Why Your Child Might be Struggling in School and What to Do

Posted on Jan 15, 2020

If homework is a fight and brings more tears than skill building, trust you are not alone. For many parents, these challenges can be frustrating and it may be helpful to identify the root cause for these difficulties so you can better help your son or daughter succeed academically.

Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., director of psychology and neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, says about one in five students is struggling significantly in school. She weighs in on what the underlying causes could be and how to best advocate for your child.

“One of the biggest things I would love for people to know is that very rarely is a child lazy or unmotivated,” Katzenstein says. “It’s usually the result of refusal to do something because of anxiety. It doesn’t feel good to try really hard and still get a bad grade. Rather, the child may not do the assignment or doesn’t study because then they’ve controlled the grade, they didn’t try, so they didn’t expect to do well — it’s a coping mechanism.”

Common culprits of school struggles:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

What is it? ADHD is a disorder in which children are more apt to have trouble learning because they have difficulty maintaining attention and may have trouble with organization and planning. When a child has ADHD, they’re also more likely to have a learning disability. This can certainly lead to frustration, anxiety, depression and many other secondary outcomes.

Symptoms: Inattention, difficulty focusing and concentrating, sometimes hyperactivity and/or impulsivity that significantly impacts daily functioning.

Treatment: It’s helpful to learn coping skills for your child, like taking short breaks when needed and sitting near the front of the class, and ways to improve attention span at home and school can help. A typical treatment plan combines home support, school support and medication.

Language Disorders

What are they? When it comes to a language disorder, it may look like inattention, but it may be that the child is unable to understand and process the language that’s being presented in a classroom. Or, your child may have difficulty pronouncing words and/or communicating wants/needs clearly. If a student has difficulty with language, he or she may also struggle with reading because the student struggles to acquire skills that are typically developed in language-based academics. This can also affect academic performance across areas.

Symptoms: Reduced vocabulary, difficulty with conversations, and/or doesn’t seem to understand instructions.

Treatment: Consider a full evaluation of your child’s functioning and a speech/language evaluation to determine the type of language disorder your child may be experiencing. Treatment is multi-modal, but includes speech/language therapy.

Learning Disabilities

What are they? Learning disabilities, defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as Specific Learning Disorders, mean that a child is having difficulties with learning in a specific area or multiple areas that have persisted for the past six months, despite interventions that target these difficulties, and the academic performance is substantially and quantifiably below what would be expected for the child’s educational exposure.

Types of learning disabilities:


Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Reading

What is it? Reading disorders can take many forms, and can be the result of difficulties with word reading, reading rate/fluency and/or reading comprehension. Dyslexia is a term often used to refer to reading difficulties, but this term specifically relates to word recognition and decoding, not reading difficulties as a whole.

Categories and Symptoms

Word Reading: Phonological decoding, single word reading, sight word difficulties.

Reading Fluency: How quickly and effortlessly a student can string sight words together. The child may be a slow reader, or effortful in reading each word. 

Reading Comprehension: Being able to understand what you have read, which relies on numerous cognitive functions, including working memory and executive functioning.

Treatment: If you have reading concerns, check in with your child’s teacher and school, as well as an evaluation by a professional, who will likely help determine where and why reading problems are occurring. There are many evidence-based interventions for reading such as a variety of reading systems.

Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Written Expression

What is it? Difficulties with spelling, grammar, and/or writing organization/expression.

Symptoms: Problems with spelling, grammar and punctuation accuracy, and clarity or organization of written expression.

Treatment: Academic supports, evidence-based interventions, and tutoring.

Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Mathematics

What is it? Difficulties with mathematics, computation, math problem solving including number sense, memorization of arithmetic facts, accurate or fluent calculation and accurate math reasoning.

Categories and Symptoms

Computational Mathematics: When a child struggles with understanding that the physical symbol, representation of a number correlates to a quantity (“number sense”). Sometimes it is even difficult for the signs – plus (+), minus (-), multiplication (x) and division (÷) to be understood. Children may have difficulties mastering number sense, math facts, calculation.

Math problem solving: This involves difficulties with math problem solving, understanding concepts, math word problems.

Treatment: Evidence-based intervention, academic supports and school services.

Cognitive Weaknesses

What is it? A weakness in an area of cognitive functioning that influences a child’s ability to learn at a rate that would be expected for their age/grade.

Categories and Symptoms

Differences in IQ: A child may have a lower IQ and that’s going to be more difficult for his or her overall learning. IQ can be interpreted and conceptualized in a lot of different ways. A child could have normal verbal IQ, but a lower visual-spatial/nonverbal IQ. Although not the only thing that predicts a child’s functioning, these scores help us understand where a child’s strengths and challenges may be.

Reduced Processing Speed: Sometimes a child may process information more slowly and have more difficulty learning new information quickly and demonstrating information quickly.

Executive Functioning Deficits: A child’s brain is unable to efficiently put information in the correct “storage box.” Planning, multitasking and organization also typically suffers, as executive functioning is the “coach” of the brain and keeps things running smoothly when it comes to learning.

Treatment: The best solution is school accommodations.

How can I help my child?

The first step in getting help is to speak to your pediatrician about your concerns and what you’re seeing at home and in school. You can also write a detailed letter to your child’s school requesting evaluations and assistance for your son or daughter. Parents may also find they need specific, detailed testing for their son or daughter, which typically starts out with an intelligence quotient (IQ) test performed by a psychologist, along with other testing measures to determine where and why academic difficulties are occurring.

All kids have strengths and challenges when it comes to cognitive functioning. Looking at a child’s functioning at school in combination with test scores can help providers to see the pattern across other testing and what’s really influencing academic functioning. A combination of parent and teacher reports and testing, as well as school records, can help determine if a diagnosis is present. This can also assist in getting children what they need to support their performance in school, such as a Section 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

“We see many kids with many different cognitive and academic needs. When we work as a team, with schools, parents, and health care providers, we can ensure the highest level of success academically and in the future for all kids,” Katzenstein says.

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