Sinking Fast at School: How to Help Your Child Stay Afloat

Is your child failing in school? Maybe he started out full of enthusiasm, but now his grades are slipping, his attitude is bad and he seems to be falling through the cracks. If your child has hit a slump midway through the school year, you are not alone. James Lehman has some advice for you today on what you can do now to get your child back on track.

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Many kids lose steam by the time the middle of the school year arrives. It’s very common for children and teens to get back to school after the holidays and hit a slump. Remember, kids are kids: their attention span is short, they're impulsive and it can be difficult for them to focus. It's easy for children to lose energy, and when that happens, a kind of lethargy can set in.

If your child has a learning disability, or performance or behavior problems, this issue becomes magnified. Your child might feel as if he’s fallen into a hole and doesn’t know how to climb back out. (That hole can be caused by missed work, not understanding certain concepts at school, or social problems, among other things.) When your child is in that hole, it’s easy for him to become demoralized, act out more or withdraw emotionally. Often, he won’t ask for help even though he desperately needs it, and soon you’ll see his output start to slow down.

Although this can occur with any child, make no mistake, for kids with behavior problems or learning disabilities, this is a very serious challenge to their stability for the rest of the school year. As a parent, it’s very important for you to address the problem quickly and get your child back on track before he becomes completely derailed.

By the way, while grades usually go down in a gradual slide, if your child’s performance deteriorates suddenly, it’s important for you to realize that something major may be happening, whether it’s substance abuse, bullying, or an equally serious issue. If your child’s grades drop off suddenly, that's a signal to have him assessed by a professional.

My Child’s Attitude is Going Downhill—Along with His Grades
You should be very concerned if you notice your child’s attitude has changed for the worse along with his falling grades. When a child's attitude becomes bad, you can safely assume certain things may be going on:

•There may be a problem he's not talking about.
•He may be doing something that he doesn't want anyone to know about.
•He may be getting deeper into trouble without help.
Again, kids cannot climb out of that hole on their own—they simply don't know how. In fact, a lot of adults don’t either; people get themselves into emotional holes all the time in life. In my opinion, the idea that everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is misleading. Few indeed are equipped to do that—least of all, kids.

Falling through the Cracks Academically
Sometimes kids fall through the cracks at school because they’re having a hard time academically. Suddenly, the work becomes too challenging, and their classmates seem to pull ahead while they’re still trying to understand a certain concept. Their attitude may worsen because they really can't do the work. And it's easy to fall through the cracks nowadays—and by the way, those cracks are huge—because of tightening school budgets and other major problems schools are facing.

As a parent, you really need to have a good understanding of what your child is capable of doing. Remember, we want to challenge our kids but we don't want them to simply learn how to give up. If your child truly can't do the work, then your job is to get in there and challenge the teacher and the school to give your child work at his level—or get him placed in the right class. Parents should also be aware of those subjects, like algebra, where if you miss one core concept, you may be in trouble for the rest of the school year.

Try to be as objective as possible. I urge parents to be very, very careful when trying to accurately assess their child’s abilities. There's a concept called “learned helplessness”—where people learn that if they act helpless, somebody else will do it for them. Above all, we don't want to foster that response in our kids. Truly understanding what your child’s level is can be very tricky, which is why I recommend getting some outside help when you do it.

Here are some things I recommend parents do to get their kids back on track when they’re sinking under the waves at school:

Get an Assessment
If your child’s grades have fallen suddenly, the first thing I’d suggest is to have them assessed by a professional. If a kid's grades go from an “A” to a “D,” that usually doesn't happen in isolation. There will be other signs, red flags that will tell you that something's going on. You might notice that your child has stopped doing the sports that he used to love, or that he’s hanging around with different friends, for example. Start by taking your child to his pediatrician and getting a recommendation for a professional therapist to rule out substance abuse, depression, clinical anxiety or other factors that may be affecting his performance and outlook.

Helping Your Child Manage His Schoolwork
If you’ve noticed your child’s grades are suffering, it’s critical that you put more effort into helping him manage his homework. I know it’s not always easy—everyone is tired at the end of the day, and parents work hard and want to relax, too. Sometimes your child will act as if he doesn’t want you coming into his room, but check in anyway to see how things are going. Don’t assume he understands everything on his own, even if he tells you he’s fine.

