How often are you or your child checking their grades? How is that impacting your relationship with your child? In this episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation, we dive deep into the addictive nature of online grade tracking systems for both parents and students. Join us as we look at the toll these systems take on our families and learn how we can break free from what Julie Lythcott-Haims calls the "insidious parent portal."
00:28 Julie Lythcott-Haims One Week Cleanse
00:30 NY Times Article: Snowplow Parents Are Ruining Online Grading
02:30 Deerfield Parent Network
13:24 Guest's One Week Cleanse Experience and Lessons Learned
23:10 PMHG Episode 3 (Season 3) Setting Students Up for Success, A Teacher's Perspective
music credit: Line Up / POND 5
To find all of the resources CATCH provides to caregivers of young people struggling with their mental health, go to www.catchiscommunity.org.
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CATCH, Community Action Together for Children's Health, is a 501(c)3 that provides support and education for families around mental health topics. Original content and materials from CATCH and its collaborators are for informational purposes only. They are provided as a general resource and are not specific to any person or circumstance.
[00:00:00] Susan Walsh, Former Teacher/Principal, Middle school parent: I remember having coffee with a friend uptown and she said, "Are you getting the grades?" And I go, "What do you mean?" She said, "Haven't you signed up for the portal yet?" I was like, "No." She said, "You know, you can even get notifications on your phone." I was like, no way. That's the last thing I need. But I went right home and made sure I was signed up to get the grades.
[00:00:26] Amy O. Executive Director, CATCH: Today's conversation on Parenting the Mental Health Generation continues the theme from the first half of our season. We are raising kids in the pressure cooker that is life right now, and parenting is hard, but you are not alone. Welcome in. I'm Amy.
Dr. Lisa, CATCH Board Member: And I'm Lisa. Today we are here with Susan Walsh. Susan, Amy, and I are discussing how online grading systems, whether it be Infinite Campus, Schoology, or PowerSchool, can turn our child-parent relationship into a transactional one focused on turning in homework and getting good grades. What's the good and the bad of this effort to put our kids' academic information at our fingertips? How does it impact our relationship with them and their development of agency? It's what Julie Lythcott-Haims calls the insidious parent portal, and what Jessica Grose discussed in her New York Times article entitled, "Snowplow Parents Are Ruining Online Grading."
Amy O.: And with a new semester starting, we have a clean slate. What would happen if we tried what Haims suggests and practice not checking these tools for a week? A one-week cleanse. Would we survive? Susan has called Northbrook home since 2012. She spent over 30 years dedicated to educating children as both a classroom teacher and principal. And now in retirement she works part time at National Lewis University and is a powerhouse volunteer for CATCH and Reading Power, Fostering the Power of Literacy. We know Susan will be a wonderful guest to continue this theme of sharing conversations with fellow listeners who wake up every day trying to be good enough parents to our kids.
Dr. Lisa: So put in your earbuds, take these 30 minutes for you, and join our conversation with Susan. Hi Susan, welcome in.
[00:02:30] Susan Walsh: Thank you. Thank you both for having me.
Dr. Lisa: We are very excited to have you here today. You know, this topic actually started because I recently had the opportunity to see Julie Lythcott-Haims present through the Deerfield Parent Network, and when she mentioned the insidious parent portals, the entire audience burst out into laughter and parents were clearly nodding in agreement. As a parent to two youngsters, I haven't yet had the personal experience of dealing with these parent portals, but I do hear about them a lot at work. And I was wondering if the two of you who have more experience than I do, can share a little bit about what it's been like having to navigate that with your children
Amy O.: You want to go first, Susan?
Susan Walsh: I have a sixth grader, so this is my first opportunity to use one of the portals. I remember having coffee with a friend uptown and she said, "Are you getting the grades?" And I go, "What do you mean?" She said, "Haven't you signed up for the portal yet?" I was like, "No." She said, "You know, you can even get notifications on your phone." I was like, no way. That's the last thing I need. But truly, I went right home and made sure I was signed up to get the grades. Do I get notifications? No. But it has been a learning curve and I really look forward to sharing some of the experiences I've had so far in my first year using these portals as a parent.
Amy O.: So I don't know if it's the same in sixth grade as it was in high school, when my kids were in junior high, we did not have online grading. But in high school, it wasn't only grades, it was assignments, it was tardies, it was you know, virtually every piece of knowledge about my child while he or she was at school. Is that how it is in sixth grade as well?
