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How To Help a Child Who’s Struggling at School

resources and recommendations for students with academic and social difficulties

After two decades of teaching reading in Dallas ISD, Bridget Robinson knows a thing or two about helping kids navigate the written word. So when her own son Micah—6 years old and in first grade this year—had trouble recalling letters and their sounds, she launched a full-scale effort to help him keep up with his classmates at school. Robinson talked regularly with Micah’s teacher, mimicked in-class efforts at home and sought out additional learning resources. That’s because she knew from her own professional experience that Micah’s difficulties could easily snowball.

“Reading is so important for every subject,” Robinson points out. “So he wasn’t focused during the day and wasn’t getting his work done. And that can morph into behavior problems.”

The traditional learning environment works well for a lot of kids. But a lot of others are struggling. Perhaps there are academic difficulties, as with Micah. Or maybe your child can complete the work, but at a different pace (faster or slower) than peers. It could be that your child is unable to find a solid group of friends.

The reasons a child may not thrive in a typical classroom are many, and so are the resulting questions for parents. What’s a normal challenge for a kid to overcome? What requires additional intervention? How do you make sure your child is getting the support they need, both on campus and at home? What resources are available? Those questions don’t always have straightforward answers in the most normal of years, and the pandemic has created new complications.

Encourage your child to be their own advocate

It’s far from uncommon to have a child who is having trouble at school. But it’s not something we parents may want to readily admit. Most of the moms I talked to for this story requested some level of anonymity. I understand that, for sure. There’s the simple matter of their children’s privacy.

And in a world where children are frequently pushed to be at the top of their game in every aspect of their lives, and where parents brag incessantly about their offspring on social media, it can be hard to have a child who isn’t excelling. It’s also hard on the kids themselves; they might be hyper-focused on classmates who always get the best grade, always get picked for the team first at recess, or are comfortably ensconced in the best clique.

Of course, the most successful approach to dealing with school struggles includes support both on campus and at home, from caring educators and loving parents. But children can be masters at hiding their troubles, which can delay them getting the help they need.

A mom I’ll call Kathryn, who lives in a Tarrant County suburb, had no idea anything was amiss with her middle schooler—until she began getting emails and calls from teachers informing her that her daughter wasn’t turning in work, or turning in work with “IDK” (tween shorthand for I don’t know) in the response blanks.

“We sat down to talk to her, and she broke down and talked about emotional challenges she was having at school,” says Kathryn. “She’s a sensitive soul, a sweet girl. She is bright, but sports really seem to be valued over athletics in our community. She’s tried sports and activities and just hasn’t found her thing or her group. She says she’s weird and doesn’t fit in. And those emotional issues are driving the academic issues.”

This has been going on for a couple of years, and it has been painful for Kathryn to watch the daughter she adores feel so different and fail classes despite her intelligence. “When she does the schoolwork, she does well. She just gets so distracted in the school environment,” Kathryn notes. “She feels that if she asks any questions or asks for help, she’ll be embarrassed.”

That’s a common theme among kids who are having trouble in school. They don’t want their classmates or even their teachers to know they’re struggling, or—especially among littler ones—they just don’t know how to self-advocate at school.

Kids who have no problem expressing their thoughts and feelings at home sit silently in the classroom.

That was definitely an issue for Robinson’s son Micah, and she set about encouraging him to find his voice at school. “I tell him, ‘If you’re stuck, you need to ask. Don’t sit there for 20 minutes not doing anything,’” Robinson says, adding that “we teach kids to be quiet and listen, but kids also need to be able to speak up.’”

Dallas ISD Chief Academic Officer Shannon Trejo agrees. “They don’t want to raise their hand and say they don’t understand. It’s an ongoing issue, but it can be even harder or affect more kids in a virtual environment.”

Trejo points out that there wasn’t really existing research about teaching and learning in a pandemic, but her district has done what it can to make a virtual environment more effective.

“We’ve researched catastrophic events that caused students to be out of school and are learning more about how they mitigated learning loss,” Trejo says. “We’re engaging more with entities that have been doing remote learning for a long time. It’s a learning curve for all of us, but we’re using every tool we have to make things work better for teachers and students.”

How Parents & Schools Can Provide Academic Intervention

Since all kids are different, it’s easy to understand that the virtual environment has had varying impact. Kathryn’s daughter appreciates learning from home, because she’s not surrounded by kids she doesn’t feel connected to. “It’s still not easy, but it’s better,” Kathryn says. “She is super anxious when we talk about going back on campus. She tears up. She wants to homeschool instead.”

For other students, virtual learning has exacerbated challenges they already had.

A Dallas mom I’ll call Ana has a fourth grader who is more advanced than his peers, and he sits bored at the computer much of the time as the teacher works to oversee both on-campus and remote students. “To keep all 24 students on task is no easy feat,” Ana acknowledges. “There is also no way to work with students on different levels and at different paces; it’s just easier to keep everyone on the same page. Most of the day seems to be the teachers trying to keep the attention of at-home learners and emphasizing the importance of turning in assignments. If your child is doing well in these areas, it’s a lot of wasted time for them.”

