I was an excellent student in high school. I was valedictorian of my graduating class. However, things quickly went off the rails when I got to college, and by the end of my first year, I had one of the five lowest GPAs.
My parents were not pleased. Instead of being encouraging or understanding, they were upset. There wasn’t much love when we saw each other over Thanksgiving break. Instead, there was tension, frustration, and anger.
My parents threatened to pull me out of school.
My grades went up and down for a few semesters, and eventually, I pulled myself together. I was on the Dean’s list in my junior and senior years.
When a teenager is struggling academically, many parents quickly consider punishment for bad grades. In my case, my parent’s punishment was the threat to pull me out of school if I did not improve my grades.
Although my grades did improve in the long run, my parent’s punishment made my challenge more difficult. I was constantly stressed about leaving school and my friends. I was worried about living at home again and being around their anger and frustration. This stress made my grades worse in the short run.
A punishment for bad grades did not motivate me to improve.
My experience aligns with research data that points to punishment for bad grades as an ineffective intervention. In fact, it can even be counterproductive.
Instead of punishment, I highly encourage you to look at alternatives if you want to motivate your teen. Studies have proven that a combination of negative and positive reinforcement is the most effective way of encouraging teenagers.
I’ve created a step-by-step guide that you can use to implement negative and positive reinforcement to help your teenager meet their academic potential and improve their grades. This method can also improve the relationship you have with your teenager.
Isn’t Negative Reinforcement the same as A Punishment for Bad Grades?
Before I share my step-by-step process, it is essential to define punishment, negative reinforcement, and positive reinforcement. These three terms are often confused with one another.
A punishment is enforcing a penalty or consequence on an individual because of their actions. A punishment can either be implementing a negative outcome or removing something desirable.
Negative reinforcement removes something harmful or unpleasant as a reward for changing their behavior or accomplishing something.
Positive reinforcement gives a reward or positive stimulus after achieving the desired behavior.
Punishment and negative reinforcement are often used interchangeably, which is incorrect. A punishment requires an authority figure to impose something, while negative reinforcement involves something to be removed.
The example I gave earlier with my parents was a punishment. The threatened discipline for bad grades was removal from university. An example of an alternative negative reinforcement could have been a requirement that I call my parents each week and tell them my study plans until I achieve a certain GPA. An example of positive reinforcement could be a new computer if I earned the desired GPA.
Now that I’ve clarified the differences between punishment, negative reinforcement, and positive reinforcement, let’s jump into my step-by-step process of using positive and negative reinforcement to help improve your teenager’s grades.
1. Stop Bad Grades In High School By Having a Discussion With Your Teen
The first step in helping your teen improve their grades is having a conversation. Give your teen a heads up and let them know what you want to discuss during this conversation.
This conversation should be open and honest conversation. Although you may be frustrated, you must come in cool, calm, collected, and without assumptions.
This discussion aims to get you and your teen on the same page and to hear why they are struggling. Hearing your teen’s perspective is essential in getting them back on track.
With an open mind, I recommend you ask the following questions:
- How do you feel like you are doing in school?
- What is going well?
- What is difficult?
- Do you have trouble focusing?
- How can I/we support you?
- What does success look like?
- What kind of grades do you want to get?
- Why do they want to be successful?
Some of their answers might not be what you want to hear, but let them speak and get their perspective.
After asking these questions, please share your perspective with your teen and tell them why you are concerned about their academic performance in a calm and collected manner. Focus on yourself, your feelings, and your concerns.
Wrap up this conversation with compassion and love, and most importantly, validate your teen’s perspective and struggles. The action steps will take place during the next step.
2. Make a Plan To Empower Your Teen and Avoid Punishment for Bad Grades
It may be tempting to jump immediately from the discussion into making a plan. I recommend that you and your teen have a break of at least a day between these conversations.
The first conversation will likely be tense and draining. Getting some time and space from this conversation will help you approach step two with an open mind. Additionally, the time between these conversations will allow you and your teen to reflect.
Like the previous step, identify a time and place for this conversation. This step will not be productive if it is a surprise.
