Most parents expect the occasional dip in grades -- a C here and there when a new concept is taught, a book report left to the last minute that earns a fairly well-deserved C-. But when your child suddenly brings home an F -- seemingly out of nowhere -- it can take you by surprise. Your mind immediately races to the worst-case scenario. Now what?
Keep your cool
Even if you have the urge to lose it completely, do your best to stay calm. It's okay to tell your child that you're angry or disappointed, but try to take a few minutes to collect yourself before you attempt a real discussion on the topic. And keep it in perspective. One bad grade will not ruin your child's future. But how you handle the next few moments can have a profound effect on your child's self esteem for the rest of her life.
When you're ready to talk about it, state your disappointment, and ask your child for an explanation. Try to really hear what she says without interrupting. For example, if she says, "We didn't have enough time," don't jump in with, "So you were rushing?" Let her speak. Then ask your questions. "Why didn't you have enough time?"
In addition, although you shouldn't compare children, try to get a sense of how other kids in the class did. Was this a matter of material not taught properly? Or is your child the exception in this case?
Establish the facts
Does your child understand the material taught? Has she missed a fundamental concept? Did she simply not study? Or were her mistakes a matter of carelessness or sloppy work? Figure out what's going on, and start thinking about a plan to correct it.
If your child's weakness with basic math facts is the primary reason she can't handle three-digit subtraction, get out the flash cards and start drilling for 10 minutes at a time, 2 or 3 times a day. If she never bothered to study for the science test, pick up the book and start learning. If neatness or organization is an issue, address it head on.
Talk to the teacher
As soon as possible, call or email your child's teacher and get her opinion on what happened. Share what you learned and what you've planned so far, and see if she agrees. Work together to come up with a plan that addresses the underlying cause.
You might be able to negotiate a retest to be averaged into your child's grade. Perhaps a special project can help your child learn and boost her grade at the same time. But as difficult as it is, try to set aside the grade for the moment and focus on the real issue of learning.
The bigger picture
You and your child's teacher can also address the big picture: does your child need extra help? If you're talking about one bad grade, probably not. But if the teacher has noticed a pattern lately, it may be time to take action. That could be as simple as establishing new and better study habits. Don't leap to a tutor as a panacea.
Your child's school may offer homework help after school or have programs in place to help teach students how to study and organize themselves. Look into these programs first. Then, if you and the teacher agree, you can take bigger steps, including a tutor if necessary.
A single bad grade doesn't have to be a harbinger of things to come. Instead, let it be your call to action on your child's behalf.