Loving the kid you have: When school is not your kid's jam

I'm a teacher, so I know a thing or two about being neurotic about your kid's grades. Before I was a parent, I sure knew a lot about helping your kid with school. I was going to have lots of rules and incentives about school participation. If my kids were struggling behaviorally or academically at school, they would NOT be getting any privileges at home. I was sure that with tons of support from me and an educationally rich environment, they would obviously all be model students. (Aaaannnnddd foster and adoptive parents everywhere laughed and laughed.)


Fast forward to me as a first time foster parent and let's just say, it did NOT go that way.



I made a lot of mistakes early on as a mom to kids who struggled with trauma, and one of the biggest ones was this: I tied home life to school life way too often, and my expectations for my kids at school were not realistic. The bar I was setting for my kids was so much higher than they could hope to reach, and school started to take away from what was most important: Their ability to attach, and their mental health.


It is very tempting as a parent to attach your worth as a mom or dad to your child's performance in school. It's hard not to think "if they don't behave/pass this class/get good grades, I am a bad parent." The truth is, our children have huge barriers to learning before they ever enter our home, and no amount of amazing parenting can ever totally remove those barriers. Furthermore, being a good parent to a child struggling with trauma starts with connection, not report cards. When we parent from a place of insecurity and frustration, we prioritize grades and behavioral reports over our children's ability to connect with us, and even over their success in home life.


A child who is securely attached and mentally healthy but failing school is a child who is alive and happy. Some doors may be closed to them as a result of their school challenges, but they will be primed for emotional health as an adult. As foster or adoptive parents, mental and emotional health has to be our number one priority. It has to come before anything else, because adoptees and former foster children are at a huge risk for self harm, suicide, and substance abuse in adulthood.


The thing is, we can punish and lecture and take away privileges all day long, but doing that will not take away the trauma our kids experienced or the lifelong effects of that trauma. Honestly, those strategies might work on kids with typical childhoods, but they almost always backfire with kids who've experienced trauma. As foster and adoptive parents, we simply can't afford to spin our wheels. It might feel good in the moment to make a big, strict parent fuss about poor grades or poor school behavior, but doing so will fail your child in a bigger way down the road.


I am currently parenting a high schooler, and it looks a lot different than it did in the beginning. He gets a 5 dollar raise on his regular 25 dollar per week allowance if he has good behavior at school during the week. If something happens at school, school officials carry out their own disciplinary actions, and he loses that 5 dollars. That's it. There's no big lecture, and I don't go on a consequence spree of taking things away from him. Later on when he's emotionally regulated, we have a discussion. We talk about what happened and what he could have done differently. A lot of times he's able to identify triggers that led to him having a hard time, and I'm able to convey those to the school professionals so that they can take a different approach in the future. My child gets extra allowance money and lots of praise if he gets an A or a B in a class. If he fails a class, we talk about how to address that in the future and the possible natural consequences that could arise (i.e. not graduating high school). If he is interested in an added support I provide it, but if he's not, I don't. There's no forced math tutoring happening here.


Honestly, my kid is doing better than ever with this approach, and that's because I'm putting his needs above my need to feel like a stereotypically "good" mom.


The moment it clicked for me was the day my teenager got his first report card while living with me. He had just moved in as an emergency foster placement; hadn't even been with me two months. His grades were low across the board, and the comments made by his teachers were all very negative. When I saw it I broke down in anxious tears and immediately started lecturing him, freaking out about how he needed to start tutoring and going on and on about all the consequences that he was going to have because of this report card. He was completely silent for a while.


Eventually tears just started silently rolling down his cheeks. He turned towards me, eyes looking both terrified and defeated, and said something I'll never forget:


"If you expect me to get good grades, you might as well just take me back. I can't do it, I've never been able to do it, so if you're going to get rid of me just do it."


I wiped my eyes and looked at him, beginning to finally understand. Before this kid could address his academic challenges, he needed to understand that I loved him, and would always be in his corner, no matter what. He needed to know that my love was unconditional.


After 14 years of living through extreme trauma, it was going to take us a while to get there. The grades would have to wait; we had more important battles ahead of us.


Fast forward to today: I'll never have an honor student, that's true. And my kid will still always be the first to make a smart retort in class. But I have a kid who's doing his best, who isn't afraid to ask me for help. And best of all, I have a kid who knows that there's no low grade or behavior report that could ever make him lose his place in our family.


That's an achievement worth more to me than any A+ report card.



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