During this second conversation, the objective is to develop a game plan for success with your teen. Working together, you and your teen should identify the following:
- What are your teen’s goals? They should be measurable (i.e., study for one hour each day, study without distractions, avoid missing assignments)
- What are your teen’s struggles in school? What is preventing them from reaching their goals? (be specific – i.e., note-taking, study skills, organization, etc.)
- What steps need to be taken to overcome these struggles/challenges?
- What is your teen’s routine going to be? What behaviors do they need to be successful? (i.e., when are they going to study, when are they going to wake up, how are they going to organize their materials from school)
When answering these questions, let your teen lead the conversation.
Let them speak early and often, and keep your input to a minimum. It is essential that your teen feels like they are in control and are leading the charge to improve their grades.
3. Establish Consequences and Rewards and Avoid Punishments
Now that you and your teen have created a game plan, the next step is to identify the negative and positive reinforcements that will help motivate your teenager.
Just like the previous three steps, it is vital that your teenager feel like they have some ownership and control over this situation. Immediately following the conversation in step three, you and your teen need to answer the following questions:
- What are the consequences if the agreed-upon behaviors are not completed?
- What are the rewards for reaching their goals?
- What are your conditions as a parent?
Let your teen lead this conversation. The more input they have, the more likely they will buy in and reach their objectives. However, that doesn’t mean that you should have zero input.
You can choose to reject your teen’s desired consequence(s). However, I recommend adding or amending it rather than altogether abandoning it. The same goes for the reward selected by your child.
When selecting consequences, it is essential to remember to avoid punishment. As I outlined earlier, punishment is not an effective motivator.
Instead, use negative reinforcement. Some examples of negative reinforcement are requiring your teen to show you their agenda every day after school until their grades reach a certain level or staying home on Friday nights as long as they have missing assignments.
Additionally, I highly recommend that the consequences be based on a measure of effort rather than the outcome. Your teen should be rewarded (or face the consequences) for working on their homework daily for an hour rather than achieving a certain GPA. I’ll discuss this in-depth in a later step.
Once your teen has achieved the required level, you should remove or adjust the negative reinforcement.
4. Schedule Weekly Check-ins To Maintain Growth and Avoid Falling Into the Punishment Trap
The hard work begins when you and your teen have created a game plan and established consequences and rewards.
It will be up to you to establish and maintain this consistency. Building a habit takes at least three weeks, so be prepared to follow through on these weekly check-ins for at least a month.
Many teens struggle to reach their academic potential because of a lack of consistency. Your teen will likely need support as they strive to establish the routines and behaviors that will empower them.
You will have to model this behavior for your teen to learn consistency. I recommend establishing a regular schedule to check in with your teen. During this weekly check-in, you and your teen should discuss the following:
- What went well during the past week?
- What could be improved moving forward?
- Review the goals established during your planning meeting and present rewards/consequences.
- Give feedback – if your teen is open to it.
When evaluating your teen’s behavior, you must focus on their actions rather than their words. Many teens are experts at telling adults what they want to hear. Concentrating on your teen’s words rather than their actions can lead to bad habits and allow your teen to avoid the consequences of their actions.
If your teen fails to meet the expectations laid out during your earlier conversations, it is essential to follow through with the agreed-upon consequences. When communicating the consequences, it is necessary to frame them in relation to what they agreed to earlier.
It is vital to avoid anger and raised voices as much as possible. These actions will only serve to harm your teen’s motivation.
5. Praising Effort Over Outcome Will Help Your Teen Overcome Bad Grades
I mentioned earlier the importance of establishing rewards and consequences based on measures of effort rather than a specific outcome. Focusing on effort over income is a subtle change that many parents miss and one of the biggest problems with a punishment for bad grades.
Although the desired outcome (i.e., no missing assignments, a high GPA, getting into college) is easier to see, it is also harder to control. Your teen might change their behavior, work hard, and turn in all their assignments, but still not get the desired GPA.
Did your teen fail? I certainly don’t think so.
Over time, putting in effort and learning the necessary habits will lead to a positive outcome, but that might not happen overnight. By praising effort over the outcome, you can help your teen continue to work towards their goals, even if they don’t see immediate results.
