What to Do If Your Kid Is Struggling in School
You want to help, but how can you provide guidance without undermining your kid’s self-esteem?
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You started the school year with high hopes for your child’s academic success, but he’s already overwhelmed. Worried about his first report card? We asked education experts for advice on how to get your kid back on track.
Are the academic challenges new or has your child experienced them before? Are they in one area or across the board? Answering these questions is key to determining how to address the problem, says Nora Hyland, PhD, associate professor of elementary education at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education.
A problem that crops up at the beginning of middle school when a child is adjusting to having multiple teachers and a tougher academic workload requires different solutions than, say, a third grader’s consistent reading struggles. If your kid has had considerable setbacks in the classroom, talk to his teacher about how to narrow down the issue.
If your straight-A student suddenly starts bringing home Bs, the problem probably isn’t cognitive, Hyland says. It’s from stress or having too many commitments. “Open conversation and consistent support should help with such a problem,” Hyland says.
Her academic frustrations may actually be growth, says Monica Taylor, PhD, associate professor of secondary and special education at Montclair State University’s College of Education and Human Services. “Students need to struggle and make mistakes,” she says. Taylor recommends parents discuss their own challenges to help kids understand that we all face obstacles, and learning something new isn’t always easy.
Sit down with your kid to talk about his concerns. Hear what he has to say and let him know that you can work together to find solutions. Taylor stresses the importance of acknowledging his feelings and showing empathy. Hyland agrees: “Find out exactly what’s causing your child’s difficulty through persistent and consistent communication,” she says.
Taylor advises parents whose kids are getting stressed about homework to set time limits for assignments and encourage frequent breaks to stretch or walk. Ask your child’s teacher how long homework should take. “These sorts of limits help students develop effective time management skills,” she says. Talk with your kid about the work that needs to be done and set up a schedule to make sure it’s completed on time.
It’s never too late for parents to start a dialogue with their child’s teacher, Taylor says. She suggests creating a “communication system that allows for frequent check-ins,” via a weekly email, phone call or written note.
If your child’s teacher isn’t receptive to regular check-ins, Mary Mueller, PhD, assistant professor of elementary and special education at Seton Hall University, suggests speaking with a school official. “Children’s struggles increase each year. This is especially true in math, where the concepts build upon each other,” Mueller says. “If you don’t feel your child’s teacher is doing enough or being receptive to your concerns, reach out to the principal and ask to meet with the child study team, a group of specialists who can evaluate your child’s knowledge and skills to see if she qualifies for special education support.”
You should also ask about enrichment programs offered at your child’s school. Some schools have homework help sessions, writing workshops or book clubs. Your school may provide extra help before or after school and at lunch.
In some cases, parents may want to consider getting outside help. This decision should be made with your child’s teacher to maintain a consistent support strategy, Taylor says. Mueller recommends sitting in on some of the tutoring sessions to see if they’re helping.
When choosing a tutor, parents should ask questions, assess credentials, check references and trust their instincts, says Sandi Ayaz, the executive director and certification chair of the National Tutoring Association. They should also involve their children in the process. “If something feels off or your child isn’t comfortable with the tutor, hire a different tutor,” Ayaz says. “If there’s no rapport, there won’t be communication.” Once parents find the right person, they should schedule progress updates that include the tutor, the parents and the child, Ayaz says.
“Leaving your child out of these updates can make [him] feel alienated from the process,” she cautions. Tutors are pricey and aren’t an option for some families, notes Alisa Hindin, associate professor of elementary and special education at Seton Hall University. In those cases, Hindin suggests parents investigate academic support programs available at school or enlist help from trusted adults in your kid’s life with experience in the subject matter.
“Never allow academic success to become a measure of your child. Most children who struggle at the onset end up setting the world on fire,” Ayaz says. “Give them time to find their groove and to heck with the pace others set for them.” Hyland says parents should make sure their efforts to help don’t add to their child’s stress or their own. “Be kind to yourself and to your child,” she says, “and always remind yourself your first job is to love them.
Amy Reiter is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, lifestyle and health. She lives in New York with her husband and two kids.