Susan Walsh: That's how I interpret everything. After the elementary school experience where you might get a newsletter every week or month, I do get a lot of information. I think one of the things that parents need to be careful about is how to use that information, what it means, and even though it's important and there is some good information, it's important to know that it doesn't tell the whole story.
[00:04:58] Dr. Lisa: Do you talk about this with your friends and other parents of children in your kid's grade? Is this a point of conversation about how often you check? How often are we supposed to be checking? Does that come up at all?
Susan Walsh: I haven't had that conversation since the one I shared when we were all getting used to our new life, as middle school parents, but I will share as someone who was an educator for many years. I've heard stories through educator friends, for instance kids being very nervous about when something is updated, when their parents are able to see it. If they had a late assignment and they've turned it in late, when will that be updated so their parents are no longer upset with them that they have that missing assignment. And there is quite a bit of chatter from the educator side in that regard.
Amy O.: I think it's important to remember that every teacher doesn't utilize online grading the same way. So that causes angst because you don't have the full picture of your child's academic situation at any time, truly.
Dr. Lisa: In a good way or in a bad way? I mean, I'm just thinking back to when I was a student, and I mean, my parents would get a report card home, I don't know, maybe twice, three times a year, and they didn't really have that much information between report cards. And so when you talk about that angst, say more.
Amy O.: I don't know if the snapshot I was describing is good or bad. It's just a snapshot that is not complete. And so to have conversation or interaction with your child around a snapshot of their academic performance that isn't complete because every teacher doesn't do it the same seems misleading.
[00:07:00] Dr. Lisa: That makes sense.
Susan Walsh: I think I’d be hard pressed to find a teacher who hasn't had a conversation with a parent that they felt, shocked, surprised, taken back by a grade, as though they didn't have any information prior to that grade coming out on a report card, if you will. So, a parent might say, well, how would I know if my student is struggling? In the old days, we'd grade the work and send it home. And it was up to that family to see it in the folder, see it in the backpack. So it does, from a teacher's accountability, give that, hey, I am sharing this information with you. If you have questions, certainly you wouldn't want to wait until the report card comes out and you feel surprised.
Amy O.: But wait, back up a second. What do you guys actually think was the impetus behind these online portals? Do you think it was trying to get the parents more involved in a kid's education? Do you think it was just an ease with which to share information? Like what was the original goal?
Susan Walsh: That's a great question. I think there are probably many goals. I know initially when a lot of these programs came out, it was to address the standard based grading and be very specific on a state standard being taught and you could see whether or not that was mastered. Although parents use it for grades and progress reports and whatnot, the school community uses that type of data differently, just to see how students are growing. So I asked my husband who teaches middle school and has for about 30 years, and they say at curriculum night, check one time per week. So they do give some guidelines. Schools can choose to set these particular data systems with some notifications or filters. But most people I know, and I guess I would say feeding into Stevenson, New Trier and the Glenbrooks, that it's open all the time, in real time, and not once a week structure.
Dr. Lisa: In the article that we read about this, I remember there also being a suggestion that part of the creation of these systems was literally to help support parents supporting their children. I believe it's actually part of the No Child Left Behind Act, where they were basically saying that we want to increase that parent teacher communication with regard to how the child is performing at school, which I very much can see. And certainly as a neuropsychologist who's working all day with students with different learning challenges, attention challenges, things that can be impacting grades, that we want to make sure that everyone is in the know and on top of children who might need additional supports, but in that increase of, communication between parents and teachers for those who need it, I think also came a drastic increase in communication between parents and teachers for students who didn't necessarily need that much additional support. And you know, the experience that a lot of people have shared with me who are in education is really around how much more they're getting bombarded by parents who are up in arms about, a grade that their child got, even if it's such a tiny little nothing in the grand scheme of their grade, but it shows up as a zero for participation one day because they were quiet in class or they had a doctor's appointment, so they weren't there for the in class assignment. So until that gets rectified, there's a zero that pulls down their grade and there's just such reactivity. I think that actually lends itself to something else we talk about a lot, which is agency. And why is it that when a zero grade shows up, that a parent is immediately calling a teacher, where is the student in that equation?
Amy O.: It's almost like we have it backwards because if online grading were there for the elementary kids, you would know immediately to go home and help your kid learn to read the word "Cat" or you would know immediately that your child had a hard time in the bathroom today or whatever. And those are more appropriate for a parent to know day in and day out, right? But what we do is that we put this online grading and all of this information about everything to kids who are supposed to be developing agency, moving away from us, advocating for themselves, taking hold of their own lives. And instead, we increasingly become part of it as parents. And again, back to what I was saying before, I'm sure there are families where that can be a healthy place from which to jump and talk, but I know that there are a lot of families where it only increases pressure and expectation and disappointment and all the things that we don't want our kids to feel.
