Following Kids to School --
How to Use Online Gradebooks

A new era has quietly dawned in the relationship between parents, teachers and students. Instead of waving good-bye at the bus stop, parents can now follow their kids into the classroom thanks to web-based programs like PowerBook, PowerSchool, Edline and Parent Connect. All of these programs give parents instant—and unprecedented--access to assignments, grades, tardy reports and discipline notices. Armed with a PIN number and a password, parents can log in to find out exactly what a child did, was expected to do or failed to do on any given day.

Is this a natural extension of legitimate parental supervision? Or is it an intrusive form of surveillance that will ultimately make it more difficult for kids to take responsibility for their own learning? To be honest, it’s too soon to tell. What is clear is that there are better and worse ways to use the information parents now have available to them.

Nobody likes a tattle tale, and the worst way to use monitoring programs is in a game of gotcha. Some kids report they now dread going home because they know their parents will be ready to pounce on a demerit, a missed assignment or a lower than usual grade. Instead of getting information about what’s happened from the child’s point of view, parents may have spent the afternoon stewing about what they knew hours ago and feel they must take instant and punitive action.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. What kids really need when they’ve had a rough day at school is a safe space where they can sort things out and figure out how to do better. That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t impose penalties for poor performance, but consequences should help the child solve the problem—less TV or online time for a child who didn’t study enough for a test, a written apology to a teacher for mouthing off in class.

The best way to use gradebook programs is as a conversation starter. Research does suggest children do better in school when parents monitor their progress but the kind of monitoring the researchers had in mind revolved around talking--asking children about assignments, discussing what they’ve learned, encouraging them to do their best. Although online record books can jumpstart these conversations, what matters most is listening to what the child has to say. If parents show a genuine, non-judgmental interest, children are more likely to take school seriously and reflect on their experiences in and out of the classroom.

The optimum use of online monitoring tools also changes as kids age. In elementary school, most children bring home backpacks crammed with papers that give attentive parents a good idea of what’s happening in class. On the occasions when “What did you do in school today?” gets a “Nothin…”, you can turn information from the school website into conversational prompts: “Tell me about the science experiment you did today.”

Middle school students are unpredictable—talkative yesterday, sullen today; organized one week, clueless the next. Use online monitoring tools to fill in the blanks and find out whether moodiness at home is the result of problems at school. Because most middle schoolers aren’t very good at time management, check for upcoming tests and long term projects so you can help your child schedule the work.

High school students often resent parent access to their school records, and they have a point. At this age, students should be taking responsibility for their own performance. Spot check now and then, so you can flag problems before they become overwhelming. Instead of grounding a teen for a low grade or a tardy, use it as an opportunity to talk about goals and ask the crucial question—“What could you do differently next time?”

Other constructive ways to use online gradebooks at any age include:

• Be upfront. Be sure your child knows about the school’s gradebook program and that you will visit it from time to time. At the same time, make it clear that schoolwork is your child’s responsibility.

• E-mail teachers. Most teachers have limited phone access during the day. Instead of playing phone tag, use e-mail to ask simple questions or set up appointments. Send an introductory e-mail early in the year to let the teacher know you are an engaged parent, and e-mail is a good way to reach you.

• Find space for face to face. A monitoring website can’t substitute for teacher meetings or visits to school. Especially if your child is struggling, an in-person conference will yield much better information about what you can do to help.

• Look for links. Instead of sorting through hundreds of homework helper sites to find the one that explains quadratic equations the way your child’s teacher does, check the gradebook website for teacher recommended links including those that reinforce the textbooks your child uses in class.

• Don’t expect perfection. Every student is not an honors students, and even honors students go through rough patches. Make it clear that you want the best from (and for) your child but, when that doesn’t happen, help your child learn from mistakes by asking questions about what went wrong and how things could be different next time.

• Value learning more than grades. Often the class in which a child doesn’t get especially good grades turns out to be the one that provokes the most thought. Remind yourself—and sometimes your child—that grades are only one way to measure what’s been learned.

Most important, encourage independence by teaching your child to use the school’s online gradebook to keep track of his or her own progress. Unless you’re planning to follow your child to college and then the workplace, your ultimate goal is to transfer responsibility for monitoring your child’s life from your shoulders to your child’s. Then, you can relax, knowing that even though you could follow your child to school and check on every quiz and homework assignment, it really won’t be necessary.

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for almost two decades. To read other Growing Up Online columns, visit her website at www.growing-up-online.com.

@​ Copyright, 2008, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.