The average American child spends approximately 1,000 hours in school each year, and this number doesn’t account for all the hours spent commuting to and from school, doing homework, studying, or engaging in related extracurricular activities.
School provides the basic foundation of knowledge for children. It allows them ample opportunities to socialize, learn useful skills and information, and apply critical thinking. Moreover, doing well in school can provide numerous advantages later in life, including succeeding in college and the workforce.
But what happens when your child is having trouble in school? How do you understand what’s going on? How do you help them? What’s the next step in moving forward? Let’s get into what you need to know.
What Causes a Child to Have Trouble in School?
There are numerous explanations as to why your child might be having trouble in school. Let’s explore some common barriers.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Approximately 6.1 million American children (9.4% of all children) have ADHD. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with this condition than girls.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts attention and impulse control. Children with ADHD may:
- Daydream excessively
- Talk too much
- Act forgetful and lose things often
- Squirm or fidget excessively
- Struggle to pay attention
- Have trouble sharing or taking turns
- Struggle to finish tasks in a timely manner
- Become easily distracted
- Act impulsively
- Interrupt others frequently
ADHD can make traditional school challenging. Children may find it difficult to focus or pay attention in class, and they may resist efforts to study or concentrate. Teachers might consider their behavior outlandish, rude, or otherwise unacceptable. It’s not uncommon for children with ADHD to frequently face time-outs, detention, or other behavioral consequences.
ADHD is a pervasive condition. That means the symptoms need to be present in multiple settings, and not just in school. That said, many cases may be undiagnosed.
If you’re concerned that your child may have ADHD, refer to a medical professional for appropriate testing. Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medication can help improve a child’s symptoms and restore their confidence.
The symptoms of depression can vary among children. It is frequently undiagnosed because people dismiss symptoms as “mood swings” or normal parts of childhood. Additionally, many children don’t present with the stereotypical sadness associated with depression. Common symptoms include:
- Intense irritability and anger
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and usual hobbies
- Increased sensitivity to perceived or real rejection
- Changes in appetite
- Vocal outbursts or crying spells
- Physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches, nausea)
- Trouble in school
- Sleep problems
- Presence of self-harm
- Substance use
Depression can make simple tasks feel incredibly difficult. Therefore, school may feel like an impossible challenge.
Learning disabilities can affect learning skills in reading, writing, or math. They can also impact cognitive skills related to abstract reasoning, memory recall, and organization. Some common learning disorders include:
- Dyslexia: A disability that affects reading and language-based processing.
- Dysgraphia: A disability that affects handwriting and other fine motor skills.
- Dyscalculia: A disability that affects math skills and the ability to understand numbers.
- Oral/written language disorder: A disability that affects speaking and writing.
- Specific reading comprehension deficit: A disability that affects the ability to contextualize ideas after reading them.
- Non-verbal learning disabilities: Difficulty with identifying and interpreting non-verbal cues and body language.
If you suspect your child has a learning disability, seek testing. An educational psychologist or speech and language therapist can conduct an appropriate assessment.
Social anxiety refers to experiencing heightened worry and concern in social situations. People with social anxiety tend to be extremely self-conscious and preoccupied with what other people think about them.
For many children, school represents a significant anxiety trigger. They worry about being judged, criticized, or otherwise rejected by their peers. As a result, they might stop doing things they want or need to do. For example, they may fear eating in public, using public restrooms, public speaking, or attending school in general. Common symptoms of social anxiety include:
- Extreme nervousness in social settings
- Physical symptoms of shaking, sweating, flushing, and breathing problems
- Needing continuous reassurance from others
- Reporting stomachaches or headaches
- Crying or throwing tantrums when confronted with scary situations (in young children)
Symptoms of social anxiety often first emerge during elementary school. Teachers may mistake these children for being overly shy or inattentive, and they may try to “push” the child away from the anxiety, which can worsen their symptoms.
Drugs and alcohol use remains a persistent problem in modern society. Research shows that about two-thirds of students have tried alcohol by the twelfth grade. Nearly half of high schoolers report using marijuana, and almost 20% of them use prescription medication without a prescription.
Sometimes substance use is apparent. For instance, you may find drug-related paraphernalia or witness your child under the influence. Other times, it’s far more insidious. Your child may use drugs at a friend’s house and hide any potential evidence.
