Is Your Child Struggling in School?
by Jennifer Disch, EdS, Engage the Brain

Whether you are a helicopter parent who has all your child’s internet website passwords memorized, or a free-range parent who allows your 5-year-old to commute to a friend’s house by public transportation (or Uber!), or fall somewhere in between, you are a parent who knows that discovering your child is struggling in school is a miserable and frustrating experience.

In most cases, however, faltering in school doesn’t just happen one morning when they wake up. There are usually warning signs.

Shut Down Learners
According to Dr. Richard Selznick, child psychologist and Director of Cooper Learning Center, Department of Pediatrics at Cooper Hospital in New Jersey, some children are at risk of becoming “shut down learners.” Selznick says that warning signs can include your child

  • is increasingly disconnected, discouraged and unmotivated towards school;
  • displays a dislike of reading or writing;
  • receives little or no gratification from school; and
  • exhibits an increased anger towards school.

Where to Begin
The first place to begin is with a visit to your child’s pediatrician to rule out any physical issues. The pediatrician can check your child’s vision (perhaps she is having trouble seeing the whiteboard from her seat); hearing (can she understand and hear the teacher); and rule out any attention and ability to focus issues.

If your child is struggling with attention issues, gaps can form in his learning. He may simply miss a lot of instruction.

Skills build on one another. Like a house with a poor foundation will develop cracks, children with cracks in their foundational learning will find challenging concepts difficult to grasp. Think of math. If your child struggles with basic multiplication facts, asking her to multiply a three-digit number by a two-digit number would be demanding at best.

Emotional issues can affect concentration and motivation. Are there any significant issues happening at home such as a divorce or death?

Perhaps your child has a learning disability. If your child has average to above-average intelligence but still struggles with academics, there may be a learning issue. According to the National Institutes of Health, 15% of the United States population has some type of learning disability. Difficulty with reading and language skills are the most common type of learning disability. And learning disabilities tend to run in families.

Next Steps
Once you have met with the pediatrician, the next step is to meet with your child’s teacher. to discuss your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Alison Ehara-Brown, a licensed clinical social worker and school consultant, suggests you volunteer for the day in your child’s classroom. If you cannot do it, or feel your child will not respond well to your presence all day, then hire a child therapist or learning specialist to evaluate your child in the classroom.

Ehara-Brown looks for teaching style versus your child’s learning style. Are they a good match? Also, observe your child in the lunchroom and playground. How is your child socially with her peers?

Form a Plan
After gathering all the information from your child’s teacher and pediatrician, it is time to develop a plan to support your child. Whether you hire a tutor or a learning specialist or decide on a trial medication, it is critical to allow time for the interventions to be successful… or not. There are no “silver bullets” that fix everything immediately!

When formulating a plan to help shut down learners, Dr. Selznick recommends these strategies:

  • Know what you are targeting. What skills or gaps exist?
  • Take the heat (hostility) out of the interactions at home. Yelling does not help! Look for small things to compliment your child on. If she immediately began her homework without being asked, point that out.
  • Find a mentor for your child – someone who truly values him. It could be a former teacher at your child’s school. The mentor can check in with your child and provide some moral support.
  • Maintain equilibrium. Do something fun at home. Play cards or a board game or go to a park.

Evaluate the Plan
Once the plan has been in place for several weeks, evaluate its effectiveness. If your child began wearing glasses, have they made a difference? Follow up with the teacher to ensure she has been wearing them in class! If your child has started a medication, have you seen an improvement in her grades? Has the teacher witnessed an improved ability to focus in the classroom? If your child is working with a tutor or learning specialist, does your child seem more confident in the subject material?

Putting It All Together
When your child is struggling in school it is important to remember that the struggle is not a reflection of you, the parent. Determine the root cause: is it academic or behavior? Once you have pinpointed the problem, the focus needs to be on supporting your child with the appropriate interventions. Working in concert with the teacher and pediatrician gives your child the best chance to work his way out of the struggle and regain the confidence necessary to sustain success in school and life.

For more information about what to do when your child struggles in school, please contact Engage the Brain at 407-636-9281 or visit