In my years as a private tutor, I’ve heard this phrase again and again. Parents who seek my services are usually their wits’ end trying to figure out why their “smart” kids are doing poorly in school. The critical mind may first ask one of these parents, “Why do you think your child is so smart?”
First, let’s take a step back and look at that word: “smart.” This word is so overused and broad in definition, that I think it’s just useless go math grade 4. Am I smart because I can instantly multiply 23 and 8? Was your high school class valedictorian the smartest person you knew back then? Was Einstein smart because he discovered the theory of relativity? What about savants, who can memorize tens of thousands of years’ worth of dates but can’t tie their own shoes? Almost everyone in the world can be classified as “smart” in their own respect, so let’s just keep that in mind as we further explore the question posed in the title of the article.
I think the real definition of “smartness” has nothing to do with IQ or the ability to do mental gymnastics such as quick math or fact memorization. We are ALL born with our own limitations. We can work to expand those limitations, but, in some regard, they are always there. It is simply ignorant and incorrect not to acknowledge this. That being said, everyone can succeed despite their own limitations. However, in order to do this, one must understand his own limitations and figure out how to best use his own natural instrumentalities. For example, I’ve seen a lot of students watch me do quick math in my head, and then they try to emulate me. Some succeed, while some just end up taking longer than if they had written it down or used a calculator. I encourage everyone to try new techniques to see what works for them – that is the heart of really being smart. There are often many ways to do something – each student should do what works for THAT student. Sometimes that means working extra hard to understand a principle or memorize a fact, sometimes it means looking at something several different ways, and sometimes it means just taking one look at something and understanding it immediately.
OK, so we’ve had a brief discussion of what makes someone “smart” – now how can we help your smart kids get better grades?
First, the easy stuff: homework. Most kids I see who are doing poorly are either not doing or turning in their homework! If this is a problem, get on your kids’ back to JUST DO IT. Some techniques I’ve seen help are: threaten grounding, check teachers’ daily homework websites, or request your childrens’ teachers to sign off on the daily homework assignment. I would NOT recommend positive reinforcement here because homework is the absolute bare minimum of what a student is expected to do. By this, I mean reinforcement like, for example, “If you turn in all your homework this semester, I will buy you a PlayStation 3.” NO NO NO NO NO. “If you turn in all your homework this week, then I won’t ground you this weekend” is far more appropriate. Homework just isn’t a bonus, I can’t stress that enough.
Next on the list is attitude. This can be a substantially more difficult hurdle to overcome if your child has apathy or animosity towards school. A mild case of bad attitude could be cured by a simple, realistic explanation of why school is important. You need credibility, so don’t say something like “Trust me, I’m your mother.” If you want your child to get good grades, explain why. Be honest, and speak from the heart. If you got bad grades when you were that age, think about how your life would be different if you had gotten good grades, if it would be different at all. You can use yourself as either a positive or negative example. A child with more severe attitude problems is tougher to deal with – you may want to consider a tutor. In most cases, I would shy away from sending your kid to a psychotherapist because I’ve rarely seen them actually connect with kids (that being said, I do think they can work if there are other things wrong – just don’t send your kid to a shrink for bad grades, that’s what tutors are for).