For kids who are ahead of the curve (whether they’re on campus or learning from home), Ana recommends contacting the teacher and asking for extra science projects, reading and other assignments; she is also exploring other online programs that are tailored to her son’s academic level. Parents can inquire about gifted and talented options on their campus or in their district.

In addition, Ana says, an instrument, art classes, sports lessons and other extra-curricular activities can help them make good use of advanced kids’ extra time and energy.

When the problem is the opposite—when students are unable to keep up or just don’t comprehend the material—virtual learning can be especially challenging. “It adds another layer on top of their academics,” Dallas ISD’s Trejo points out. “Kids can be quicker to master technology than adults, but some of it may still be new. We’re working hard for students to be able to master content presented via video conferencing or a learning management system.”

However and wherever your child is attending class, educators understand that some students will need extra academic help. It is common for school systems to utilize a process called “response to intervention,” or RTI, that helps identify those children at an early stage and provide intensive assistance.

“Although some students may not meet the criteria for special education, they may need additional supports and resources to help close the achievement gap,” explains Lesa Shocklee, executive director of special populations for Mansfield ISD. If those resources aren’t already being presented to you and your child as considerations, don’t be afraid to ask. “Parents and students should reach out to school personnel to discuss options for support,” says Shocklee.

For a student who is really having trouble in the virtual environment—failing classes, perhaps—Shocklee says you may need to consider bringing your student back to campus if possible.

Robinson, the Dallas ISD teacher, knew that needed to happen for her son. “When the school year began, Micah was sitting in the computer chair every day, looking at his teacher on the screen—that just wasn’t for him,” Robinson recalls. “He said, ‘I want to see her face. I need to see her face.’”

Now that Micah is back on campus, Robinson says her son is doing better. Like many instructors, Micah’s teacher presents some lessons as small group learning. That allows Micah the opportunity to work alongside children who are more apt to work at a somewhat slower pace. “I like that, because they can build on each other and help each other,” says Robinson. “When they’re all together all the time, some kid might holler out the answer before other kids even get their thought processes going.”

“Dynamic grouping,” as educators call it, allows a student and their peers to get support from the teacher for exactly what they need. “It’s creating more personalized instruction,” says Trejo. “We can also individualize instruction through software—math programs, reading programs—that provides diagnostic tests and identifies strengths and weaknesses.”

Many districts are now employing those technology-based assessments and learning games to enhance a classroom teacher’s instruction. That more personalized instruction can happen through support staff as well.

Specialists in areas such as reading and math can work one-on-one with your child during the school day to give them additional dedicated learning time. Your child’s school may also offer before- or after-school tutoring (sometimes virtual).

Sometimes official, in-class accommodations are needed. A Fort Worth mother named Danika says her son (now 11 years old and in the fifth grade) has been working with a speech and language pathologist since preschool. “His teachers and school administration worked with us to provide accommodations for him based on his speech pathologist’s recommendations,” shares Danika.

Early assessments done by the school district were suggestive of dyslexia, but Danika’s son did not meet the standard for receiving specific district resources for dyslexia.

Danika and her husband sought out additional, private testing (something Danika sadly notes can be cost prohibitive for some families) after seeing their son struggling in math. “We noticed that as he advanced, and math equations transitioned into word problems, there was a big difference in his accuracy. He demonstrated challenges with interpreting what was being asked of him.”

After an official dyslexia diagnosis, Danika’s son started receiving additional accommodations in the classroom; the district also provides a dyslexia specialist for more support.

But Danika adds that she and her husband do not solely rely on the school to help their son overcome the challenges posed by dyslexia. “We [as his parents] have had to really work to help him understand that he is not his diagnosis,” she says. “We’ve helped him learn about individuals who are famous in their fields who have dyslexia. And we’ve pushed him to really understand how to use his mind as an instrument. It’s important for him to understand that there is no ‘normal’ way to learn, and that each individual has to find what works best for them.”

What worked for Danika’s son was introducing a supplement to print versions of books. “He never really enjoyed reading very much before; he couldn’t pronounce or decode the larger words, and that significantly impacted his comprehension,” she explains. “We started purchasing audio books for him along with the hard copies, and I am so pleased to see the bookworm that has emerged in him.”

Whether dyslexia is involved or not, and whatever the academic issue may be, educators stress the importance of working with your child on reading in order to boost their school performance across the board. “Read, read, read,” emphasizes Trejo. “The more you can read with your student, the better.”

Boosting your child’s abilities in reading and other fundamentals doesn’t have to happen through straightforward studying. “Improving reading, math and writing skills can be fun and part of another family activity,” says Jennifer Price, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Keller ISD. She suggests reading signs while riding in the car, practicing addition and subtraction at the grocery store, and writing thank-you notes or other letters to relatives.

Parents can also make sure their children are better equipped to remain focused when they’re learning virtually or doing homework. “Having your own school space versus play space makes a difference,” Trejo explains. Helping them stay organized and with a structured routine can also pay academic dividends.

