How to Tell if Your Child is Falling Behind in School—And Get Him Back on Track

Arts and Education, Featured Article
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Tired boy doing homework.
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Even though kids seem to share every detail of their lives with their friends, they’re sometimes not quite as forthcoming with their parents—especially when it comes to academics. If your kids clam up about their coursework, how do you know if their grades are on the up-and-up or if they’re starting to fall? Experts share some signs to watch for and offer suggestions for getting back on track.

Homework hassles

“How was school today, honey?”

“Fine.”

“Do you have any homework?”

“Nope.”

Does this conversation sound familiar? If it’s one you’ve had over and over again with your child, pay attention. When kids avoid doing homework or never seem to have any, it’s often the first sign of academic trouble, says Ann K. Dolin, M.Ed., an education expert and president of the Fairfax, Virginia-based tutoring company Educational Connections. Most kids would surely rather play video games or text their friends than do homework, but if getting them to do their math assignments is like pulling teeth, it could signal they’re having trouble understanding the material or not performing well in the course.

According to Dolin, homework is important because it demonstrates how well students are learning in school and is not just reflective of the end product, which is the grade or the GPA. Parents often focus solely on the product, but the process—the effort kids put into their assignments—is crucial to academic achievement.

While kids might not have homework every single night, most of them should have some work to do most of the time. “Generally, kids should have about ten minutes of homework per grade level, per night,” Dolin says. “So a third-grader should have 30 minutes of homework, and a high-school student is going to have at least an hour and a half of homework a night.” With that in mind, if you see your 11th-grader doing only 20 minutes of homework a night, it’s probably a tip-off that some work isn’t getting done.

If that is the case in your home, Jocelyn Kraus, M.Ed., NCC, a high school counselor based in central Pennsylvania, recommends parents ask kids specific, pointed questions. Asking a child “How was school?” is too general and begs for a one-word response. Instead, try “What did you learn in geometry today?” or “Tell me about what you did in Mrs. Johnson’s class.” Dolin likes to use the words “I’ve noticed” to start conversations about school and avoid sounding accusatory: “I’ve noticed you haven’t had much chemistry homework lately. Is everything OK in that class?”

Many schools have online gradebooks, which makes it easy for both parents and children to stay on top of their grades. If your child’s school uses an e-gradebook or grade portal, monitor it regularly—but only with your child present, says Dolin. Kids don’t like to feel as if they’re being spied on, so sit down together to review it. This act will build trust and encourage your child to open up about school.

“I’ve heard parents say, ‘Oh my gosh, I just went on Jimmy’s Blackboard, and he has an F in math,’ then Jimmy comes home from school and is completely blindsided by Mom screaming at him,” says Dolin. “It’s far better to say, ‘Jimmy, can you show me your Blackboard?’ You want to have those open lines of communication because when your child is struggling, he cannot feel judged. If he feels judged by you, he will not come to you.”

Communication with teachers is key to a child’s success as well, especially if her grades start to slip. Talk to your child first, but then e-mail or schedule a conference with the teacher as a second step, if needed.

The stress effect

Stressful situations—friendship drama, moving to a new town, divorce, or the loss of a loved one—can also upend a child’s academic performance, Kraus says. “Keep an eye out if there’s stress present,” she suggests. “A break in routine or the status quo can have a huge effect on academics and impact the ability to focus.”

If your daughter is dealing with a break-up, for example, she will likely thrust all of her attention on that. “Adolescents and teens don’t have the full frontal-lobe brain development, so they don’t have the ability to split their focus,” Kraus says. “Often academics are something kids think they can put to the side when they’re dealing with a stressful situation at home or with friends.”

As adults, we might be able to operate on autopilot at our jobs when we’re stressed, but kids typically don’t have the capacity to do that at school without falling behind. Plus, they usually think they can pull it together on their own, often waiting to ask for help until it’s too late. But once a grade slide starts, it’s hard to stop it. “It becomes like chasing a ball down a hill,” Kraus says.

If your child is dealing with stress, anticipate that schoolwork will be affected. Talk to your child about what’s going on. Contact teachers directly to devise a plan to get your kid back on track. If your daughter is having trouble grasping the material in the class, hiring a tutor can help. But if she understands the content and is instead struggling with grief, loss or other stress, a tutor might not be much help, says Kraus. In those instances, a counselor may provide a better solution.

Finally, if grades do slip as a result of personal drama, try empathy rather than judgment. “Be very present with your child,” Kraus says. “Your kid will be overwhelmed and might feel like a failure. Be encouraging and be proactive. Maybe they can’t turn it around for that report card but they can make improvements for the course. Realize kids make mistakes and that it’s not the end of the world.”

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