The “why” behind bad grades


The end of the school year has a tendency to bring crises to my attention.

I’m a graduate teaching assistant, which means I have more face-to-face contact with the students than the professor I work for. I know their names and I know them as individuals.

There are often a few struggling students whom I’ve had on my radar all semester, or at least since they failed a midterm exam. I try to reach out and help them discover what went wrong, and then put them in touch with the resources they need to do better.

In my experience, most bad grades aren’t the result of laziness or poor intelligence. Often it’s something else.

In the best cases, it’s something simple. The student had four tests in a week and they failed mine. That student, so long as they have time to study, will do fine in the future.

But then there are the other cases. Generally it’s either something tragic happening in the student’s life — a best friend committed suicide or a parent is terminally ill — or it’s some form of mental illness or learning disability.

The most common issues I’ve seen are anxiety and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Sometimes it’s also depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or even an eating disorder.

I meet students in all phases of these problems. Some have had them for years and are in treatment. Others haven’t even been diagnosed yet, or they’re newly diagnosed and still trying to figure out how to live with the problem.

That’s something that takes time. It takes time to find a therapist you trust and build a rapport with. If you’re going to take antidepressants, it takes a month or two for them to have an effect. And some antidepressants have unbearable side effects, so it can take more than one attempt to find the right one.

It’s tempting to tell a student dealing with an anxiety problem to be responsible and to find the resources they need to do well in school. But that’s like telling a person with two broken legs to go walk to the emergency room so they can get the care they need.

When your mind is the problem, sometimes it’s hard to use that same mind to get to the solution.

While problems such as these are bound to crop up, how we react to them is our choice. A student suffering from any problem will be better off if their parents and teachers are understanding and supportive.

It takes time to deal with a new and as-yet-untreated anxiety problem. But the solution can be sought faster if parents let their children know they have their backs 100 percent and will do what’s needed to be supportive.

A student suffering from anxiety, ADHD, or any other physical or mental health challenge has a right to accommodation by the school. They often need other resources as well.

I worry about my students who equate their grades with their own self worth, and who believe their parents will be disappointed by anything less than an A. I wish I could tell them their parents love them for who they are, not what they do — but not every parent sees it that way.

If your child ended the school year with less than stellar grades, instead of judging — reach out. Ask what’s going on. Odds are your kid isn’t lazy or stupid, and a caring adult is sometimes all it takes to help.

By Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. Distributed by

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