It’s here. The dreaded first home delivery of the report card. Whether you’re pulling it out of a backpack or pulling it up on a computer screen, there’s a moment of anticipation and maybe even dread. Indeed parents seem obligated to use the report card moment as a pep talk. But experts aren’t sure this is the right way to go.

Maria Pickard, guidance counselor in Memphis, Tennessee, warns parents against saying too much. “Students come to rely too heavily on their parents’ reaction to their scores. When what we really want is to have them reacting themselves. If parents could just use that moment to get their kids thinking for themselves about how they did, report cards would be a more effective tool for motivating kids to perform better.”

The most basic advice for parents is to ask open-ended questions instead of yes-or-no ones. Think of the report card as a conversation-starter. A way for your child to talk about how she’s doing in each area, what is easy or hard for her, and how you can help her to do better.

Here are more tips for talking about report cards with your child:

  • Ask your child how she thinks she did. This opens up the dialogue for any problems she’s having in the class or reasons for a less than stellar performance. And it sets the tone for parents to listen.
  • If the teacher is commenting on your child’s chattiness or inability to listen, don’t set yourself up for an argument.  Instead of asking why he’s chatty or why she can’t sit still, ask, “Why do you think the teacher feels you have trouble listening?”  Getting your child to explain from the teacher’s point of view enables him to think about how his actions are being interpreted.
  • Offer specific praise and encouragement instead of broad statements. Try: “You worked very hard to bring up your math grade this period,” instead of “Great job in math.”
  • Separate your child from his grades. No parent wants his child to feel his self-worth is derived from what teachers say about him. Consider statements like, “I love you, but I don’t like this report card” as a way to distinguish between the two.
  • Focus on a way to do better. Instead of telling your child to pull up her history grade, talk together to find a way she can improve her scores in that class. Come up with a plan. Write it down. Finally, communicate it to the teacher, so that you’re all on the same page.
  • Handle praise with care. If your child consistently brings home amazing report cards, it may be difficult to know what to say. “Good job” loses its meaning and has almost no affect. Consider reminding your child how she got those grades, and prompting her to find some self-satisfaction. “I am not surprised you have all these great grades on your report card. I saw you working very hard this term and it looks like it’s paid off. I bet you feel very proud!”

How big of a deal should you make about report cards? Well, that usually depends upon your child. If he’s visibly stressed out because his report isn’t perfect, your reaction should be very low-key. If she seems ambivalent about the negative comments and poor grades, you’ll probably want to emphasize it more.

Remember that report cards are simply a way for your child’s school to formally record his progress. Progress is the key. It’s a way for you to see what your child is learning and how he is performing in school. But it’s not the final say on how smart he is. If we approach report cards with that attitude, we’ll be able to offer the encouragement our child needs for success in school.