Something isn't right; lately your child seems less than enthusiastic about school. They appear withdrawn and have started complaining about an upset stomach every Sunday evening. But are they struggling in school or could it be something else?
The key to getting to the root of the issue is open communication and knowing how to identify school struggles early. The longer it takes for a student to get the help they need, especially if it is school-related, the more lost they become. After all, school learning continues forward even if your child is lagging behind, which only makes the problem worse.
Unfortunately, children and teens aren't always forthcoming about their struggles or school performance, especially if they are embarrassed or they feel anxious. It is essential that you know how to recognize the signs that your child is struggling, so you can intervene. The earlier you do, the better it is for your child, especially if you can help them before their struggles become a pattern.
Why Kids Sometimes Struggle
There are a number of different issues that can cause a child to struggle in school, including social challenges, academic issues, or even unrecognized physical, learning, or mental health problems, says Hailey Shafir, LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS, a mental health and addiction specialist with Keep Counsel in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"Bullying and peer relationships are a more common source of school problems in tweens and teens, but learning disorders, mental, or physical health issues can affect kids of all ages," Shafir says. "If the behavioral or academic problems are new, the cause may be related to a change in circumstances, including problems at home, a traumatic event, or something upsetting that happened with a teacher or another student."
Common Causes for Academic Struggles
Shafir says that many issues, both in school and out, can result in difficulty at school. These might include learning or developmental disordersor mental health conditions like anxiety, social anxiety, or depression. Kids who are ill, who have difficulty sleeping, or who are experiencing stress or trauma at home may all struggle academically.
At school, kids who feel targeted by a teacher or have a poor relationship with a teacher, or who are experiencing bullying or problems with peer relationships, may have difficulty keeping up with lessons or understanding the material.
Signs Your Child May Be Struggling
When kids struggle in school, the stress and anxiety of the situation typically follows them home. You may notice changes in behavior as well as physical complaints. They may even refuse to go to school. Or, they may spend hours on homework only to give up in frustration and neglect to turn in assignments or do the required reading.
It is also not uncommon for kids to become withdrawn, less talkative, or not as vivacious as they used to be, says Lydia A. Antonatos, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. You may also notice that they are not seeking out activities they used to enjoy or they are spending too much time on the phone or playing video games, she says. While every child is different, there are some red flags that can indicate that a kid needs help.
Refuses to Discuss School
When your child suddenly doesn't want to tell you about what they are learning in school or how their school day went, it can be a signal that something is not right at school. This is especially true if they were usually open and chatty in the past.
While it is important to respect your child's personal boundaries and not force them to talk about things before they are ready, you also do not want to ignore this warning sign. Try to get involved in your child's day-to-day school life in ways that do not require them to answer specific questions. For instance, Antonatos encourages parents to set time aside on a daily basis to check in.
"Look over their school assignments or any forms that need to be signed, help with homework and so on," she says. "This keeps you in the loop and allows you to get some idea as to how your child is performing or interacting in school and can help you detect any issues that may arise so you can intervene early on."
Questions to Ask Kids About Their Day at School
Experiences a Change in Attitude About School
If your child previously had a positive attitude about school, but has become distant or angry about school, you can bet they do not like how things are going. Either they are struggling with their studies, having relational issues, or both.
Another big attitude shift to watch for is boredom. Often kids will complain they are bored when they don't understand what is going on at school.
When your child says they are bored, it is important to look a little deeper to find the cause. It may be that they already know the material being taught in a particular unit—but they also may not know how to articulate that they are confused or lost.
"Children who internalize also might shut down, withdraw, and isolate themselves," Shafir says. "Parents may notice they’re spending less time with friends, have less interest in doing activities they enjoy, or suddenly want to drop out of a sport or other activity they’ve done for years."
How to Handle the Top 7 Complaints About School
Displays Physical Symptoms
Whether your child is having issues sleeping, experiencing changes in eating patterns, or is complaining of pain, they could be struggling in school. For instance, problems sleeping or eating often result from worry, especially if they know they aren't keeping up with the class on their school work.
"It’s more common for younger children to report physical symptoms when they are experiencing stress or anxiety," says Shafir. "They may complain of headaches or stomachaches, or describe that they feel sick. Little kids often don’t have the language or understanding of emotions or how to describe them, which is why they often describe symptoms in their body."
Young children also want to please the adults in their lives and may worry that, if they aren't doing well in school, these adults will be upset with them. Older children and teens may be well aware of the overall importance of school to their futures and concerned about their future success if they start to fall behind. Both scenarios can lead to physical complaints.
What to Do When Anxiety Causes School Problems
Spends Excessive Time on Homework
If your child is falling into a pattern of having little to no free time outside of school because they are spending all their time on homework, this could be a sign of an issue. A child should be spending roughly 10 minutes per grade level on homework each school night (so 20 minutes in second grade, 30 minutes in third grade, and so on).
But homework policies vary tremendously among teachers and schools. It is important to realize that some teachers give out more homework and some give out far less. So be familiar with the teachers' homework policies.
If your fifth grader has a teacher who believes in giving no more than 15 minutes worth of homework each night, and your child is spending 50 minutes, then they are struggling to get the work done, even though they are technically aligned with the 10-minutes-per-grade-level rule.
