A lot has changed since the days you carried home handwritten report cards for your parents to sign. Now class websites and teacher emails give parents greater insight into how their kids are doing in the classroom.

Being able to track your child’s progress throughout the semester may mean having more frequent conversations about how she’s performing, and that’s one area where things haven’t changed. Parents are often unsure of how to keep their children motivated in school, whether their grades are good or bad. And kids are still fearful of how their parents will react to less-than-stellar marks.

Focus on Learning

You want your child to do his best in school but not to stress out over every assignment. For kids to get this message, it’s important for parents to have a realistic attitude about grades.

Younger students in particular may be afraid to face parents when they have disappointing grades, says Tammi Mackeben, a school counselor at the preK-8 Ernesto Serna School in El Paso, Texas. “Let them know that we all fail,” she says. “Many times the little ones feel that if they have a failing grade on their report card, or a bad grade, that that’s the end of the world.”

Instead of expecting your child to ace every test, think of grades as tools that let you, your child, and his teacher know where he’s doing well and where he’s lagging, says Mackeben, the American School Counselor Association’s 2008 counselor of the year.

If a student is falling behind, it’s a signal to talk to the teacher. Ask about specific things your child is struggling with and what you can do at home to help. Remember that the goal is for your child to learn, not to earn perfect grades.

Many parents try to motivate their kids to do well in school by rewarding them with money or special privileges for good grades, or by punishing them for disappointing grades. A better way to motivate students is to give them positive reinforcement for having a good attitude and making an effort, says Vivian Friedman, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Parents should talk with their kids from a young age about what they want to be when they grow up and help them understand how education will help them reach their goals, Friedman says.

Instead of pressuring your daughter to make good grades so she can get into an Ivy League school, try to impart a love of learning and encourage her to do her best. “The child who feels that his parents have realistic expectations will not be afraid to come home with whatever grades reflect his best effort,” Friedman says.

Start a conversation about grades with your child by asking her to tell you about the report card or a particular assignment. Encourage her to talk about where she’s doing well and where she’s having trouble and to share how she feels about her progress. This approach allows kids to feel confident about how they’ve grown rather than feeling that they’re bad students if they’re struggling with a subject.

If your son’s grades are poor, avoid jumping to the conclusion that it’s because he didn’t work hard enough or was lazy. A lot of things could be keeping your child from doing his best in school, Mackeben says. A child may have an undiagnosed learning disability, may be experiencing social problems at school, may not like his teacher, or may just not be very interested in a particular subject.

If your daughter is having a problem understanding the material, contact the teacher or school counselor to talk about how you can help. But if she’s capable of doing the work, encourage her to take responsibility for the grade and think about what she could have done differently. Did she procrastinate on an assignment? Could she have reviewed her homework before turning it in?

Don’t let your child place blame for a bad grade on the teacher or anyone else. Still, even as you discuss the reasons for the grade, it’s important to stay positive and point out the child’s strengths, not just in school but also in life, Mackeben says. “We want our kids to be more proud of the progress and the process that they took to get to that grade than the grade in itself.”

Understanding Grades

Most of today’s parents grew up receiving A’s and B’s or numeric grades up to 100. So it’s only natural that there is some confusion when their children’s grades are expressed as plus or minus signs or numbers from 1 to 4.

The trend now is for schools to develop detailed report cards to give parents more information about how kids are doing, which can create information overload, says Thomas Guskey, a professor at Georgetown College in Kentucky and author of How’s My Kid Doing? A Parent’s Guide to Grades, Marks, and Report Cards.

“Educators have a very special language,” he says. The first thing parents should do upon receiving a report card is think about whether they understand what the teacher is trying to communicate, he suggests. If you see any terms you don’t understand or if you’re confused by the format, ask your child’s teacher to explain it.

Guskey recommends asking teachers the following questions: What does this tell me about my child’s performance in terms of your expectations? Is she on track for this time of year? Is he ahead or behind?

However your child is doing, Guskey advises, perhaps the most important question you can ask the teacher is “How can I help?”

Emily Graham is a senior editor for School Family Media. She lives with her family in Oklahoma.