There are many reasons a child may struggle at school, and, although these may be obvious in some cases, for most children, the root cause is complex and not immediately obvious. Parents frequently report feeling frustrated, powerless and unsure how to help their child.
Before we can help children succeed, we must first understand why they are struggling. More often than not, the problem is a “can’t,” not a “won’t.”
One underlying cause may be attention issues, which can result in academic problems, negative behaviors and social difficulties. Academic performance is greatly affected by poor attention because it creates gaps in knowledge. In the classroom, new knowledge builds upon previously mastered material and, as the child progresses in school, gaps in foundational knowledge become increasingly more problematic. Behavioral symptoms of attention issues can look very different for each individual child.
For example, some children are disruptive, some stare out the window, and others present as engaged while, in fact, their thoughts are elsewhere. Since they are not characteristically hyperactive and disruptive, children in this latter group are at the greatest risk for going unidentified as having attention problems. In addition to academic and behavioral disruptions, attention issues can also result in social and emotional struggles. Often times, children with poor attention are socially immature, experience low self-esteem and develop feelings of anxiety and depression.
A learning challenge may also be the culprit of low academic performance. A learning disorder is suspected when academic achievement is substantially below that expected for age, schooling and level of intelligence. Not surprisingly, learning disorders significantly interfere with school performance and achievement. Beyond failing grades, they can also cause demoralization, low-self esteem and deficits in social skills. Children may become disruptive in class or simply “check out.”
Furthermore, undiagnosed learning disorders can impact students into adulthood when they frequently feel ashamed and “stupid.” As a result, their personal relationships and careers may suffer. Contrary to popular belief, learning disorders are not indicative of low intelligence and do not assure failure; some of the greatest thinkers of our time are believed to have had learning and/or attention deficits.
Social and emotional issues can also lead to academic problems. A child weighed down by sadness, anxiety, low self-esteem and turbulent relationships, is less likely to find the focus and motivation necessary to be successful on tests and assignments. Every individual expresses and deals with social and emotional issues in his own way, a reality that presents additional challenges to parents seeking to understand what is going on with their child.
Many times, a child’s difficulty at school is not due to a disorder or attention problem but instead relates to a particular learning environment or style. For instance, children who are advanced in a certain area but are not challenged to the upper level of their abilities, are at great risk for disrupting class, becoming unmotivated, hiding their talents to fit in with peers and developing an unhealthy view of why they are different. Sometimes, a child simply has a different style of learning.
For example, a visual-spatial thinker (someone who conceptualizes in images and understands “the whole” rather than the parts) learns more effectively when they understand the big picture first and can utilize their non-verbal abstract learning skills. Visual-spatial students also typically have “light bulb” moments when they grasp a concept all at once rather than in a step-by-step manner.
Recognizing and capitalizing upon individual strengths and learning styles are essential for maximizing academic achievement and personal growth throughout one’s life.
When attempting to understand the cause of a student’s struggles at school, a good first step is psycho-educational testing. In short, psycho-educational testing removes a great deal of guess work by distinguishing “can’ts” (inabilities) from “won’ts” (behavioral choices) and gives parents solid answers and direction. Results reveal how an individual thinks and learns, which can be used to construct recommendations based on cognitive, emotional, social and behavioral functioning, as well as strengths and interests.
Once parents clearly and comprehensively understand their child’s struggles, they can focus on promoting strengths, developing skills, seeking supportive learning accommodations and collaborating with educators. Ultimately, the goal is to maximize the child’s potential and lay the foundation for personal and professional success.
Dr. Katrina Katen is a local psychologist and owner of Individual Matters, LLC. With a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and a master’s degree emphasis in marriage and family therapy, she is passionate about all things psychology. Beyond her work,she loves spending time with her family and experiencing all that is offered in this beautiful state. Read her monthly on Healthy Mesa County.