How to Get Students to Care About Their Grades

Four teenage boys having fun

Here’s a question we sometimes get in our parenting classes or that Greg often gets in parent coaching sessions:

“Bobby just doesn’t seem to care about his grades. How do I get him to care?”

This exasperated parent is hoping that we’ll tell them the magic set of words they can say that will inspire their son to be motivated to do well at school. And they are always disappointed to hear that no such set of words exists.

“A teenager is like a Chinese finger trap, we patiently explain. “Actively trying to get them to care will have the opposite of your intended effect.”

And how do you get out of a Chinese finger trap? By relaxing a bit. The solution here is the same. The parent actually cares too much about their child’s grades. They need to care less.

The Student Should Own Their Grades

The core message for such parents is that the student needs to own their grades. Teachers, tutors, and parents should not be the ones emotionally invested in the child’s grades. The student needs to be the one who cares. If we do all the caring for them, they’ll reason that they don’t need to care.

a mom checking grades while the student lies upside down

We want students to be in charge of their own academic life. We want them to become active agents, responsible for their own learning. This means they get to choose whether or not to use resources, take notes, and ask for help. They get to choose whether or not to do more than what is asked or use effective study techniques. And they get to deal with whatever outcomes result from their choices – good or bad. They get to feel whatever emotions accompany those outcomes – pleasant or unpleasant.

Parents Should Do Less Grade Management

When parents are constantly checking their children’s online grades and getting on their case about every low test score and each missing assignment, it sends the wrong message.

By micromanaging your child’s grades, you’re telling your child two things: 1) They can’t manage their school life on their own, and 2) They don’t need to practice managing it because you’re going to do it for them. I have never once seen this behavior result in greater effort or buy-in from a student. Every time, this sort of overparenting breeds either passivity or active resistance.

a mother and daughter arguing about school

This is similar to a common issue around executive function. Parents often feel a need to step in and micromanage their children’s schoolwork, keeping track of due dates, upcoming tests, and project milestones. But if you do all the executive function work for your child, their brain will never be forced to develop the skills to manage their own schoolwork. You don’t get strong if someone else lifts the weights for you.

In fact, these two issues often go hand-in-hand because when a parent takes ownership of the executive function tasks related to school, they’re sending a strong signal to the child that they’re the ones who care most about the grades. The child, seeing that their parent is doing enough caring for the both of them, becomes a passive passenger.

Now, you can’t just flip a switch and turn your emotions off. You’re still going to care about your child’s grades. But you need to practice hiding those emotions or at least dialing them down. And you need to demonstrate through your actions – or lack of actions – that you’re not in charge of their grades. If your child sees that you’re no longer in charge of their grades, they’ll figure out that it must be their job to take the driver’s seat.

I’m also not suggesting that you ignore their grades completely, or that you become a totally laissez-faire parent. As always, the middle ground of parenting styles is best. There are ways to be engaged with your child’s academic life without micromanaging it. There are ways to hold your child accountable for their schoolwork without taking ownership of their grades.

Family Values and Natural Consequences

One way to do this is to clearly establish what your family’s values are around schoolwork and to define what the consequences are when you don’t live up to those standards.

For example, you could establish a rule that simply says, “When a well-meaning adult asks you to do something reasonable, you do it because that’s the polite thing to do.” Teachers are well-meaning adults, and homework is a reasonable request. If you choose not to do your homework, you’re effectively being rude to the teacher. In such a case, you can tell your child that they need to complete their homework, but the conversation doesn’t have to involve grades at all – it’s about manners.

a mom pointing out her daughter's bad manners

And your child gets to live with whatever natural consequences result from their choices. This could mean having to stay home and complete their missing homework instead of going out with friends. This could mean having to retake a class over the summer because they failed it. This could mean having fewer options after high school. In all such cases, it’s important that the child feels the unpleasant emotional consequences of their choices because that’s what will motivate them to make better choices in the future.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sometimes, however, students take too much ownership of their grades, meaning they become single-mindedly obsessed with them. There’s more to life than school, and there’s more to school than grades. It’s good to be proactively in charge of your own learning and your own academic future, but this should never come at the detriment of your physical and mental health.

