How Can You Tell If Your Child is Struggling In School?

by Penny on May 3, 2011 · 0 comments

A reader reminded me I had promised to talk about this topic – thanks for keeping me accountable!

 So, is your child struggling in school? How can you tell? Are they having trouble because they are ‘lazy’? Is it because they are disinterested? Are they clashing with the teacher?

Low grades can be caused by a variety of factors, but one thing you can count on is that if your child is performing poorly at school, some sort of intervention is needed.

Most children not only want to be successful, but they want to please their parents more than just about anyone else. (This goes for high school kids just as much as elementary children).   In over twenty years of teaching I have never met a grade one student who is ‘lazy’ but I have known grade seven and grade ten students who have learned behaviours such as laziness and indifference to mask their feelings of insecurity and failure at school.  For many kids, it is better not to try at all than to try and fail.

It is hard on kids when they see themselves performing poorly compared to their peers, particularly when we tell them that with more ‘effort’ they could do well. Effort is almost impossible to measure. Some children make a huge effort everyday at school and don’t see the promised improvement that effort is supposed to bring. What does this teach them? Often it encourages them to ‘coast’, to give up, to disengage.

It doesn’t matter how hard a child works if they do not have the skills necessary to complete the task or work given. I couldn’t sit through a lecture on quantum physics and then write a review of the lecture. I know little to nothing about physics. It wouldn’t matter how much effort I put in to active listening and note taking during the lecture, I simply do not have the skills required to tackle the subject matter of quantum physics.

The same principal applies to children who are struggling at school, whether they are in Kindergarten or grade twelve. For most students the skills they lack will be academic, for others it may be a case of needing to develop certain study skills – such as test taking or time management skills.

Your child may be having difficulties if they exhibit any of the following:

She is struggling with the mechanics of reading. Understanding that letters make sounds and that combinations of sounds make up words – being able to decode – is fundamental to learning to read. If she is struggling with these basics and hasn’t developed any fluency by the middle to end of grade one then help may be needed. Children who are reading with fluency and strong comprehension by the end of grade two do better in school throughout their school career than those who do not develop fluency until grade three or beyond.

He reads, but he doesn’t understand what he’s reading.  Just because a child has mastered the basics of phonics (letters make sounds, and sounds make words) doesn’t mean he understands what he’s reading.  (Heck, I can “sound out” words in Italian, but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m reading.)  Children often need help in comprehension. The purpose of all reading is comprehension and a child’s ability to understand what they read affects their development in all other subjects!

Math is a problem.  Math is the subject kids seem to need the most help with.  Math is hierarchical. Everything you learn in grade two is fundamental to what you will learn in grade four. Basic math skills: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals are the building blocks of the entire high school math curriculum. Math is a subject many parents feel insecure with. Many of us learned math in a different way from the way our kids are learning it, or it’s been so long since we’ve even thought about “adding fractions with unlike denominators” or “polynomials,” we’re uncertain  about giving some help.  Like reading, kids who are successful with basic math, from a young age, tend to do better in school overall.

Her enthusiasm about school is waning.  Every child goes through slumps.  A short slump is nothing to fret over.  Maybe it’s just an uninteresting unit in a particular subject, or a problem with friends in the playground.  But when a slump lengthens for more than a few days, when getting ready for school is a major obstacle, you need to pay attention.  Attitudes towards school can change quickly, and as such can often be addressed in a timely manner. It is the slow, quiet, decline in interest and enthusiasm that often goes unnoticed, until a child is way behind and barely passing, that can be harder to detect. Any changes in attitude towards school should be a prompt to have a talk with your child and with their teacher(s).

His grades are slipping.  In grades four and above, this is the most common sign that a child is struggling.  Slipping grades are a dead giveaway that something could be wrong.  It may be a first B for a straight-A student.  Or it may be a slow slide.  Whatever is the case, it’s a sign that you and your child need to talk. Getting help with fractions in grade five might make all the difference to how he does in math in grade six, seven and beyond!

She’s “bored” or the work is “too easy.”  This can go either way. Some kids claim to be ‘bored’ as a reason for not doing work, rather than admitting that they can’t do it. They would rather avoid the work and show disinterest then ‘fess up to not understanding. But if your child who has always been a good student, and previously enjoyed the hubbub of a typical school day, is now claiming to be bored daily, she may be telling you that she’s already learned the material and needs more of a challenge. Kids who go unchallenged can also develop bad attitudes towards school.

The work is “too hard.”  Equally troubling.  I’ve noticed that kids who need help in, say, algebra often have skill gaps that go back as much as a year or two.  The foundation is weak.  The basic skills needed to get the job done are not in place. Often the effort needed to do the work is too much. The focus, the concentration, the effort to hold the concept in memory – it can be exhausting, particularly if the child is struggling in more than one subject. Sometimes the work is too hard.

Homework time is a daily nightmare.  If your child spends more time arguing over homework than the time it would have taken to complete, he may have a problem. If she cries and has tantrums, then it is time to talk to the teacher. Homework should be the practice or synthesis of skills already learned at school. Providing you have made homework a priority in your house, and it is part of the daily routine, if the sight of specific homework sends your child in to a fit, it is time to talk to the teacher to find out what is going on.

He doesn’t know how to study.  Parents tell me all the time, “He’s smart, and when he concentrates he can easily do the work.  But it’s such a struggle!”  The simple truth is that kids need to be taught how to study, not just what to study.  This includes keeping a planner, adhering to a study routine, maintaining an organized notebook and backpack, listening carefully, not multitasking, avoiding distractions in class, setting goals and paying attention to neatness – all these little habits can become second-nature but they need to be taught and practiced. Poor study skills can lead to struggles in school even if the academic skills are solid.

Next week I’d like to share some ideas on how you can help your child if they are struggling – from resources available through the schools, to free websites, to how to find a learning centre or tutor who is right for your child. As always, comments and questions welcome!

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