Substance use impacts cognitive functioning and makes it much more challenging to focus in school. Subsequently, substance use can also go hand in hand with behavioral issues. For example, your child may start spending more time with people who negatively influence them and consequently may feel more inclined to skip school or go to school while drunk or high.
Bullying impacts people of all ages and demographics, and its effects on children can be especially devastating. Research shows that bullying can increase rates of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Children who experience bullying are also more likely to try to avoid school and report feeling lonely.
Bullying can cause children to withdraw in class. They may stop caring about their schoolwork or grades and/or retaliate against others and start bullying themselves.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
ODD refers to a persistent pattern of irritability, arguing, and defiance toward authority figures. At times, it can be challenging to distinguish the difference between ODD and children with strong, emotional personalities.
However, ODD symptoms first appear during the preschool or early elementary school years. The telltale symptoms include:
- Persistent anger
- Losing their temper frequently
- Expressing extreme resentment toward others
- Arguing with adults or authority figures
- Defying or refusing to comply with certain rules
- Purposely arguing, upsetting, or attempting to annoy people
- Blaming others for their mistakes
- Acting spiteful or revengeful toward others
To meet the criteria for ODD, the child must display symptoms in a variety of settings. For example, if your child acts defiant toward you, but not with anyone else, it isn’t ODD. Many children with ODD face challenges in school, and they may be more susceptible to getting into fights and causing trouble with other teachers and students. More about defiance in teens.
Conduct disorder is a disorder characterized by disregard and aggression toward others. Children with conduct disorder lack respect for social norms and the rights of other people. In a sense, they enjoy causing harm to others.
In early childhood, this aggression may include biting, hitting, pushing, or other forms of cruelty. In the adolescent years, the aggression may progress to lying, cheating, vandalizing, picking fights, forcing sex, and using deadly weapons. Children with conduct disorder are at risk of developing antisocial personality disorder later in life.
If your child exhibits signs of conduct disorder, it’s important to seek an appropriate evaluation. Many children have conduct disorder with coexisting conditions like depression, substance use, post-traumatic stress disorder, or anxiety. While there isn’t a cure for conduct disorder, medication and psychotherapy may help reduce symptoms.
Stress at Home
A child’s home life plays a critical role in their sense of safety. If things at home feel unstable, they may be more likely to have difficulties in school.
Stress at home can include:
- Marital issues between the child’s parents or stepparents
- Sibling issues
- Financial stress
- Geographical moves
- Death in the family
- Medical diagnosis in the family
- A significant change in family structure (divorce, another child leaving the home, a grandparent moving into the home)
- One or more caretakers struggling with a mental health issue or addiction
Any of these triggers can affect a child’s self-esteem and overall wellbeing. If they feel distracted by what’s going on in their personal lives, it can be challenging to feel present in the classroom.
As adults, we know that problems with our friends or significant others can wreak havoc on our mental health. However, we often overlook how interpersonal relationships impact children and adolescents.
During the teenage years, peer groups are an essential part of identity formation. Teenagers admire their friends and desperately want their approval. They also may begin dating romantically, and these new relationships can become emotionally consuming.
Relationship problems can result in troubles in school. For instance, your child might be more preoccupied with their relationships than their schoolwork, or they might start spending time with people who don’t care so much about school, resulting in them skipping homework or class.
Incompatible School System
In some circumstances, the school may not be the right fit for your child. While your child doesn’t have to love school, they shouldn’t dread every moment of being there.
If your child is getting bullied or a teacher isn’t making appropriate accommodations, it’s important to share your concerns with the administration. Most of the time they will react and attempt to reconcile the issue. If they don’t address your concerns—or if they downplay them altogether—it may be worth considering a switch.
Likewise, safety is an important concern. If violence is an ongoing issue in the school and it’s not being taken seriously, you may need to consider alternative options.
How Should You Intervene If Your Child Is Struggling?
As a parent, you play a profound role in supporting your child if they’re experiencing trouble in school. This is why it’s important to give your child the benefit of the doubt. Remember that most children want to succeed and make their family proud. If your child is struggling, consider the following suggestions.