Identifying and Dealing with Emotional Struggles at School

When your student’s struggles are rooted in emotional issues, as they are for Kathryn’s eighth grader, don’t underestimate the challenge in solving them. While it may be natural for an adult to think “this too shall pass,” and that qualities and characteristics not necessarily prized among kids, tweens or teens can be very valuable later on, children may not see past their day-to-day, current reality.

“Anxiety, sadness, embarrassment—these can really interfere with concentration and perseverance in school,” says Paul Haggan, Argyle ISD’s crisis coordinator. “There’s a trend of stress increasing and coping declining, and it’s happening at younger and younger ages. It’s getting into elementary school now.”

Paradoxically, it’s the ones who fly just under the radar with personal problems (which may originate on or off campus) who can suffer the most. “They’re the ones who are tough to identify,” Haggan points out. “It’s the squeaky wheel scenario. The ones who have the most obvious problems get quicker attention.”

Argyle ISD trains teachers and staff members to spot less discernible mental health and social-emotional concerns. Similarly, Mansfield ISD has a Social-Emotional Learning Department that gives teachers tools to recognize “when students are ‘not themselves,’” notes Mendy Gregory, the district’s director of social-emotional learning. “And we empower teachers to intervene as they see fit, because since they have built those relationships with the students, they can come up with ways to help.”

Many schools are also incorporating social-emotional learning into their curriculum, with the goal of fostering a more supportive peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher environment. “Dallas ISD schools have built-in morning meetings in elementary schools and advisory periods in secondary schools to focus on relationship-building skills. That allows teachers and students to dedicate time to getting to know each other,” shares Juany Valdespino-Gaytán, Dallas ISD’s executive director of engagement services. “They use that time to practice healthy communication skills and take turns talking and listening. This is an intentional effort to foster a safe, supportive and welcoming learning environment.”

It’s not always perfect, of course. Kids aren’t always kind, and everyone is going to have a bad day. When do you know your child is dealing with something more? Raul Peña, Fort Worth ISD’s chief of student and school support, and Dorene Benevidez, the district’s executive director of equity and excellence, offer these indications that you should look deeper into what’s happening with your child:

+Making excuses as to why they don’t want to go to school or participate online;

+Offering few details and displaying a negative attitude when asked questions about school;

+Difficulty sleeping or lack of appetite;

+Failure to complete assignments or excessively exaggerating about getting things right;

+Behavior problems at school or at home.

If your child is displaying those signs, or you just otherwise sense that they’re not in a good place, it’s important to not delay getting help. School counselors are an obvious resource; you may choose to seek out private mental health support as well.

Kathryn focuses on continually reassuring her daughter that every day is a new day and that things will get better. She also reminds her eighth grader that “trying” is required. “You just have to try,” Kathryn tells her. “‘You can’t put ‘IDK’ in the answer column. The teacher needs to see you’re trying.”

While it’s not easy for children in that kind of situation, it’s hard on moms and dads, too. Kathryn suggests that other parents whose students are going through emotional distress “take a deep breath and try to be patient with them. We all get so frustrated, wondering why we can’t fix it and make it OK. But sometimes there’s not an answer. Sometimes it just takes time.”

Communication is Key to Helping Struggling Students

As I spoke to educators and parents for this story, the universal recommendation—whether a child is struggling academically, emotionally or in both areas—was to make sure the lines of communication between home and school are wide open.

“Staying involved in your student’s school and building relationships with your student’s teaching staff may be the single most important factor in understanding and supporting your struggling student,” say Fort Worth ISD’s Peña and Benevidez.

The classroom teacher is your first stop. “When my son started having problems, I was down in his classroom, talking to the teacher and finding out exactly what I could do,” says Dallas ISD teacher Robinson. “Parents need to speak up. It’s your kid. Call up the school. Ask to talk to the teacher during planning period. Ask for websites, a workbook, anything that will help. All of us teachers want our students to do well and be happy. If a parent calls me, I’m giving you everything I’ve got.”

But if you don’t feel heard by your child’s teacher, don’t give up. Get in touch with to an administrator, a district official—there are numerous people whose job is to facilitate your child’s success. As you talk to educators, though, don’t forget to talk to your child too.

Keller ISD’s Price recommends that moms and dads ask questions about assignments and review their children’s work; read aloud with them and practice math problems; and keep up with emails, websites and other materials shared by the teacher, so the child knows their parent is aware of what’s happening in the classroom.

“Simple reminders like, ‘I know you have a spelling quiz on Friday; let’s practice your words on the way to the store,’ is a great way to be involved and show a child that their school experience is important,” suggests Price.

Finally, let your student have their say—then advocate relentlessly for what you believe is in their best interest. “Take the time to listen to your child,” says Danika, “and trust your intuition.”

The Private Route

Public school systems offer a variety of resources to meet the needs of all students. However, some parents choose to pursue a private school education for a struggling child.

We talked with Kathy Edwards, the founder and head of school for The Novus Academy in Grapevine. The school caters to students with learning differences and disabilities, as well as those without differences who prefer a smaller setting. Edwards notes that while you may be paying tuition, some private schools may be able to offer:

  • Smaller class size
  • Further specialized programs and instruction
  • More classmates facing similar academic or emotional issues, enabling increased opportunities for friendships

Image courtesy of iStock.