Kids need structure and supervision, and they need somebody looking in on them who will hold them accountable. If your child’s grades start sliding, don’t let him do his homework in his room by himself with the door closed and the music on. That's simply got to stop. The door stays open, the music stays off, and you should be looking in on him every fifteen minutes or so. The goal is to keep him on track.

Talk to Your Child’s Teachers
Parents should be talking to teachers about the subjects and areas where their child is having problems. Schedule a time to meet and find out what's going on in class. In my experience, teachers can often be very helpful in telling you what they’ve observed.

Tell the teacher what you see at home, and then ask what they see happening in their classroom. Some questions for you to ask are:

•Has participation dropped off?
•Is my child sitting with different kids? Who is he hanging out with?
•Is my child just tired and bored, or is he overwhelmed by the work?
•Have you seen a change in his attitude or performance? And how would you describe that change?
If your child's grades start to fall in one specific subject, find out what extra help is available from the school. He should start to focus more on that subject in the evenings at home. Hold him accountable to do a certain amount of work. And work with his teachers, guidance counselors and the school as much as possible. The better your communication is with them, the more it will help your child.

Ask “What” Questions, Not “Why” Questions When You Talk with Your Child
I think it’s a good idea to sit down and have a talk with your child when you realize he’s struggling at school. You can say, “I notice that things are going downhill and I'm wondering what's going on.” Ask “what” questions, not “why” questions. “Why” questions invite your child to make excuses—to blame someone or something for his problems. “What” questions ask your child to report the facts. So it’s not, “Why are you doing poorly at school?” it’s, “What’s going on?”

You can also tell your child what you’ve observed: “I see your grades failing, I see you being more irritable. You don't want to get out of bed in the morning. You're getting detention for silly things in school, like talking out of turn. These are the things I'm seeing and I’m wondering what's going on.” If your child denies that anything is happening, say, “What are you going to do to improve your grades?” Listen to see if he has any ideas. By the way, you should already have a plan that says, “We're going to be checking on your homework more and we want you putting more time into it.”

Make the conversation with your child functional, not emotional. Too many parents get bogged down in emotionality. Kids do better when they keep their feelings out of it. After all, their emotions are volatile: they love you, they hate you; they're happy, they're angry. So you want to keep it on a functional level and ask, “What’s getting in the way of you doing your work? What's going on? And how are you going to change it?”

Giving Your Child Rewards for School Performance
I know families who let their kids do their homework in their rooms as long as they get a “B” or above. If their grades slip, they have to do their homework at the dining room table until they bring them up again. For some kids, that means they also have to do an extra hour of homework a night, but then they’re allowed to stay up half-an-hour later so they still get some free time. That’s part of their reward for doing the work.

When my son was in high school, I would tell him if he got all “A's” and “B's” I'd give him a cool reward. If he didn’t get the grades, he wouldn’t get anything. We didn’t make a big deal out of it, and we didn’t punish him if he wasn’t able to do it.

Remember, kids need to be rewarded; they need to be motivated. As parents, we're taking and we're giving; we’re demanding but we're supporting. It's like a sandwich: on top there's the pressure for your child to perform, and underneath there's support with rewards and extra help.

I also want to say that while rewards are helpful, the absence of rewards is not causing the problem. Rewards don't change behavior: learning problem-solving skills and being held accountable changes behavior. Having a concrete plan and sticking to it changes behavior.

When we talk about grades sliding and kids falling behind at school, it sounds simple but it’s a very complex thing—and something that parents struggle with every day all over the country. My wife and I wrestled with this issue as parents, and we both had Masters Degrees in Social Work and worked with kids for a living. My point is that it’s natural to wonder, “Are the demands too much for my child? Are they enough for him? Or are we taking it too easy on him?” In my opinion, parents who make it a priority to get involved—and then take steps to help their child—are doing them a huge service.

A final word: Kids are resilient. If you help your child and he’s able to get back on track and do the work, in all likelihood he’ll bounce back at school. I believe kids have strengths that aren't easily observable unless you know how to look for them. As a parent, you need to find that resiliency, find that strength in your child, and work with it.