Stress-Free Strategies for Discussing Grades with Stepchildren

This academic year has been especially challenging with the pandemic and online schooling. Due to these challenges, one topic that has come up a lot in my work with stepmoms this year is concern for their stepchildren’s grades.

Here are some common questions and concerns I hear from stepmoms:

  • I’m really worried about my stepchild’s grades. What should I do?
  • I don’t know how involved I should be in discussions about my stepchild’s academics.
  • What is the best way to discuss grades with my stepchild?

Of course, every situation is different, but these are some of my responses to these comments:

  • You need to assess the situation and look at the impact of your input.
  • If you are more concerned about your stepchildren’s grades than your stepchild and/or their parents, and it’s causing stress in your household, ask yourself why you are so concerned. If you feel like you are swimming upstream against a strong current, you may want to step back to save your own sanity.
  • However, if your input is positively influencing the situation, then by all means, stay involved. Every situation is unique, so it depends on what works for you and your stepfamily. 

If you decide to discuss grades with your stepchildren, research suggests a good place to start is by encouraging a growth mindset. The best way to encourage a growth mindset is through having discussions and modeling the behavior you want to see. Dr. Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, has some other specific suggestions for teenage girls.

Growth Mindset vs. a Fixed Mindset

Dr. Carol Dweck, author and researcher, coined the terms growth mindset and fixed mindset to describe the beliefs that people hold about their intelligence and ability to learn.

A growth mindset means that you believe you can learn to do anything you want. You realize that challenges help you grow. You believe that your effort and attitude determine your abilities. If you have a growth mindset, you believe you can grow and learn, which fuels your achievement. Ultimately, you see failure as an opportunity to grow.

On the other hand, a fixed mindset means that you believe your abilities are unchanging. You don’t think that you can change the results because you think your potential is predetermined. So why even try? With a fixed mindest, you believe that either you are good at it or you’re not. You see failure as the limit of your abilities.

Having Discussions and Modeling Behavior

You can talk to your stepchildren about these mindsets, and give examples from your own life experiences. With these examples, you can show how they relate to schoolwork and grades. You may even share the same fixed mindset about something, and you can work through it together.

In addition to your discussions, make sure you are modeling the behavior you want to see in your stepchildren. Maybe you started cooking instead of defaulting to eating out or maybe you decided to grow your own produce. These are great “teaching moments” for your stepkids. For instance, I used to have a fixed mindset about growing plants. I thought I didn’t have a green thumb because I had several plants that died, so I stopped buying plants. To change my mindset, I researched plants and found houseplants that are good for beginners. I bought those plants, and I’ve been careful about taking care of them. And guess what? They are flourishing! It’s amazing what you can do if you change your mindset and try it out!

How to Give Praise and Feedback

Along with encouraging a growth mindset, you’ll also want to be aware of how you are giving praise and feedback to your stepchildren. Research shows you’ll have the best results with the following:

1. Praise efforts or strategies rather than children’s intelligence or talent

“It looks like using those flashcards to study for your science test really helped you to remember those biology terms. I’m proud of you!”

2. Give specific feedback related to how the children’s effort or strategy contributed to their understanding (Dweck, Walton, & Cohne, 2014)

“You did an excellent job of brainstorming and creating an outline for your persuasive essay. It looks like that helped you create a well-organized essay with clear points. Keep up the good work- it’s really paying off!”

3. Offer demanding yet supportive feedback

According to Angela Duckworth, best-selling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, you should have high expectations for kids. When they don’t meet your expectations, give criticism that suggests “I know you can do better.”

Overall, this is a positive framework for you to start discussing grades and academics with your stepchildren. Through modeling, you can reinforce the idea of having a growth mindset. Above all, hopefully it will become second nature for your stepchildren to have a growth mindset when approaching not only academics, but anything in life.


Dweck, C. S., Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.