It's report card season and your child comes home with a report card filled with phrases like “easily distracted” or “can be disruptive.” You want to know more about what this means and how you can help. How can you figure out exactly what the problem is, and what are you supposed to do about it?

Report card comments scare many parents. After all, teachers seem to be passing judgment on your children and summing up a marking period full of highs and lows into a few short sentences. Understanding how teachers view report card comments can be helpful in reacting appropriately to them and taking action in a meaningful way.

Barbara Kruger, co-owner of with 24 years of elementary teaching experience, emphasizes the fact that a report card comment is supposed to be helpful for parents — not scare them away or make them angry. “It can offer suggestions on how the parent can help the student at home, praise the student for showing improvement, or point out where the student is having some difficulty,” she says. Especially for parents who have not been able to attend parent-teacher conferences, it can give the teacher an opportunity to communicate with parents about how they can help their children the most.

Veteran teacher Dina Karlip, who has taught third and fourth grade in public and parochial schools for over thirty years, agrees. “It allows me to elaborate more on sterile, arbitrary grades, which are based on more objective criteria,” she says. “In the comments, I can explain what I mean. If it’s a low grade, I can explain the reasons for it, and what areas the child needs to work on. If it is a changing grade [that is higher or lower than the previous marking period], I can explain the reason for the change.”

Mrs. Karlip stresses that comments on the last report card of the year are especially essential. They are useful in giving parents suggestions about what each child should do in the summer in order to maintain skills or improve their skills. Contrary to what some parents believe, most students have some area that they should work on over the summer in order to ensure that they will not fall behind in the coming year, and some teachers use report card comments to communicate that.

So don't take those comments lightly simply because the year is over! Your child's teacher is trying to communicate things that will be helpful and useful for your child in her next school year. No one knows better than her teacher what will help her to succeed and do her best in school. Use the time off during the summer as a time to relax but also prepare for the coming year.

But sometimes report card comments are not helpful at all. If the comment on your child’s report card seems scripted, it might be. There are actually “cheat sheet” books filled with lists of phrases that teachers can use in order to fill in report card comments. Less experienced teachers may be using these scripted phrases in your child’s report card comments. Teachers who are more confident and are willing to put in the effort, however, will often create their own unique comments, tailor-made for each student.

But what do you do when your child receives comments that are less than encouraging? Take a deep breath, and go through the following steps:

Step 1: Take the Report Card in Context

Often, it's easy to get so caught up with a grade or a negative report card comment that you may have difficulty putting it all into context. “My hope is that parents would look at the report card as a whole…to understand what progress their child is making,” says Ms. Kruger.

That means looking at the grade, considering previous grades that your child has gotten in that subject, and combining those together with the report card to understand what the teacher is trying to convey. In some cases, the comment may temper the grade by explaining why your child struggled this term; in other cases, the comment may explain that a seemingly positive grade does not take into account behavioral or other problems that your child is experiencing.

Step 2: Talk with Your Child

Next, discuss the report card with your child. Keep in mind that your child will probably act defensive when confronted with low grades or negative report card comments, and try to start the conversation in a non-confrontational manner. Ask your child to explain the report card from his or her point of view. You may be surprised with what you'll hear.

Step 3: Talk with the Teacher

If you aren't sure how to interpret a teacher’s comment, you should definitely set up a meeting to discuss it. The same applies if you understand what the comment means, but are at a loss about what action to take in order to help. You may feel that you are taking up the teacher’s time unnecessarily, but teachers feel otherwise.

“If a parent has a question or concern, I would hope that the parent would contact the teachers for clarification,” maintains Ms. Kruger. “It's the parents' right to know what's going on with their child's education. I believe that we, as teachers, need to make ourselves available to help them understand and answer their questions. Teachers too often use acronyms or other educational terms that parents don't know. We need to explain what we mean.”

In fact, in the school Mrs. Karlip’s is currently teaching in, teachers are not allowed to send home low grades or negative report card comments without calling or meeting with the parents beforehand. In her case, any negative comment is merely reiterating to parents what has to be done. She has found that especially for parents who speak English as a second language, it can be helpful to have a summary of their discussion in writing, and she may use report card comments for this purpose.

Step 4: Take Action

After you have talked to your child and to the teacher, decide whether to take action. Consider whether there is anything you can do at home that will help your child succeed in school. For example, if your child’s report card comments contained phrases like “needs help getting along with others” or “often disrupts the class,” you may want to set up a point system with your child’s teacher that is reinforced at home. If the comments mentioned that your child’s teacher is “concerned about lack of progress” in academic work, you may want to set an appointment with a specialist in order to have your child evaluated.

The last thing you should do is take those comments personally or ignore them. Your child's teacher is trying to help you and more importantly, your child!

Also, keep in mind that you need to feel comfortable advocating with your child, whether that means meeting with the principal of the school, a guidance counselor, or your child’s entire teaching team. Especially after the last report card of the school year, you will want to figure out how to improve your child’s academic experience in the coming year.

Step 5: Follow Up

Last of all, keep in touch with the teacher to see whether the problem has been resolved. Touch base with your child to see whether he or she needs any additional help. And keep in mind that a single report card may be a warning sign, but it is not usually a sign of anything more than that.

Most of all, it's important to approach your child's report card with an open mind and a positive attitude. Be supportive and proactive and your child will thank you for it, (and so will her teachers!).