Psych Services: Why isn’t my child doing well in school?


If you or your child are dreading the next report card, chances are there has been a pattern of underachievement.   Let’s explore some of the more common reasons your child might not be doing well in school:

Hearing/Vision Deficits – One reason for underachievement may simply be that the child is not able to see or hear well. Even though schools routinely conduct hearing and vision screenings, children should get their vision and hearing checked annually by a qualified professional, particularly if there has been a history of ear infections, speech and language deficits, or if there is a family history of vision problems.

Cognitive Ability – Children come in all ability levels and have different areas of strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to have realistic expectations that are in keeping with your child’s ability. For some children, a B or C may truly reflect their best effort.

Developmental Delays– Children develop at different rates. Just as some babies begin walking and talking later than others, school-age children may be delayed in skills that are important for academic achievement. This might include a delay in their social skills, in their ability to communicate or speak fluently (stuttering), or a delay in their motor skills relative to other children their age.   For instance, a child might be lacking the fine-motor skills to grasp a pencil properly.

In some cases, delays may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition. Your pediatrician can steer you to the proper specialist if needed. Also consider exploring school and private resources intended to evaluate and address these issues. Fortunately, with time and proper intervention, most delays can be successfully resolved.

Learning Disorders – Learning disorders are a group of difficulties that interfere with processing or integrating information, so they interfere with learning. Dyslexia, which interferes with reading, is the most common and best known learning disorder but there are others that may interfere with writing or mathematical reasoning. Learning disorders run in families and do not go away. They require special education services tailored to the child’s learning style. If you or your child’s teacher suspect there may be a problem, act quickly and obtain an evaluation. Left untreated, your child may become discouraged, develop a negative self-image, or may underperform permanently.

Since approximately 10-15% of school-age children have a learning disorder, schools are prepared to provide these services. In fact, public schools are required to have someone on staff who serves as a special education coordinator – just ask who it is. Do not despair. Many children who have struggled with learning differences have used their unique view of the world to propel them to greatness including Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, and Picasso.

ADHD – Children with ADHD demonstrate a pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. If teachers are reporting that your child is not staying on task, is unable to follow directions, or is not staying seated, or your child seems disorganized, hyperactive, careless, or forgetful, consider seeking an evaluation for ADHD. These symptoms can clearly interfere with classroom performance. Left untreated, ADHD can lead to greater academic difficulties, conduct disorder, or substance abuse in adolescents. Educational interventions, with or without medication, can help. Keep in mind that the Psychological Services Division routinely conducts ADHD evaluations.

Psychological Issues – Psychological issues can significantly interfere with your child’s achievement. Yes, children can experience depression and other psychological problems. As with adults, depression often co-occurs with anxiety symptoms. Young children may display significant fears, school anxiety, excessive clinginess or shyness, or they may act out behaviorally. In adolescence, they may isolate, drop out of activities, use substances, or act out in other self-destructive ways. Fortunately, there are many treatments available including therapy, behavioral interventions, and medication. Don’t ignore these issues, particularly if there is a family history of similar problems.

Problems at Home – Consider whether your child is under stress from divorce, being overscheduled, listening to continuous domestic disputes, death in the family, moving, etc. It’s important to discuss these issues with your children and let them know they are not alone. Share appropriate ways to handle stress, and obtain professional assistance when necessary. Remember, Psychological Services is here to help you and your family through those rough spots.

Poor Learning Environment – In some homes, there is a lack of emphasis on education which results in poor school performance. The child may be absent frequently or fail to turn in assignments. Perhaps sports or other activities are the priority, or there is no particular structure to homework. To address this, take an active interest in your child’s schoolwork and set up a time and place to do homework. It is also important to read to your children. It increases their vocabulary, improves comprehension, and generally improves achievement.

Sleep deprivation – Do not underestimate the impact of sleep on learning. Sleep improves concentration and memory, and even improves mood and behavior. A child psychiatrist I once knew understood the high cost of sleep deprivation. When confronted with parents requesting ADHD medication for their young children, she simply wrote on her prescription pad, “Add two hours of sleep a night,” and scheduled them to return in a month. Not surprisingly, many parents reported significant improvement.

Next time you see a bad report card, think of it as feedback. Rather than yelling, punishing, or shaming your child, try to identify the root problem. Remember, where there is a caring parent and early intervention, there is hope.