Dr. Lisa: It almost artificially inflates the importance of these things because it is on the top of our minds all the time because it is on the tips of our fingers all of the time. And so we lose sight of the fact that it is one component or one aspect of our super well rounded, brilliant, creative, delightful kids, but they don't get online grading systems that we check every day about their friendships or how many jokes they cracked or if they found joy in cute things throughout the day. And so this is what we are given as information that we then spill back towards them.
[00:13:11] Amy O.: So, I think this is a good place for us to ask Susan, what it was like when she did the cleanse. Explain to us what that looked like in your house and how it went.
Susan Walsh: Okay. So the challenge I was given was to do a couple of things. The first is to refrain from checking the online portal. And I also wanted to remove myself from a lot of the functioning that was my child coming home and doing their homework. That was actually becoming something we were fighting about. We were having power struggles around homework. And, you know, the last thing I wanted to do was fight with my child at the end of the day. So, I have a confession as we move forward. Are you ready for this?
[00:14:09] Dr. Lisa: I am not sure, but I also cannot wait Susan.
[00:14:13] Susan Walsh: I am not a helicopter parent. I'm not a bubble wrapper. But I discovered that I've been doing some snow plowing and I should know better, right? I'm an educator. I've been doing this a long time, but let's be very clear it's so different when it's your own kid. When you have high expectations for your students, they are motivated. It's just a completely different thing. When you do that to your own kid, it goes differently. It may result in power struggles. So, my son, he's the kind of kid who will walk in the door when he sees something's going on. He's like, "What, what," right away. So I decided I was going to write him a letter to explain what was about to happen because he'd be like, "Mom, are you sick?" "What's going on?" So, I basically stole this, from Julie Lythcott-Haims and I just tweaked a couple of words, so it sounded like me and not her. Um, but in short;
"Dear son, I know I'm always asking you about how you did on assignments and tests and why you got the grade you got and whether you've done your homework. And I know that can make you feel like I don't think you care about things. I'm sorry about that. I know you do care. So, I've decided that all this week I'm not going to ask a single thing about your academics, tests, homework, projects, whatever it may be. I'm not going to ask. Dad and I are here if you need help. Just ask. I know you've got this, and I believe in you.
Dr. Lisa: Susan, I literally cannot wait to hear you tell how this went.
Amy O.: I hope my kids don't listen to this because they're going to be like, see!
Dr. Lisa: And I just want to throw in before you give us the juicy information just for all of our listeners. We will put in the show notes, specifics to what Julie Lythcott-Haims describes as the cleanse, different ways you can use it, and some of the wonderful language that she includes for how you can incorporate it into your homes.
Susan Walsh: And I feel if you do, you're going to have some confessions like I did.
Amy O.: Before you go on, when you went into this, were you nervous, apprehensive, excited?
Susan Walsh: I was excited, but I can be a little controlling about certain things and my child's success is certainly one of those things, which is the definition of a snowplow. You know, I, I can't control it all and the sooner I give control to him, the more successful he will be and I, I don't know, I can't wait to share. I wanted to text you midweek, but I'm like, nope, this is too good. So the minute I'm all geared up to cleanse, right? And an email from a teacher comes through and it asks parents to remind students to do something this week before a test on Friday. So already I'm in a position where I'm supposed to remind him to do something.
Dr. Lisa: Susan, I would have quit right there. Just, just so that you know, I would have quit right there. So kudos that it looks like you have more to your story.
Amy O.: So, you ignored the email?
Susan Walsh: No, I printed the email and highlighted what it was she was requesting me to share, and I added it to the letter and, the minute he walks in the door, he gets off the bus, does a little middle school walk from the stop and, he's like, "Oh, no, what's this?" Because there's an envelope with his name. And he read it aloud. And he was chuckling a bit as he was reading it. Again, he was probably like, "Who are you?"
Dr. Lisa: It's like you were giving him your letter of resignation. You know?
Amy O.: "Do you have a fever, mom?"
Susan Walsh: Exactly. Exactly. He just smiled when he was done. So I asked him what he thought about the note because I'm dying, right? And he said, "I like it. I kind of laughed because I think I saw something like this on your Instagram." And those are the types of things I save all the good parenting nuggets. So now he thinks I'm doing some Instagram like
Dr. Lisa: pour a bucket of water on your head sort of thing.