Some kids may feel a very strong need to earn high marks in school, but they also need balance. They need a social life. They need exercise. They need sleep. They need play. They need to remember that they are more than their grades.

However, very few kids get to be so hyper-focused on grades without a parent accidentally setting a similar example in their personal or professional life. So if your child is in this category, take a look at how you’re spending your time. Are you making time for rest and recovery from stress? Are you giving yourself permission to be human? Modeling these things is a powerful way to help your child learn to find balance between their academic and personal lives.

Not Caring Might Be a Defense

Lastly, it’s important to point out that many kids put on a façade of apathy as a defense mechanism. The reality is, they do care. They want to do well in school. They want to build a bright future for themselves. But they’re struggling, and it’s safer to say “I don’t care,” than to say “I don’t know how” or “I can’t.”

a teenager quietly struggling

They see other students being productive and getting their schoolwork done on time, and they see grown-ups working hard every day, and they don’t know how to do the same. They mistakenly believe that getting things done and overcoming procrastination are all about mustering brute-force willpower. They don’t know about smart willpower strategies that make it easier to do what you need to do. They don’t know how to generate their own motivation in order to beat procrastination. They need to see parents model these strategies.

They see other students scoring well on tests, and they don’t know how to do the same. They mistakenly believe that test grades are just about how smart you are. They imagine that studying effectively just means putting in tons of time. They don’t know about the power of spaced repetition or self-testing. They might need a tutor to guide them toward these techniques.

When students know how to do well, they are much more likely to admit that they care about their grades or, more importantly, demonstrate that they care through their choices.

What is the Point of School?

A classroom where many students wonder "What's the point of school?"

What is the point of school, anyway? I mean, what’s the purpose of it all?

This is a common question, sometimes asked in jest, but often serious. Most adults are quick to give overly simplistic answers to the question. And many students walk around with incomplete or downright mistaken notions of what the purpose of school is. So let’s take a deep look at this question and try to sort out just what is the point of school.

First, Some Wrong Answers

The point of school is to get a diploma, so you can get a job.

Getting a job is certainly important, and getting a diploma generally helps. And if you ask some people, this really is the primary purpose of school.

However, this answer implies that school provides nothing of value outside of a piece of paper with your name on it. But if that were true, why would all the people doing the hiring care whether or not you had that piece of paper?

No, there must be some actual value in what it takes to acquire that diploma. It must somehow prepare you for the jobs that require it. Indeed, the United States Department of Education notes in its mission statement that a core goal of education is “preparation for global competitiveness.” School must be doing something that makes graduates better at competing economically, not just locally, but globally.

The point of school is to show off how smart you are.

A girl eagerly raising her hand to answer a question

This answer implies that school is all about competition – that it’s about differentiating the top performers from everyone else.

Students who believe this show up to school thinking their job is to impress their teachers by either knowing everything already or being able to learn it with great ease. They focus on grades and test scores at the expense of everything else in their lives. Or they feel ashamed for just being “average.”

This is decidedly not the purpose of school, but the fact that kids wind up thinking this way speaks to large problems we have with our educational system and in the culture of our schools.

The Many Purposes of School

The truth is, there isn’t just one purpose behind school; there are many. So here are many different answers to the question. All of them are accurate in some way, but all are incomplete. The true answer is all of them.

The point of school is to figure out what you’re good at.

This is one of my least favorite answers to the question, but it does contain a kernel of truth.

There are variations in natural talent, and school does provide a chance to discover what your strengths are. But your abilities aren’t fixed, and the work you do to improve will, in the long run, matter far more than your innate talent.

A better version of this answer might be that the point of school is to help you grow your strengths. Or a similarly better answer is that the point of school is to discover what you’re interested in – to discover which skills you’d like to develop and what subjects you’d like to learn deeply.

The point of school is to teach you things you need to know.

This is my second least-favorite answer to the question, but again, it is partially true. Learning academic content that you will need for college or for a future career is important, but it’s just one of the many purposes of school.

Unfortunately, this is often the only notion that students have about the purpose of school. As a result, whenever they’re asked to learn something they don’t foresee using in a future career, like Shakespeare or the quadratic formula, they resist, complaining, “But I’m never going to need this!”

