Worried your kid is cheating at school? Here's how parents can address it — and why it happens

ChatGPT and other tech tools can make it easy to cut corners

Worried your kid might be tempted to cheat? Here's what parents should know. (Image: Getty; illustrated by Joamir Salcedo)
Worried your kid might be tempted to cheat? Here's what parents should know. (Image: Getty; illustrated by Joamir Salcedo)

Cheating is nothing new, but the problem has been on the rise. A new tool, ChatGPT, is now making it easier for students to cheat and harder for teachers to detect cheating. This free artificial intelligence tool is so good at mimicking human writing and answers, it passed a law school exam with ease. With the introduction of ChatGPT, some educators fear incidents of cheating will skyrocket and many parents are wondering how they can help prevent cheating — and what to do if it happens.

Why kids cheat

Family therapist Kalley Hartman says that just like adults, childrenwant to excel and not fail.” She adds that cheating does not make children “bad kids.” Instead, she explains, “kids may cheat because they feel pressure from family or peers to do well, are afraid of failure, lack confidence in their abilities or don't understand the material.” Others may lack motivation or lack planning skills they need to complete their work, says Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, a licensed social worker and clinical director of Absolute Awakenings. For some children, “cheating is the easiest solution … to get the grade they want,” Hartman says.

There may be more at play here. Special education advocate Lisa Lightner says that some children who cheat have “an undiagnosed or … insufficiently supported learning disability.” She adds that children in this position “have been gaslighted their whole lives by teachers, school staff and sometimes even their parents.” According to Lightner, these children are often told “you're fine, pay attention or try harder." Lightner explains that for some of these children, cheating “may be treated as a character flaw when it's self-preservation or survival.”

Underlying all of this is that children are still growing and learning about the world. “Children and adolescents don’t have fully developed brains, so they tend to be more risk-takers, or don’t always see the consequences of their actions. They just impulsively do what comes to mind or what’s easy to accomplish a task,” Dr. Christina Lee, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the regional medical director for mental health at Kaiser Permanente in the mid-Atlantic region, tells Yahoo Life.

How parents can be proactive in preventing cheating

Psychologist Nick Bach encourages parents to help children understand that success in school is "not just about getting a good grade — it's about being honest and doing the right thing” before the temptation to cheat sets in. He also encourages parents to “set some clear rules at home about cheating, such as no tolerance for plagiarism or copying homework from friends.”

Parents may also benefit from having candid conversations about technology like ChatGPT, and why using it to write an essay in lieu of doing the work themselves would be considered cheating. Depending on their age, children who have grown up with Google and smart devices to help them find answers may also have trouble understanding what exactly plagiarism is. Explaining it clearly and teaching them acceptable ways to present the research they've down in their own words and without proper citations.

Another step parents can take to help prevent cheating is to “be aware of potential struggles their children might be facing that are causing them to have a harder time in school,” says Janette Lorandini, a licensed clinical social worker. ADHD, for example, may make it harder for a child to concentrate in class, while . learning disorders like dyslexia and dyscalculia can similarly make school more challenging. Addressing these challenges proactively can equip children with the skills they need to be successful without cheating and help build their confidence, says Lorandini.

Lee adds that parents can help prevent cheating by teaching children healthy stress management skills, fostering open communication so children will come to them when they are struggling, reinforcing positive behavior by praising effort instead of a final grade or result and setting a good example. “Let your children see you are stressed out but working hard and not trying to find the easy way out, and that you can fall short of your own expectations for yourself and that is OK," she says. "Learning how to cope with failure shows your children they can too."

How parents can talk to their children about cheating

If a child does get caught cheating, psychotherapist Gennifer Morley recommends that parents convey the message of “this is not a situation I like, but it is one we can and will figure out our way through together.” She recommends that parents reassure their child that they “are still loved.” Even so, Hartman says that it’s important to be clear that “cheating is wrong and that they should not do it again.”

To start the conversation, Morley recommends asking your child why they cheated “with actual curiosity” and without insulting them. Parents “must take time to connect and understand, even empathize,” she says. That’s because parents should not put children in a position where they feel they have to “rationalize or legitimize their behavior,” says Morley. Instead, the goal should be to get children “to self-reflect honestly” because “long after they have left [the] house they need to have skills to understand what happened for them without shame and in ways that motivate them to take responsibility,” Morley explains.

“Above all, provide your child with unconditional love and support," adds Kotkin-De Carvalho. "Let them know that you understand why they chose to cheat and explain how important it is to make the right choices in life." She adds that parents should also help their kids develop “the skills they need to be successful in the future without cheating."

How parents can address cheating

Morley says that “some consequences will be organic,” such as those imposed by the child’s school. How parents address the issue at home will vary depending on why the child cheated.

If a child cheated because they were struggling academically, “some really reasonable consequences at home may be supporting them in more structured study time,” says Morley. Hartman also suggests providing tutoring in this type of situation.

If a child cheated because they don’t have the executive functioning skills to meet their academic goals, they may need help figuring out “how long things will take or how to manage time to get them done” and learn how to “chunk” assignments into smaller parts, Hartman recommends. For children who feel “too much pressure to excel,” she suggests telling them “that their grades don't define them and that it's OK to make mistakes.”

Children who knew from the outset that cheating was wrong or who don't know why they cheated “may benefit from some therapy” because they might be “having some other struggles,” says Morley. Hartman adds that therapy can also help children if “destructive perfectionism” led them to cheat.

Lee also recommends that parents look at the big picture when determining a response. “Consider whether your child has a history of cheating or has struggled in a particular subject before,” she advises, adding that this will help a parent understand “if there's a larger issue at play." It’s also important to consider the context around a child’s cheating. “Think about what may have been happening in your child's life at the time of the cheating. Were they under a lot of stress or pressure, or were there any other factors that may have contributed to their behavior?” Lee says. While external factors may not be an excuse, they can help explain the behavior and inform an appropriate response. Lee also recommends that parents work with their child “to come up with a solution that helps them understand the importance of honesty and integrity.”

When determining how to address cheating, Lee says that punishment “isn’t always necessary.” Instead, the goal should be “to provide resources for kids to succeed on their own without having to resort to cheating,” says Hartman. She adds that “with the right support and guidance, [children] can learn to manage their emotions and develop good study habits that will be beneficial in the long run.”

How parents can deal with their own reaction to finding out their child cheated

Morley says that when a child cheats, their parents often feel “ashamed or embarrassed” because the cheating may suggest that they “didn't do the best job raising them.” However, she notes that “kids who have great parents can still cheat or make a myriad of other seemingly obvious mistakes.” She encourages parents to remind themselves that children may cheat because they are “they are still learning about navigating” learning, which is a normal part of growing up and has little to do with parenting.

Because a parent’s feelings of shame or embarrassment “may come out as anger,” Morley says that parents should “sleep on it” before having a serious discussion with their child. Parents are much more likely to “come up with much more insightful and helpful ways forward” if they slow themselves down, she explains.

Above all, says Lee, “encourage children to see mistakes and challenges as opportunities for growth and learning, rather than reasons to cheat."

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