Here are a couple of additional reminders that can help you provide positive encouragement for your teen:
- Aim for a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative praise.
- Focus on the behavior, not the person.
- Remember where your teen started from and praise the progress they have made.
6. Model The Desired Behavior and Offer Support Instead of A punishment for Bad Grades
As I mentioned earlier in the article, just because you give your teen more independence does not mean you are walking away from the issue entirely. The support that you give your teen will be essential in helping them achieve their academic potential.
However, you may need to take on a less active role than you might have done in the past. Like with many of the steps on this list, I encourage you to start by asking questions. You can ask them:
- What do you need to be successful?
- What do you think you need help with?
- How can I help you?
- What support do you need from me?
Regardless of their answer or how much you think you can help them, respect their response and give them space. The more empowered your teen feels, the more motivated they will be.
Additionally, it is essential to respect your teen’s boundaries. If they do not want your help or advice, do not force it upon them.
Giving your teen the space to find their path is essential. You will also be surprised how much their attitudes change as they experience this independence.
The final step to avoiding punishment for bad grades is modeling the desired behavior. Teenagers often struggle with meeting the expectations around them because the adults they see are polished final products. Your teen does not see all the mistakes you made when you were younger or the obstacle you had to overcome.
To help your teen get a more realistic picture, model the behavior you want them to embody and speak honestly about your growth and improvement with them.
For example, if you want your teen to work at the dining table, bring your work and work there. Instead of only talking about positive things at dinner, share something you have been struggling with or a mistake you made.
By modeling the behavior you want your teenager to embrace, you are providing a model for them to follow and normalizing the behavior.
7. Get the Right Support To Avoid Bad Grades in High School
You have made it to the seventh and final step. As you can see, the process of helping your teen reach their academic potential is a challenging one. It requires patience, thoughtfulness, commitment, and hard work from you and your teen.
Your teen’s growth will have its ups and downs and can be stressful. Supporting your teen, modeling the desired behavior, and enforcing consequences can strain the parent-child relationship. Therefore, I highly recommend you seek the proper support for yourself and your teen during this journey.
I highly recommend hiring an academic coach to help you and your teen during this process.
An academic coach can serve as a bridge between you and your teen. A coach will provide accountability and support for your teen while keeping you in the loop.
Additionally, teens seeking independence often respond well to adults who are not their parents. An academic coach offers a fresh start for your teen, one that does not carry all the previous experience of a parent or teacher.
Finally, an academic coach can help teach your teen the foundational academic skills like note-taking, organization, and writing they need to succeed in the classroom.
Let’s chat if you think your teen would benefit from an academic coach. I am an experienced academic coach and have helped hundreds of teens reach their academic potential.
You Can Avoid Punishment For Bad Grades and Empower Your Teen
If you implement these seven steps, your teen will be well on their way to achieving their academic potential. While implementing these seven steps, I want to remind you to be patient and positive.
Your teen’s journey will be filled with trials and tribulations. Still, as long as they continue to work consistently and provide a positive environment to make mistakes and learn from them, they will improve and reach their potential.
Schedule a free consultation if you would like to discuss how you can best implement these seven steps. I can give you feedback on how to engage your teen best and help you identify the correct type of support for your family.
About the Author: John Hyde
I am an educational coach specializing in teaching students academic fundamentals and a growth mindset.
After graduating from Duke University in 2015, I taught at a public middle school from 2016 to 2019. Although I loved working with students in the classroom, the public education system was not teaching students the skills essential to academic success.
I left the classroom in 2019 to start Academic Empowerment Academy. Since then, my coaching program has helped hundreds of students realize their academic potential by assisting them in building confidence and empowering them with the skills and mindset to meet their goals in school and life.
If you’d like to discuss how I can help your teen be more motivated, foster good habits, and improve academic organization/performance, Book a Complimentary Discovery Call Here.
Hi I’m John, author of this blog, academic coach, and founder of AE Academy.
I help teens reach their academic potential by empowering them with academic fundamentals, a growth mindset, and critical thinking.
If your teen is struggling to reach their academic potential, or isn’t learning the skills they need to succeed in school, we should connect.
It’s on me – Book Your Free Call Here