One counterargument is that the student in question cannot be certain what their future career will be, so we ask them to learn all kinds of things in order to keep their options open. While this may be true, it’s a weak rebuttal. Several far better counterarguments appear in the answers that follow.

The point of school is to make better citizens.

One reason we teach everyone science, history, and literature, regardless of what they plan to do for a career, is because it should make them better citizens and more informed voters. Our society is made better when everyone is math-literate. For example, people make better decisions about things ranging from public health to retirement savings when they understand exponential growth. Our culture is enriched when everyone has had a chance to learn art and music. There is value in all of the subjects.

people with voting stickers because one of the purposes of school is citizenship

The point of school is learning how to learn.

When I was a senior in high school, our calculus teacher gave us a lesson on some extremely esoteric math concept that was totally disconnected from everything else we’d learned that year. As far as we could tell, the concept had no practical applications, so someone asked, “Hey, when are we going to use this?” And the teacher’s reply was so wonderfully honest, I’ll never forget it.

“Never. You’re just learning how to learn.”

Learning is a skill – or rather, a collection of skills. These skills include paying attention, taking notes, problem-solving, active studying, and self-testing, among many others. The skills of learning must themselves be learned and then practiced, and this is one of the core purposes of school.

We have no idea what the future holds. We don’t know what today’s kids will need to know when they’re adults. But can be sure they’ll need to know how to learn because the world is changing quickly, and that’s likely to accelerate. Already, most adults change jobs or even careers several times between college and retirement.1 Knowing how to learn makes you more adaptable.

In his excellent book about the future of humanity, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari makes it clear how essential this skill will soon be:

“Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, already today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are forty. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly.”2

The point of school is learning how to work.

This is often given as the cynical answer to the question of what’s the purpose of school. Schools are designed to create good workers – people who show up on time and do what they’re told. And while learning how to be punctual and follow instructions is genuinely valuable, this notion tends to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

a group of Chinese factory workers looking worn out

But there’s a brighter way to view this idea. Learning how to work is about building up the mental calluses necessary to do what needs to be done, whether you feel like it or not. It’s about practicing executive function skills. It’s about learning to create your own motivation to overcome procrastination. It’s about cultivating grit and willpower. In this sense, knowing how to work is a valuable, lifelong skill that empowers you to do whatever you set your mind to.

The point of school is brain training.

a brain lifting weights because one of the purposes of school is brain training

Because of its ability to grow and change, the brain is like a bunch of muscles. And school is like a cross-fit gym for the mind: It provides a wide variety of challenges that force your brain’s muscles to get stronger. Students often complain when things at school are difficult, but being difficult is partly the point of school. It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, your brain wouldn’t grow.

“It turns out, the skills we need to use in life (and in school) aren’t subject specific. But we use those subjects to teach the skills we actually end up using.” –Seth Godin3

There is not one kind of intelligence, but many. And none of these kinds of intelligence is fixed. School provides opportunities to practice all sorts of mental skills: verbal skills, numerical skills, logical reasoning, spatial reasoning, multi-step problem solving, analytical thinking, creativity, and much more. Even the ability to focus is like a muscle. Students often complain about learning content they don’t care about or have any use for, but as long as what they’re learning is challenging, it’s good cross-training for the brain.

The point of school is socialization.

Of course, one of the biggest things kids get out of school is socialization. School is a chance to make friends, practice communication, engage in collaboration, and interact with grownups who aren’t your parents. Indeed, many schools now deliberately include “social and emotional learning” in their curricula.4

two young students interacting and learning from each other

The other meaning of the word ‘socialization’ is learning the norms and values of our society. School is a place to learn which kinds of behaviors are acceptable and which are not. It’s a place to practice minding your manners. It’s a place where you get to see yourself as part of a larger whole. Of course, teenagers often rebel against those norms and values, but this is also an important part of growing up.

The point of school is to learn character.

Many thinkers over the centuries have argued that the primary purpose of school is to teach “character.” The definition of character varies greatly depending on who you ask. Some emphasize morality – whatever particular conception of morality they hold, of course. Others emphasize resilience, determination, and grit. Still others emphasize social skills, emotional regulation, and self-control.5 School certainly plays a role in cultivating all of these aspects of a person’s character.