Susan Walsh: Exactly. But I'm not that clever. And he goes, "Thanks mom." And inside I'm dying. I'm dying. I'm dying. I feel so great about myself. I'm a super mom. And the evening begins to tick away. We have dinner, at the end of dinner conversation and we're beginning to clean up, my worries are building because, remember the teacher gave a reminder and it hadn't happened yet. So I cheated. Okay. I cheated on the cleanse. I whispered to my husband. I said, "What about what the teacher emailed us?" So he's like, "Hey, have you done such and such yet?" He says, "Why didn't someone tell me earlier?" And this is where it gets good. Mom said, "I gave you the information. It's up to you to do something with it." His response, "Good point."
Amy O.: Oh wow.
Dr. Lisa: Applause. Where are our sound effects on this podcast?
Susan Walsh: I have goosebumps. And the rest of the week went great. Now, we did have a snow day, so I had one day off the cleanse, but it was so eye opening to me that this is going to be our practice moving forward.
Dr. Lisa: Wow.
[00:20:23] Susan Walsh: How about that?
Dr. Lisa: Okay, you have to say a little more for me about what the rest of the week was like with your son when you weren't talking about school. Did you feel differently?
Susan Walsh: Um, no, but if my husband asked him something, I said, I'm leaving the room. I don't want to be a part of it." I will say we had zero power struggles after school. I have to tell you that I have some outcomes to share.
Amy O.: Yeah. I'd like to hear this because I'm really interested in knowing whether or not your son appeared more confident, more empowered, more, you know, older.
[00:21:10] Susan Walsh: So today he said to me, "Mom, I'm going to tutorial tomorrow." Usually it's me saying, "Son, I've been watching you do X, Y, and Z, you may want to go to tutorial tomorrow." Or if he's totally bombing something, "Go to tutorial tomorrow." For him to say to me, "Mom, I'm going to tutorial tomorrow." I said, "That's great."
Amy O.: And inside you said, "Holy cow."
Susan Walsh: Inside was like,
Dr. Lisa: a literal happy dance. How empowering is that though? I mean, really, when we talk about lessons and what is actually important to be teaching our kids, the fact that he could self-advocate when needed and identify that on his own, that is so cool.
Susan Walsh: Absolutely. And so one of my big takeaways, it alerted me to the gift I have with middle school. If you think about it, I don't want to talk about a kid's record or, you know, what their grades will be to get into college, but that's a reality that I know is important to him. I heard your conversation with Aimee Wool about the pressures of feeling you need to make a certain school and they don't do it at the high school. We're not doing it in our home, but our kids have that notion that they have to be doing well, all the time, they can't mess up. Well, we all messed up. I messed up, his dad messed up, you know, whomever, we all mess up. But this is just a really great place where my kid can mess up, and it's safe. It's not going to impact his future. Okay. You didn't study and you got a C, D or F, whatever it might be. What did you learn from that? But if I keep taking that learning experience away, it's not his. So this, I have to tell you, this charge that I was given was the best thing to ever happen because we have three years to nail it. And I'm hoping with all our trial and error and whatever goes on, he'll be prepared to go into high school being independent, confident, just a really strong sense of self-efficacy that I would have been taking from him.
[00:23:41] Amy O.: I'll tell you, Susan, I'm really happy to hear that. And it's so fascinating that one week of changing your behavior has had such a monumental effect on you and your family. And I think that speaks volumes. And I'm so pleased that you shared that with our audience because I think it'll matter a great deal. And I also want to say though you say you have three years till he gets to high school, and then it doesn't stop even after high school, trust me, because my kids are both adults, as the audience probably knows by now, but I still have to check myself. I don't have to check their online portal anymore because I don't have access to that, but I do have to check myself you know, and remind myself not to ask them too many questions about whether or not they've gone to the dentist, or filed their insurance claim, or whatever it is that adults do, renewed their car insurance, because that's for them to do. And so, these are lessons that are lifelong and really important, and they don't end just, you know, in ninth grade or twelfth grade.
Susan Walsh: So important. I'm glad you brought it up.
Amy O.: I was supposed to drive to Madison, Wisconsin on Sunday. In Chicagoland, for those of you who will hear this, it was negative 400, 000 degrees. And my 91-year-old mother called and said, "Do not get in that car." And I said, "Oh, don't be silly." I did listen to her though. I didn't go but it doesn't end even then.
