Signs of Struggle
As a parent, I hate to see either of my children suffer. When a dose of time or medicine gets them back to their usual bouncy selves, I’m relieved. But what happens when you suspect that school, not a simple virus, is the cause?
Did your child look forward to school and now drags her feet each morning? Is she moody? Changes in behavior or emotions can signal that something is wrong.
That something could relate to friends, activities, school or something else entirely. A change in teacher comments or grades can suggest the problem relates to academics. A big indicator for older kids is homework. If your child never has any homework or always has too much, something is not right.
And if something’s wrong, what do you do?
Seek help. You may be the only one who notices the signs, but trust your gut. Your doctor is a medical expert and your child’s teacher is an educational expert, but you are the world’s best authority on your kid. Depending on the signs, you may want to begin with a talk with the teacher or even your doctor. You don’t want to ignore something that may be physical.
Talk to the teacher. Don’t start by blaming the teacher or school—it doesn’t help. You want all of the adults in your child’s life to be on the same page. Stick to observations of concrete behavior rather than trying to guess at reasons. Try “Jenny used to look forward to school, while now I have to practically drag her there. What are some of the behaviors you’re noticing?” Ask the teacher for suggestions for how you can help your child at home.
Make communication easy. Unlike most working folks, teachers do not have ready access to phones. Some teachers even have limited access to computers. Still, emails can be a quick way to get an update. If it’s a complex situation or you’re starting a longer conversation, try to arrange an in-person meeting. If your schedule allows, you may want to volunteer at the school occasionally. Volunteering can be a great way to connect with the other adults in your child’s life and to observe your child in the school context.
Form a team. Depending on the issue, the teacher may suggest collaborating with other school professionals like the school psychologist, counselor, dean or principal. The more brains thinking about how to best help your child, the better. Keep your focus, and theirs, on helping your child to be as successful as possible at home and school.
However, you may find that despite repeated attempts at communication, the teacher resists working with you. If that’s the case, contact the school counselor or principal instead.
Avoid jumping to conclusions. Just because your child prefers standing to sitting, it doesn’t mean he should be labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At the same time, if someone at the school does suggest an evaluation, try to be open to the idea. A good evaluation can highlight strengths as well as weaknesses and can actually be an empowering moment for a child and a family if done well. Still, it’s also important to remember that an evaluation measures only certain aspects of a child on a particular day. Scores and percentiles could shift in just a few weeks.
Give more weight to observations than to numbers. When I was a learning specialist, I always found the numbers on an evaluation or report card less important than the observations. Which tasks did the child gravitate toward? When did she get easily frustrated? When did she persist? Grades and scores can be starting places but the conversation should not stop there. Try to understand the stories behind the numbers.
Once you’ve got the lines of communication open at the school, you can make some changes that might help at home.
Look out for a mismatch. In my experience, parents have the hardest time accepting their children’s performance when there’s a mismatch between their own learning styles and their children’s. In other words, if organization comes easily to you but not to your child, it can be hard to understand why he always loses his homework. Likewise, if you “get” math but hated reading and he is the opposite, it can feel tough to bridge the gap. Ask his teacher or another trusted adult for some strategies that might help. Or, try to think about what you do naturally and break it down into manageable steps.
Stay positive. With all of the adults in her life whispering and worrying about what’s wrong, it’s easy for your child to become more withdrawn. Instead, strive to be straightforward and upbeat. Avoid sweeping praise that will feel hollow. Instead, give specific feedback that helps her see that she still has a wealth of strengths, even if there may be a few areas where she needs help.
If she does end up with a label of learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder, there are a lot of great resources out there. Lots of famous and successful people have had hiccups in their school life; find some who might be role models for her. Remember, she is not her diagnosis, just as she’s not her poor report card; this is all just information about a piece of her life at this moment in time. Use that information together to help her grow into the interesting young woman she’s bound to become.
Set limits. Some kids can do homework while listening to music, watching TV or sitting at the kitchen table. In fact, some kids work better that way. Other kids don’t. Experiment and find the best environment and help your child to stick to it.
Consider cutting back on extracurriculars. Avoid using them as rewards or punishments like “No basketball unless you pass math.” Basketball may be where he feels most competent and successful, and taking that away could backfire. But if a kid is struggling in school, it also doesn’t make sense for him to be participating in basketball, karate, art and piano lessons.
Setting limits can also extend to sleep. Different kids of different ages require varying amounts of sleep. Sixteen-year-olds, for example, typically require more sleep than 9-year-olds and yet are more likely to be allowed to stay up late.
Get involved. If your child is working too much or too hard, discuss other options with the teacher like working for a predetermined amount of time, getting an extension or reducing her workload. That’s not cheating. It’s differentiating her learning, something all good teachers want to do.
If your child is a master at evasion, you need to help him break big tasks into manageable chunks. Sometimes kids balk when confronted with a big project but when they focus on one small task at a time, they are more apt to try it, do it, and feel successful. You can sit down at the beginning of each week and plan out his work load together.
Your older children may resist your involvement but if you work as part of the team of adults at school, you’ll be able to share the work. And, once your child starts to see success, she will be less likely to refuse your help.
The big picture
I believe all kids want to do well. After all, it’s easier to do well and not have your parents on your back. So trust your instincts and get help. As you do, remember that her struggles are not a reflection of your parenting. Rather, they are a sign that she’s hit some hurdles that she doesn’t know how to clear.
How you respond to her struggles is where your parenting comes into play. After all, you love her no matter what grade she gets in science. But she may need to be reminded of that. Together, along with the other adults in her life, you will help her through this. And it’s likely you’ll all grow stronger as a result.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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