Obviously, parents have an important role to play here as well. Schools aren’t a substitute for all the socialization and character-building that occurs within families. But, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child, and school is part of that village.

Purposeful is not the same as effective.

However, the fact that schools serve many important purposes does not mean that schools are serving these purposes particularly well. Many aspects of our educational system are outdated or ineffective.

We can and should reform our school systems for the better, and understanding what the point of school actually is – or rather, what the many points are – will help guide those improvements.

And the purposes of school described here are not actually exclusive to school. They can be fulfilled by other means. Or they can be fulfilled by schools that look radically different from those we have today. As the world changes, schools will need to change too.

Getting What You Expect

Lastly, your answer to the question, “What’s the point of school?” might be exactly what you get out of it.

If you think school is just about getting good grades and a diploma, then you’ll do the bare minimum to earn those things and miss out on all the other things school has to offer. If you think the purpose of school is just to learn the content that will be useful for your future career, then you’ll feel unfairly burdened by all the classes that don’t align with that goal. Defining the point of school too narrowly can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing you to get far less from school than you could.

On the other hand, if you understand that school has many important purposes, you will be more likely to proactively make sure you get all the benefits it has to offer. School isn’t a purely top-down institution, where students receive whatever’s given – although can seem that way. School is really a dynamic interaction between the students and the institution, and the more students participate, the better it works.

1 Indeed Editorial Team. “How Often Do People Change Careers?” Indeed. February 26, 2021

2 Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper Perennial, 2017.

3 Godin, Seth. “Pivoting the educational matrix.” Seth’s Blog. July 29, 2019.

4 Weissberg, R. P., Durlak, J. A., Domitrovich, C. E., & Gullotta, T. P. (Eds.). (2015). Social and emotional learning: Past, present, and future. In J. A. Durlak, C. E. Domitrovich, R. P. Weissberg, & T. P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice (pp. 3–19). The Guilford Press.

5 Easton, Mark. “What’s the point of school?” BBC News. February, 11 2014.

Learning How to Work

A child trying to work on her laptop, looking confused

Portions of this post appeared in my humorous memoir Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations.

Hard work is a skill.

All throughout high school, my brother worked very hard. Nick spent long hours doing homework, rather than rushing through it, as I did. He studied for tests – something that was completely foreign to me. All his efforts were because he wanted to get straight A’s, finish high school with a 4.0 GPA, and be the valedictorian of his class.

I guess I should say a valedictorian, not the valedictorian, since there were three the year he graduated from Issaquah High School. And since one of the two others was his girlfriend and future wife, it’s possible some of his motivation to be a good student was born out of friendly competition.

In any case, I thought my brother was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong – he is very smart. I mean, we are talking about someone who took honors and AP classes and got straight A’s. But while he was working his butt off to get a 4.0, I was barely working at all, taking equally difficult classes, and earning a 3.8 GPA. While he was grinding at his desk, I was watching TV, playing video games, and hanging out with friends. And what did all that hard work get him? A measly 0.2 margin on his GPA.

(I should mention that my mother was quite concerned when, during my freshman year, it became clear that I wasn’t working nearly as hard as my brother had. Mom kept nagging me about homework, insisting that I must have more work to do. But then I brought home a report card with 5 A’s and one A-, and she left me alone, though I think she was deeply confused about the apparent mismatch between my results and my efforts. I had my own way of studying.)

What I didn’t understand at the time was that the purpose of high school is not merely to learn content and earn grades in order to attend university; you’re also supposed to be learning how to work. And while our grades were nearly identical, Nick left high school knowing very well how to do things he didn’t want to do, and I did not. I suppose it takes a special kind of arrogance to look at a valedictorian and think to yourself, Geez, what an idiot.

Nick went on to launch an online shoe business right out of college while working full time for Ford. The income from this venture eventually allowed him to quit Ford and begin building his current suite of income streams: blogging, podcasting, online courses, and ebooks. All of this has been very successful, and all of it was built on sweat equity.

