on your school portal to make sure you are passing, but beyond that, you can define what it means to you to be successful right now.”

As the quarter goes on, I think you can talk about the pros and cons of skating by vs. striving, what they’re learning about their own self-management skills and discipline, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators (while keeping in mind, of course, that there are dramatic extenuating circumstances and this is not a typical learning environment). But me personally? I’d resist the urge to push and spur unless things really start to go south. This is a low-stakes way for both you and your kid to learn a little more about what makes them tick in regard to school and learning. And, not for nothing, but I think a more hands-off approach is also the most likely to ensure overall family harmony as we all head into the eighth week of physical distancing together—and that, to most parents I know, is the most precious currency there is.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

Our kids, ages 6 and 8, have been out of school since what was supposed to be spring break, almost six weeks ago.

We headed to our summer place halfway across the country for spring break, and here we remain. Our kids’ school has tried to provide some support for distance learning, but it has been of limited utility. The kids, however, have been champs at working with their mom and me, using learning materials that we ordered (my wife is a former New York City public school teacher), and they have been making great progress.

We just found out two important pieces of information: Their school back home will not be reopening for the rest of the academic year. The schools here are very likely to reopen shortly, for the final month of the academic year. We are moving in August, so our kids will be enrolling in a new school in the fall.

While the kids are learning well at home, they both seem a bit starved for contact with other kids, and my wife and I are starved for some time to get work done without distractions. Our kids have many friends around here, some who go to the local public school and some whom they know from the summer camp they attend each year, which is run out of a local Montessori school.

So here’s the question: Would it be crazy to try to enroll our kids in one of those local schools (either the public or the Montessori) for the last month of school? Would it be an unfair burden to put on a teacher to take a new kid at this stage? Our kids are, by the accounts of their current teachers, easy to manage and ahead of where they are supposed to be academically. Would it be worse to do this to a public school (we do pay property taxes here, for what it is worth) vs. a school where we would be paying them extra tuition? Is this just our child care desperation talking?

—Enroll or Not

Dear Enroll or Not,

Yes, it is your child care desperation talking, but I get it. Trying to work from home and parent small children is taxing.

There are a number of reasons not to send your kids to school for that last month of school.

First, your kids are going to be OK without contact with their friends. I know they’re antsy, but it’s a month. They’ll survive.

Second, your kids will not “backslide” academically. You said it yourself—they perform fine and have good educational support at home.

Third, getting new students places a burden on the school. Your property tax is great, but most schools get funding based on students who sit for the first 10 days of the school year.

It’s also a hassle for the teacher. There’s so much logistical stuff that goes into creating an early elementary classroom. There are cubbies and desk labels, reading groups and line buddies. In what will certainly be a very odd month for the teachers at your local schools, throwing two more kids into their classrooms would just be adding to the chaos.

Finally, there’s the epidemiological factor. Schools are opening, but is that wise? I’m not sure we have the data to make that decision right now.

On the other hand, you have your work and your sanity to think about. We, as parents, make so many decisions based on what’s best for the kids, but we’re people too. If you think it’s safe to send your kids to school, and you really need to, that’s the choice you make.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

I am a current high school senior. I have always been very driven and passionate about school, but under quarantine I’ve undergone some changes I dislike. For context: I am part of a close-knit academic program, and it’s killing me to be away from my teachers and classmates (our district is not using video chats for instruction). The exams I have been working toward for two years have been canceled, and our district has gone pass-fail. Obviously prom, graduation, and other exciting senior things are all up in the air.

With these external motivators removed, along with the constant contact with my peers and teachers, my motivation has all but disappeared. I still complete all of my assignments on time and to the best of my ability, but I have accessed a level of procrastination I didn’t know I possessed. I don’t know how to get past whatever mental block has me refreshing Twitter rather than doing calc homework. It just doesn’t feel like high school matters anymore!

Even though I know this situation is unprecedented, I can’t stop the constant, low-grade annoyance I feel toward myself for not having my usual levels of academic discipline (and yes, I know how ridiculous that probably sounds on paper). For what it’s worth, I have also struggled a bit with my mental health through this ordeal, and in some cases this definitely makes school feel like the last of my priorities. I have a really open and loving family, so I have a support system. Teachers have also been exceedingly kind in granting preemptive extensions in a couple of cases.

Do you have any tips for staying dedicated during these tumultuous times?

Motivation During Quarantine?