Dr. Lisa: And this is what I think is really one of the most difficult parts of parenting, is that we don't want to be so hands off that we're disinterested and uninvolved and don't have any nuggets of wisdom to offer, but we don't want to overdo it on that front. And I think finding that balance is so tricky. It's tricky to figure out how to, I make sure they know that I care and that I'm here for them and that I can help with whatever and that it's cool if every now and then I provide a reminder, but that these aren't the things that define them. They aren't the things that matter to me about them and
Amy O.: Well, and to take that one step further, they don't have to be, and probably shouldn't be the things that define your relationship with them. I mean, imagine if you set aside their academic performance and their everyday in and out of grades and attendance and assignments and all of the things. And instead you spent the time that you would be arguing with them or pushing them or talking about any number of a million other things, that's a much more enriching relationship and interesting relationship and one that will last well into their forever. If it becomes something that you're obsessed with. It's in every conversation, it's in every intonation, it's in all of the things that you are as a parent to them. And that is a waste because you only get one time and you know, love them for who they are as humans and not as academics.
[00:26:59] Susan Walsh: Absolutely. And, you know, it was really easy for me to blame our power struggles on, I have a teen, you know, it's of this age, he's going to be more argumentative. Or if I say, "How was your day?" Or, "Do you have homework?" But the reality is I could do better too. And when I did do better, we weren't having that power struggle. So, yes, he's going to go through some teen stuff and have a teen attitude and all that. But I don't want that to be every day he walks in the door to my questioning. Something you posted this week really did it for me as well. On Tuesdays, my boys go and do this workout class and I told them, "I don't want you to go this week if that's okay with you." I bought hot chocolate instead and we had hot chocolate at home and that is what I want. I want them to remember the warmth, the love, the happiness, and in all functional relationships we're going to have arguments and struggles. Come on, not everyday you walk in the door and it's all about homework. It needs to be sometimes just about hot chocolate.
Dr. Lisa: Cheers.
Amy O.: For sure.
Dr. Lisa: It's really hard to make changes like that in our lives. I mean, we know that there's a lot of people in business because the psychology of change is difficult and I'm wondering if maybe we can end today, Susan, with you sharing a little bit about that process for you. I mean, it sounds like you're on the very beginning of a very cool journey, but in those moments, I mean, obviously it's your own anxiety or stress or overwhelm that was causing you to ask about these things to begin with. And so what did you do when those feelings came up for you, but you weren't alleviating your anxiety by asking or checking with your children?
Susan Walsh: Sure. Well, I think you think the correct thing for a good parent to do is to have these conversations. Make sure your kids are doing their homework. This is what good parents do, but the approach and just the feeling. It was not working. So every time I felt tempted to say something, except when I said to my husband, "Will you please say it?" And that was the first night, you know, obviously I'm still going to make a ton of mistakes along the way. This is not perfection, but I realized how good it felt not to be a part of that. And in turn, he ended up sharing more. I will check the portal. I haven't yet. But maybe taking from my husband's advice to the parents of the children with whom he works once a week or maybe ask my child, when would you like to look at it together? Put it on him. Because I realized the more, I give him, the more he takes on those responsibilities and then he reaches out to me. So, it definitely took some biting of the tongue. It does help to have a partner if we have to do a little good cop, bad cop for, for the team. But I think realizing so much of myself through this process made me go, what else am I missing here? Like I don't know. It just really opened my mind to how I'm going to approach him and his academics in the future.
[00:30:57] Dr. Lisa: And I imagine that it will continue to get easier. It feels to me like we could replace the conversation about online grading with the conversation about addiction. It's literally an addiction in some ways, and we know that there can certainly be some withdrawal and some tough times at the beginning, but I think the more that we get used to it and see the upside of the new way of living, the easier it starts to feel, and we just replace it with a new, better way of being. And hot chocolate.
Amy O.: And we send our kids into the world as confident kids full of agency and ability to navigate. What our ultimate goal is.
Dr. Lisa: Well, Susan, thank you for your honesty, your willingness to try a new parenting approach.
Susan Walsh: My confessions.
Dr. Lisa: What kind of boring podcast would this be if we pretended we could do everything perfectly? And of course, also, for your volunteer commitment to CATCH. Listeners will find the links to Haims' work and Grose's article, "Snowplow Parents Are Ruining Online Grading," in our show notes, along with a link to Deerfield Parent Network's website for more information on their upcoming programming.
Amy O.: Thanks for listening to another episode of Parenting the Mental Health Generation.
Dr. Lisa: Stay current on all CATCH programming by liking us on Facebook and Instagram @ CATCHisCommunity. You can find information about how to volunteer for CATCH by visiting our website, CATCHisCommunity.org.
[00:32:31] Amy O.: We are glad that you joined us to continue the conversation. It's important to talk about our mental health and reach out for help if needed.