School Electives Matter for Self-Esteem, Not Just Skills

About a week after Nick started eighth grade, I bumped into him. Our families had recently become friends at church. We greeted one another, but something about his forced smile triggered my concern.

Nick was usually bright and vivacious. And he was an exceptional artist. But like my son and me, he struggled in school because of ADHD and dyslexia. I later found his mom and asked if Nick was OK. Her face fell. “No,” she said, “and I feel so bad!”

She explained that a perk of eighth grade was selecting an elective class. Nick was looking forward to the daily art class he chose. But just before the school year started, his family received a letter from school, saying that Nick’s reading scores were below benchmark. “To ensure proper preparation for high school,” he would have to take a remedial reading course as his elective. The school had made the change and enclosed his new schedule. Nick was devastated, and his parents were crushed. But, in the end, they trusted the school’s judgment.

Nick’s parents did not recognize the gravity of the situation, but I knew it was crucial for Nick. I pulled them aside and explained: “There is more at stake than an art class here. Several things are in jeopardy: your relationship with your son, his sense of his own value in the world, and his ability to make good decisions as he goes into his teen years. I can’t tell you what do to, but I can tell you what I would do if he were my child.”

School Success Begins With Advocating For Your Child

Years earlier, I’d been through a similar situation with my son. School had snuffed out the spirit of my struggling seven-year-old. My husband had been a respected teacher in the same school community for years, but his colleagues did not share our concerns.

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Ultimately, we chose to pull our son from the school we had loved. It had been our home for a decade. But we were alienated by the school community. It was painful, but we couldn’t watch our child’s soul fade away.

Time proved we did the right thing. Nick’s parents knew that our son had grown to be a happy, thriving teen. I spoke with conviction as I continued: “If this were my son, I would pull him from remedial reading and put him back into art class.”

Every day Nick spent in remedial reading would make him more resentful. He had been in reading for only four days, yet I had seen how much he had withdrawn. It wouldn’t be long before anger overwhelmed him. He wouldn’t be able to handle it, and would shut down.

“When that happens, you will have lost influence in his life,” I said. “He will feel he has nothing to lose, and that feeling leads to poor decisions that have lifelong consequences.”

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“On the other hand, if you challenge the school to fight for his gift as an artist, he will see that you value the thing that brings him joy. He will feel that you are on his side. He will feel that his true self has value in the world. And it will improve the odds that he’ll make the right choices as he faces the pressures of adolescence.”

Remedial Electives Rarely Improve Anything

Nick’s parents were stunned by my mama-bear stance. They were hesitant to challenge me, but Nick’s father had a question: “Wasn’t being prepared for high school key to Nick’s success?”

Nick’s school felt that “high school preparedness” should trump his choice of an elective. I went on. “Ask yourself, ‘If in two years, Nick has withdrawn from you and is making self-destructive decisions, how important will his reading skills be then?’”

“Remedial courses rarely improve anything. If schools knew how to teach struggling students, they would be using those techniques in the first place, and you wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Finally, Nick is probably a better reader than his test scores suggest. Reading assessments don’t accurately indicate functional ability. And there are other ways to improve his reading skills.”

The first point was my most important: If Nick loses his joy, nothing else will matter.

Two months later, Nick’s mom approached me at church and wrapped me in a hug. “You were right,” she said. “Our relationship with our son was at stake! I thought you were exaggerating; I hadn’t realized how much he had slipped away. But he came back to life as soon as we moved him back into art class. The school insisted it was a huge mistake, but we held our ground, and everything worked out.”

Protecting your child’s joy does not mean excusing him from responsibility. It means cherishing the thing that makes him… him. If you do this, he will rise to his challenges and responsibilities. I’ve seen this happen with my students, my son, and Nick. His first eighth-grade report card was his best, ever. In my experience as a learning and study skills expert, the most important strategy I can share to improve your child’s learning and life is to “Lead with joy!” Always.

Susan Kruger, M.Ed., is the author of the best-selling SOAR Study Skills, and founder of

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