Dear Motivation During Quarantine,

My heart goes out to you. This time is difficult for most students, but especially so for seniors who were looking forward to important events like graduation and prom. My own district canceled school during our spring break. Most seniors thought they would be returning to school to finish out the semester, giving them opportunities to spend the last few months of high school with their teachers and classmates. Now school is closed for the remainder of the year, and they didn’t even get to say goodbye. While underclassmen will return to school at some point, seniors will not. That’s tough.

Here’s what I think might be going on: You are grieving. No one has died, but you have experienced a significant loss. The senior year you thought you were going to have is gone, and it’s OK for you to mourn that loss. I am glad that you have a loving family; I encourage you to lean into your grief with their support, and be sure that you continue to be open with them about your feelings so that they can, in turn, make sure you have all the support you need, whether from them or a professional.

There’s a book that I think might be helpful to you moving forward: Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dr. Dan Siegel. Each chapter has a section on what the author calls “mindsight tools,” which can help you learn to be more mindful and self-aware, which in turn can help you deal with feelings like grief or lack of motivation. I realize another book to read might sound unappealing, but you can skip right to the mindsight exercises if you’re not up for reading the entire text.

Finally, give yourself a break! You are still completing all of your assignments on time—that is much more than many of my students are doing (ahem). You’ll find your way back to your old self, but for now it’s OK to put your mental health ahead of academic discipline. Take care.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

I started mentoring a high school sophomore through a formal college prep program in fall 2019. We met once a week for a two-hour mentoring session at a site with other mentor-mentee pairs. Now that site has been canceled for the rest of the school year, I’m struggling to be a quality mentor.

We FaceTime weekly on the same night of the week we used to have site, during which I check in about how she’s doing in lockdown (both academically and emotionally). I’ve also kept up the journaling time that we had at the beginning of each mentor session. Other than that, I’m not sure how to help her best. I’ve tried to encourage her to complete the book we were reading together before things went haywire, but without being physically next to her it’s difficult to keep her on task. Do you have any advice on how to best help my mentee from a distance? I don’t want her to get too far off track from the goal of getting into college, and I’m worried I’m not doing enough.

Thank you so much for any advice!

—Mentor by Phone

Dear Mentor by Phone,

Your question is one that is plaguing teachers across this country: How do we keep our students engaged and enthusiastic about learning while not being physically present with them? You are not alone in feeling like this has proved to be quite the challenge. My colleagues and I have found ourselves meeting with kids while they are lying in bed in the middle of the afternoon, eating lunch, and, in one case, in the midst of a bike ride. More than one teacher has been forced to ask a student to “stop playing Fortnite during our meeting!”

Happily, there are also many highly engaged, self-motivated students too, to balance out some of the more challenging situations.

Given that you are in a mentor-mentee relationship and need not follow any specific curriculum, I have two suggestions:

1. Meet your mentee on her turf. Find the things that she is doing during this pandemic, and become an active, engaged, enthusiastic participant in that thing. When you can’t be physically present with a student, leverage her own personal interests to remain as connected as possible. This is why I spend portions of every meeting with students talking about subjects like Fortnite, Minecraft, TikTok, the latest viral sensation, etc. I’ve never personally played Fortnite or Minecraft or used TikTok, but by asking questions and allowing them to speak about things that deeply interest them, I gain access to engagement, enthusiasm, and trust. And maybe I’ll find a way to harness their interests into something more academically or intellectually meaningful.

2. Offer possibilities to your mentee during this pandemic as a means of sparking new passions and interests. For me, this has meant introducing my students to subjects like iPhone photography, filmmaking, cooking, the music of Bruce Springsteen, gardening, puppetry, the ephemeral art of Andy Goldsworthy, coding, computer animation, and improv comedy. My students are used to talking to me about learning. But when they send me a photo of their first blueberry pie, or their Andy Goldsworthy–inspired bit of art, or show me how to code something, we suddenly have something to talk about, and I have a means of urging them forward and embracing their newfound passion.

This is a time to get creative with our students. When the distractions of home are ever-present, the fears of the pandemic are always top of mind, and we can’t be physically present with our students to maintain engagement, we must meet them on their own turf while simultaneously finding and breaking new ground for our kids.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

More Advice From Slate

My daughter, an eighth grader, is a doodler, so when she turns in, say, her math, in addition to the various correct and incorrect answers, the sheet of paper often features medieval illuminations and little anime characters in the margins. I think it helps her think and stay focused on her work, but her teacher keeps writing “your homework is not a doodle pad.” Should I talk to her teacher?