Just had a mom come to me last week who was very angry about the good grade her 9 year old daughter got on a spelling test. That was a confusing moment for me as good grades have typically meant good things. Her concern was about what the grade meant. She told me that 8 out of 10 words were not spelled correctly, yet the teacher still gave the high grade. Wondering if it was an error, this mom went back to ask the teacher about it and was told that she gives the kids good grades like that because the child tried, even if the answer is wrong. This mom was very upset about that response and felt it was very wrong.
At lower ages it seems logical to allow mistakes during the learning process, but once kids reach older grade school ages, I believe it sets up unrealistic expectations of what will be acceptable for the future of the child’s work. By allowing this child to believe that her mistakes are correct and acceptable, she will continue to use those mistakes. Someday in her future, the rude awakening will happen when she realizes that folks who make those kinds of mistakes rarely get jobs, and the kinds of jobs available to people who don’t know those basic skills might not be what she wants for her life. When that happens, where will her self-esteem be? When she truly cannot spell. What kinds of choices will she have? When she is applying for those jobs and other people can spell and she cannot, will it make her feel better to know that she was allowed to fail when she was younger because she tried? I doubt it.
Teachers usually do this out of caring for the kids and wanting to encourage them, but the unintended consequence of that can be devastating. If a teacher has a concern about this I would think a better way is what they did when I was a kid-a separate grade for effort and for content. That showed the positive things you were doing as well as what you needed to work on.
Much more importantly, I see a related phenomenon. It involves a lack of correcting the mistakes and practicing in a repetitive manner so the material never gets learned the right way. What I see is the mistakes happening but nothing happening afterwards-no going over it, no practicing the right way, no showing the work with the mistakes on it to parents to allow them to help make the learning permanent through practice. Lots of parents tell me about their frustration at not actually being able to see the papers with the mistakes on them so they can practice the weak skills. That is where I believe the real problem happens because the child doesn’t take any real learning away with him or her. The grade means nothing. What the child learns means everything.
So I feel the way to make this better is to call it what it is first. Is it a problem with effort or content? After that, (here comes the important part) make sure to train the child in the way to correct the mistakes so that he or she can permanently learn the correct way. Repetition practice works well with this. That is a better way to help her feel good about herself.
Giving a good grade for poor or incorrect work is insulting and degrading to the child, degrading to the parent and seems like a sure-fire way to create failure in later life. It is a disservice to the kids, it is lying and I call it lowering the bar. Expecting less from anyone is like saying that they are incapable of producing more. That is like giving up on them and that is so degrading and unfair.
I have met many kids who were given the impression by their educational past that they couldn’t do things right without some special contrived situation. That they had to have a special grading system or another way of lowering the bar to look like they were doing well. Funny, I never met one kid who had a higher self-esteem because of that. They felt worse knowing that this was occurring.
I reject the "lowering the bar" mentality in the name of helping kids feel good about themselves. From the many moms and families I have met, they report it does no such thing.
Since I am hearing many reports of this these days, I recommend to these moms that they use any of the plethora of computer and online based academic support products on their own, when they are unhappy with the level of learning their child is experiencing. In our home, we have used a great program called Spelling Accelerator. It was really inexpensive and a great repetition program. The kids found it funny too because it yells out cheers for them when they get something right. We also use workbooks from schoolzone.com while the kids are in grade school. We really like them because they are colorful and cartoon like so they keep the attention well. Even better they alternate the types of learning so there is no intense focus on something until you’re bored of it. These are just a couple of examples. There are many others available if you search online.
Dr. Sherri Singer is a Child and Family Psychologist.