What to Do When Your Child is Struggling Academically

By Michelle Icard
Rear view shot of an elementary school boy leaning with his head on the chalkboard in class

Worried parents, sometimes subconsciously, keep an account of their child’s failures and setbacks with the same diligence and anxiety they did a pediatric growth chart. Is my child thriving? Are they developing in line with their peers? Are they perhaps, better than average?  

Every day there’s a new data point to plot: a list of assignments on the grading portal marked incomplete, a friendship circling the drain, a broken arm from a school yard accident.

Many of these setbacks are the normal patterns and pitfalls of growing up. Kids become more impulsive and less careful in their pursuits. They’re more overwhelmed by (and less experienced in) the new parts of life they want to explore.

Frustrating as this may be, parents and teachers understand that growing up is a messy, complicated business. They know that through patience or earned wisdom (often both), kids outgrow these crises.

But when the setbacks are academic, when they are consistent, and especially when they are mysterious or sudden, parents may panic.

If your child puts in twice the work for half of the results, here are four things you can do to help:

Evaluate for lack of interest or lack of accommodation

Lack of interest in school becomes common once kids start juggling multiple subjects, a variety of teaching styles, and the excitement of a broadening social life. Is your child suddenly more social and school just doesn’t seem to matter? Normal. Offer incentives and rewards for doing hard work. Tweens and teens respond better to this approach than they do punishment. If that doesn’t work, you may need to limit social time for a while to help them get back on track.

If your child doesn’t respond to incentives or then limits, consider whether they need accommodations to engage with their schoolwork. Some kids can’t thrive without more, or less, challenging courses, for example. Explore with your school guidance counselor special programs for different types of learners Some kids just need to work differently, not harder.

Test for learning differences

Ask your child’s guidance counselor for resources to get your child tested for learning differences. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are just a few that often go unnoticed until testing, especially because younger children develop such effective masking techniques. Even if your child was tested at an early age, it may be worth reevaluating since some differences develop as a child ages.

If you determine that your child has learning differences and that an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) will benefit them, know that IEPs are valuable but not end of the story. They are one more tool to help your child, but require monitoring and updating by the child, parent, and school staff.

Work with teachers and support staff

Once you sense what your child needs in terms of motivation, class changes, or accommodation, work with their school to discuss reasonable changes that might benefit your child. Bear in mind that teachers are overworked, underpaid, and increasingly held to impossible standards. Approach with a balance of what all parties (child, teacher, administration, classroom peers, and family) need to be successful at their role.  

Broaden your definition of success

Beware of becoming so locked into a certain view of your child’s future that you narrow the scope of what might actually make them happy and successful.  It’s understandable to worry when you first see your child  struggle in school.  But remember, many of the brightest, most celebrated members of society span a wide variety of careers and triumph in adulthood despite struggling in school. Work to expand your view of success for your child, using their unique skills, interests and learning styles. 

Engage and encourage your child to create their own values and goals around academic performance. Their buy in with the process is key to their success.

What are the true Markers of Success?

For adolescents, the end goal should be less about performing like everyone else, and more about being able to answer yes to these true markers of success:

  • Are you comfortable in your own skin?
  • Are you comfortable being around different kinds of people?
  • Do you learn from your experiences?
  • Are you hopeful about your future?
  • Are you grateful for what you have more than despair for what you don’t?
  • Do you form mutually respectful bonds with others?
  • Do you have a sense of humor (specifically one that doesn’t hurt others)?
  • Do you like helping others?
  • Do you like being able to take care of yourself?

As your child matures into adolescence and adulthood, their unique skills and challenges begin to reveal themselves.  Now is a great opportunity to identify those challenges, redirect those expectations, and engage new skills that will encourage their potential and their confidence.

Michelle Icard is the author of several books on raising adolescents, including her latest, Eight Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success. Icard covers what to do and what to say to keep these setbacks from becoming the headline of a young person’s childhood. 

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