So while my “stupid” brother was grinding away at his desk in high school, he was actually learning how to work, and that paid off enormously, whereas I didn’t learn how to work until my 30’s.

Learning how to work is one of the hidden purposes of school.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the twin pillars of school: grades and content knowledge. So much of a student’s day-to-day effort is focused on earning points, earning letter grades, and otherwise playing the game of school. Ostensibly, this is all done in the name of learning subjects like math, science, and history – all in preparation for a university education and a future career.

But checking all the boxes and learning all the content is also meant to teach young people how to work hard and do things they don’t feel like doing. Usually, when people talk about this, they’re referring to the fact that our school systems were designed to create industrial-age laborers: people who could be counted on to arrive on time, follow instructions, and do boring, repetitive work day after day. But that’s not what I’m talking about at all.

I’m talking about learning how to do the work that you really care about. I’m talking about learning how to overcome procrastination and finish what you start. I’m talking about learning how to do work that matters in the modern world.

Now you might be thinking, But Chris, if it’s work that I care about, I’ll be intrinsically motivated to do it, so doing the work will be easy. I hear you, but unfortunately, that’s not how life works. Every pursuit, no matter how passionate you are about it, will entail drudgery. Even the most exciting projects involve a surprising amount of tedious tasks. There’s no getting around it. You need to know how to self-start and sustain forward momentum.

Workforce Training

Several children learning how to do practical work - cooking.

One purpose of school is to train people for the workforce. In some cases, this means acquiring the knowledge and skills you’ll need in your career (e.g., nursing or teaching or engineering). But this also applies much more broadly. School teaches you how to follow directions, how to meet deadlines, how to be part of a team, how to do things you don’t feel like doing – in other words, how to work.

You might think that, as an academic coach working for a company whose stated mission is “Learn how to learn,” I would be indifferent to the “learning how to work” side of school, but I’m not. Learning nearly always requires effort, often tedious, so if you don’t know how to work, you’ll find serious learning all but impossible. And the reason we’re passionate about helping kids learn is that we care deeply about helping kids become successful, contributing members of our interdependent society. Knowing how to work is essential.

Let’s say you’re a student in a chemistry class. During a unit on ionic bonding, you complete three of the four assignments. On the three assignments you do complete, you demonstrate a decent, B-level understanding. But since you didn’t do the fourth assignment, you earn a zero on it. At this point, your grade for the unit is a D. And you might complain, saying that you proved you understand ionic bonds on the first three assignments, so you should have a higher grade. And if the only purpose of school was learning, you might be justified in that argument, especially if you subsequently confirmed your understanding on a unit test.* But if we think about school as workforce training, the grade actually seems appropriate. If you’re decent at your job, but you only show up three days out of four, you’re not getting a D; you’re getting fired.

*For most students, demonstrating understanding once or even a few times isn’t enough. To create a long-term memory and true mastery of the content, spaced repetition is usually required.

Willpower is a muscle.

Two children working hard to push a hay roll

“‘Perhaps the most valuable result of all education,’ it was said by Professor Huxley, ‘is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson which ought to be learned, and, however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson which he learns thoroughly.’” –Orison Swett Marden1

Willpower may be a brain function, but it’s a lot like a muscle: It gets stronger when you use it, and it atrophies when you don’t. I managed to skate through high school barely ever exerting willpower. I never had to learn willpower-optimization strategies or practice self-discipline. And in the long run, this didn’t serve me well.

In college, I floundered because I didn’t know how to work, and in my 20’s, I succumbed to numerous bad habits because my willpower muscle was underdeveloped. I led a profoundly unhealthy lifestyle for many years and fell into a downward spiral of injuries, addiction, and depression. I didn’t dig myself out of that pit until my early 30’s. It would have been far better if I’d used my high school years learning how to work.

So let me be seen as a good example of a bad example. Treat school as a training ground for your brain. Learn the content and earn the grades, sure, but when there are opportunities to go above and beyond, take them. Don’t just do the bare minimum, even if the results look good on paper, because it’s what’s going on inside your skull that counts.

.1 Marden, Orison Swett. An Iron Will. Wilder Publications, 2007.