Remember That It Isn't Necessarily About You
As a parent, you might feel angry, embarrassed, or even shocked if your child starts having trouble in school. These reactions are normal, but it’s important to avoid taking them out on your child, their teacher, or the school.
Your child’s struggles are not necessarily about you or your parenting. Try to put your personal feelings aside to focus on what’s best for your child.
Set Up a Conference with Their Teacher
If you haven’t already done so, reach out to their teacher to schedule a conference. Ask about their concerns and inquire if they have noticed any specific changes. If the teacher asks you questions about you or your child’s home life, be honest. It’s in your child’s best interest to work together on finding working solutions for change.
Determine if any accommodations can help support your child. Most of the time, teachers are eager to adapt to various learning styles. That said, it’s much easier for them to intervene with your child if they know you are backing them.
Do Not Criticize the School or Teacher to Your Child
Even if you feel frustrated with school politics or staff, it’s rarely helpful to share these feelings with your child. If your child criticizes their teacher, don’t jump in. That only gives them permission to continue complaining.
Keep in mind that your child is biased, and you’re only hearing the story from their point of view. Most teachers are generally compassionate and supportive. Even if your child doesn’t get along well with a certain person, that’s an important learning lesson for adult life.
Validate Your Child’s Experiences
Even though it’s often counterproductive to badmouth your child’s school, it’s key that you validate their experiences. Validating statements include:
- “I can see why you feel upset about that situation.”
- “That does sound like it must be really hard.”
- “I would probably feel mad if I were in your shoes.”
- “I can see how hard you are trying.”
- “I am so proud of you for doing your best.”
- “That is a difficult situation to be in.”
Validating the experience doesn’t mean you have to like your child’s reactions. It just means that you understand the emotion behind the situation. Over time, validation helps your child feel supported and understood.
Be Mindful of Your Expectations
If you were a quiet, well-mannered, straight-A student in school, your child’s behavior might seem downright confusing to you. You might feel angry or embarrassed or even ashamed.
However, it’s important to maintain realistic expectations. Having realistic expectations doesn’t mean condoning unacceptable behavior, it means understanding that your child has a unique personality. It’s your job to understand this personality and how to best support it.
As mentioned, your child has a unique personality that’s entirely theirs. Parents tend to compare their children to other people to gauge behavior and progress. While this isn’t inherently bad, it can skew your perspective and ultimately harm your child.
For example, if you have two children and you frequently compare them, your youngest may grow up believing they live in their older sibling’s shadow. Or if you compare your child to a neighbor or friend’s child, they may assume you wish that child was yours instead.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. School may be one of your child’s challenges, but that doesn’t mean they are a bad person. It just means it’s something you both need to address.
Consider Family Therapy
If you are experiencing tension at home, it may be beneficial to try family therapy. A family therapist will work with you and your child to improve communication and strengthen respect for one another.
Family therapy isn’t about picking sides, blaming one another, or choosing a designated winner. It’s about coming together to compromise and restore a healthier family unit. Family therapy can include everyone in the family, but you can also just attend with your child.
Seek Therapy for Your Child
No matter your child’s age, therapy can be a tremendous asset for their mental health. Trouble in school is often indicative of other mental health issues, and therapy can help address those issues and teach your child ways of managing challenging symptoms. It can also teach children how to practice healthy coping skills and manage stress.
- Dealing with Problems in School
- Is Your Child Getting Bad Grades? Here's What You Should Do.
- 3 Reasons Your Teen Might Be Skipping School
- When is It Appropriate for Your Child to Skip School?
- What To Do If Your Child Hates School
- Anxiety in Teens
- Understanding Cyberbullying
- Depression in Teens
- Motivating Your Kids
- Setting Goals to Help Your Child Succeed
- Back-to-School Success
- When is it Time to Ask for Help?
- Helping Kids Succeed in School During the Stay-at-Home Era
Final Thoughts for Coping When Your Child Is Having Trouble in School
As a parent, you want what’s best for your child. School is a critical part of your child’s social and emotional development. If they are experiencing difficulty, you’re not alone. Reach out for help. Many issues can be resolved with intervention and treatment.
At Idaho Youth Ranch, we specialize in helping Idaho’s most vulnerable youth. We understand the many challenges associated with childhood and adolescence. We are here for you and your child. Contact us today to learn more about our services.