It’s now commonplace for kids to be able to check their grades morning, noon, and night. But is it too much? Experts explain what parents like myself can do to protect children from added stress.

By Nicole Johnson
December 31, 2019
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My daughter opens her laptop. It's a Sunday night and bedtime has been pushed out because her anxiety is high. "I just want to check my grades." Before I have a chance to move across the room, I realize PowerSchool is open. The lit screen reveals a series of numbers and comments.

"There's no reason to check your grades now," I say. "There's nothing that can be done tonight." While that is true, the online grading system has become a regularity in my house. My daughter checks her grades at least five time a week, sometimes multiple times a day.

And my daughter isn't the only one digitally monitoring her performance. Every Monday morning, I wake up with no less than six auto-generated emails. They show up before I rise and reveal all my daughter's absences, grades, and teachers' comments.

Online grading systems such as PowerSchool, ThinkWave, and Engrade are the latest way to keep track of your child's progress at school. And while these types of virtual grading systems have their merit, including allowing parents to be more involved, they also have weaknesses. A major one: Increasing anxiety in students of all ages.

Liz Faria, LICSW, a social worker based in suburban Boston, explains online grading systems contribute to the climate of anxiety many kids already face. Online grading platforms, she says, "are extrinsic motivators as opposed to the intrinsic motivators that drive kids to learn." Extrinsic motivators focus on rewards instead of the actual act of learning. When kids lose intrinsic motivation, it can negatively affect childhood development. "Kids become focused on the reward and it has nothing to do with what's going on internally," says Faria. She sees this as the number one problem with grades being ever-present.

Aside from producing anxiety surrounding their actual grades, a phenomenon known as grade anxiety, online gradebooks also have the potential to be deemed addictive technology. Kids have the ability to check their grades 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Technology creates and feeds the need for immediacy. And when kids have to wait for information, they become anxious. Faria, who also runs the popular parenting blog, A Mothership Down, calls this addictive behavior a compulsion. "Compulsive behavior creates anxiety, and accessibility creates compulsive behavior," she adds. Making grades available constantly perpetuates the cycle causing anxiety levels to rise.

And let's not forget that teachers are not as real-time as grading systems causing some students to stress even more. I noticed this from my daughter one night as she had a meltdown while telling me one of her teachers didn't update a grade. That meant the grade online wasn't an accurate reflection of her current overall average. That existed somewhere in a teacher's paper grade book instead.

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Then there's also the issue of the lack of meaningful exchanges between teachers and students. Online grading systems may be hindering powerful interpersonal communication by playing middleman and placing a wall between our kids and their teachers. Joshua Castillo, a parenting coach and early childhood consultant, believes that it is the lack of conversation or perspective that creates a harmful environment for anxious people.

"Haven't we all had a teacher in our lives who didn't believe in giving A's in the first semester? Without the information, an anxious child and anxious parent can go off the rails, simply because the teacher didn't add this to the comment section," adds Castillo, who maintains a Los Angeles-based private consultancy, Ask the Child Whisperer.

Faria agrees: "Conversations should happen face to face, not online with data."

How Parents Can Help Ease Grade Anxiety

Castillo believes checking grades becomes unhealthy when parents do not know how often their children are accessing the grading system or when parents notice their children becoming overly fixated on looking up grades. There is a fine line between being mindful and obsessed. Faria suggests parents use their intuition, adding, "If a parent senses that their child is obsessing over grades and using the online grading system in a compulsive manner, the parent is probably correct."

As a parent with an anxious child obsessed with grades and trying desperately to navigate technology, what can I and other parents in similar situations do? Start shifting the family culture, especially when they are young, suggests Faria. "Work on deemphasizing the extrinsic rewards for kids. Keep it to a dull roar."

Emphasizing to kids that a screen is only part of the dynamic is paramount. "Scheduling a check-in with the teacher and getting well-rounded feedback about your child's learning style, their social dynamics, and their ease or lack of on a subject is a much healthier and sustainable approach," says Castillo.

On a wider scope, parents can try to speak to administrators in their school district to address their concerns regarding the online grading systems. It might be possible to discuss having set times when students can check their grades as opposed to 24-hour, seven-day a week access. This can lessen anxiety by reducing the times a student may check their grades. "Grade anxiety can be quelled by creating a healthy perspective around grades," adds Castillo.

With my own daughter, I've really tried to lessen the burden she feels surrounding grades. These numbers, I've told her, in no way define who she is as a person. By taking some of this weight off, I hope to reduce her anxiety and encourage her to spend less time checking her grades and more time trying to find things she's interested in learning about simply because they intrigue her.

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