Likewise, if your high school student spends an hour each night working on homework for a dual credit math course, they may be in line with the teachers' policies. If you are familiar with the teacher's homework policy, you can take steps to help your child if they start to struggle.
How to Make a Homework Schedule for Your Family
Receives Poor Reports From Teacher
Sometimes it is easy to dismiss what a teacher says about your child, especially if what they are telling you is different than what you believe to be true about your child. But remember, your child's teacher is teaching a classroom full of students the same material.
If your child's teacher believes that your child is struggling more than other students, pay attention. Letting you know about a change in your child's academic progress is the teacher's way of giving you the chance to address any problems.
Teachers usually have some suggestions in mind about what they think might help, too.
If the teacher doesn't volunteer suggestions, they may be waiting for you to ask what help is available. Of course,this is a dialogue, so you have some input on how to address your child's struggles.
The teacher's thoughts and ideas combined with everything else you know about your child will give you some direction. Develop a plan of action that incorporates the teacher's suggestions along with things that you know have worked in the past with your child.
"Whatever a child is struggling with, there are usually resources that can help," Antonatos says. "The school may be able to coordinate having your child tested via different types of assessments and evaluations that can help detect or rule out academic or psychological deficiencies. In addition, schools often have tutoring programs and guidance counselors that can help your child."
Misbehaves at School
Sometimes misbehavior at school is really your child's way of trying to take attention off the fact they are struggling with their work. Children (and teens, too) often lack many of the skills needed to speak up and specifically say what it is they are having trouble with.
After all, they are still growing and developing, and working on learning important social skills. Until then, they may act out if they feel frustrated or upset rather than asking for help.
"Children who are between the ages of 8 and 11 often exhibit behavioral problems when they’re struggling at school, which can manifest as aggression, outbursts, or defiant behavior," Shafir says. "Warning signs in teens can include [the same things] as well as more serious behavioral problems like getting into fights, using substances, skipping classes, or getting suspended from school."
If your child is usually well behaved and suddenly begins to have behavior problems at school, take a look not only at what is happening in their social worldbut also their academic world as well.
Receives Low Grades
Dropping grades is a common indicator that your child is struggling. Yet, sometimes parents feel that bad grades simply mean that their child just isn't applying themselves and that they will outgrow it. While an occasional poor grade may not be cause for serious concern, a pattern of low grades—or worse, a report card full of poor grades—is a sign of a problem.
Do not fall into the pattern of denial that low grades are not a problem for your child. Make sure you understand all of the information on the report card, and come up with a plan to help your child. Something is keeping them from succeeding and it's your job as their parent to help them discover what that is.
Help Your Child Improve Bad Grades
How You Can Help
When your child is struggling—whether it is with schoolwork, a peer problem, or something else—it is important for you to be compassionate, empathetic, and understanding. Your child needs you to advocate for them, to help them solve their problem, and to rebuild their self-esteem.
Be a Good Listener
Take the time to talk to your child about what they are experiencing and truly listen to what they have to say. "Building and maintaining an emotionally safe and validating environment can make communication a little smoother," says Antonatos.
"Your child will likely reach out to you when [they] feel at ease and know [they] will be heard and not judged or scolded. This opens the lines of communication for your child to talk about [their] struggles either at school or otherwise and gives you the opportunity to gather information that can in turn help you help your child."
Look for Practical Solutions
Knowing you are there to support them and that you love them unconditionally goes a long way in easing some of the stress and anxiety your child may be experiencing. It's also important to provide practical support and work with the teacher to create a plan. These tools help set them up for success and can keep them on track.
"Close communication between parents and teachers is one of the best ways to know how your child is doing in school, and can help parents identify potential problems early on," Shafir says. "Sometimes, these can be easily addressed by creating more structure or routine, like limiting screen time or making a rule to do homework before other things."
Seek Professional Help
If you suspect your child is struggling because of a learning or developmental disorder, it is important to get a psychological evaluation done, Shafir says. She recommends requesting this evaluation directly from your child's school.
"It's the best way to get an IEP in place, [which] is a plan that can help provide certain accommodations to help your child succeed, like more time for assignments and a separate room for test-taking," she says.
When to Call a Healthcare Provider
Whether your child is complaining about stomachaches and headaches, or displays signs of depression and anxiety, it is important to talk to their pediatrician about their symptoms. Having this conversation early on is especially important if your child's symptoms or their struggles in school are interfering with their day-to-day life. A medical professional can help get to the root of the issue or make a referral if one is needed.
A Word From Verywell
The support, encouragement, and advocacy you provide when your child struggles in school can make a huge difference in getting them back on track. While it is understandable to worry when they struggle, remember that learning how to overcome difficulties is a valuable life lesson.
The sooner you intervene and get your child they help that they need, the sooner the stress and anxiety they are experiencing will subside. Make use of the school's resources and reach out to your child's pediatrician or a mental health professional for assistance. By being both patient and diligent—as well as getting the right types of intervention—you can steer your child back on to the path to learning.
Understanding the Major Types of Therapy Used With Kids