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If Your Child is Not Thriving in School

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by Jill Kristal, PhD and Liz Perelstein, School Choice International

Published in ORC


If you are a parent, you must be reading this for a reason.   It can be a great concern to a family if a child who has been functioning well suddenly begins to struggle in school, whether the problem is large or small.  You, the parent, may have observed a problem with your child – perhaps a behavioral change.  Or the school may have noticed the issue.  In some cases, your child may bring the issue to your attention.  A problem can occur at any age and may manifest in a variety of ways.


For example, your normally gregarious child becomes quiet, isn’t sleeping well, eating well, and does not want to go to school. When you ask her what is wrong, she bursts into tears and snaps, “nothing”.


There may be multiple explanations for a sudden behavioral change like this one.  These may be academic, social, emotional, behavioral, or a combination of any the four. * Insert Sidebar


Sometimes a new behavior will be a function of a learning disability, as a child of any age may have difficulty expressing the fact that s/he is struggling with academic material. More temporary academic explanations occur because a child may have trouble understanding directions or expectations, as he encounters a new teacher, either moving from one grade to another, from elementary to middle school from city to suburbs, one state to another, or internationally.


At other times, the same behavior can be caused by social issues, so the behavior itself does not give any clue to the underlying cause, but is a trigger that something is amiss and parental attention may be wise.  Finally, it could be situational, in the case of a child who has just moved, or suffered a major loss, be it a pet, a nanny, or a parent, including the result of divorce.


If you are worried, act but don’t overreact.  Try non-invasive strategies first, which use a combination of listening and behavioral approaches.


Non invasive strategies would include talking to your child.  You may be able to glean more information from a conversation.  Often a drive in the car works best, as your child is captive and she doesn’t have to meet your eyes.


If you are unable to identify the source of the problem, the next step would be to talk to the teacher.  What you may be seeing at home may not be manifest at school, or may show up in a different way.  Improvement is easiest when everyone is working together to resolve an issue, although this may be difficult to attain.  Nevertheless, this should be the goal of parents.


There are many things within a classroom that a good teacher can do.  If you can advocate for your child, you can try to get a sympathetic teacher, and to work with the teacher to create the best environment possible.  Sometimes advocating for a child is not considered appropriate in a particular system – this is a function of the culture as well as personalities involved.  But if you can, get informal interventions, which may include putting your child near the front of the room, separating him/her from specific children, presenting material in varied formats, allowing use of laptops or additional time even if not classified, you may see changes.  These can be diagnostic as well as helpful.  Sometimes just a sympathetic adult can make a major difference.


A conversation with your doctor would be the next step in identifying what may be bothering your child before going down an invasive route.  Your child simply may be going through a developmental or hormonal stage.  Alternatively, there may be another medical explanation that can be solved in a simple way.


If you have tried these simple techniques but no change is apparent, it is time to seek further assistance.


There are times that a child may not prosper in a particular school but may do well in another.  This is not to say that he or she is not in an excellent school.  But some great schools do not fit a particular child, and other schools, that may not have the same reputation, may in fact be a better fit for some children.  Sometimes a school is too large, and impersonal and a child simply needs greater attention or direction.  Sometimes a child is in a small private school lacking specialist staff and would do better in a public school system with trained personnel and resources.  In either of these cases, although change may seem difficult, there is no point in making further investment in the status quo when it is not working. Ultimately a child, who is better understood, better matched academically and socially, will do better and will be happier.  Public or private might be better for any particular child – don’t come to the situation with preconceived notions.  An educational consultant may be very helpful to you in identifying and weighing the pros and cons of alternatives.  Remember that no decision is set in stone.


If you are concerned about a learning disability, it would be wise to talk to the school psychologist or your child’s counselor or family physician, and follow up on leads they provide.  They may suggest a psycho-educational evaluation.  Briefly, this testing is a way to get an understanding of your child’s current ability in comparison to what he or she could be expected to be capable of.  It gives a picture of how a child learns stores, retrieves and outputs information.  Different tests are given depending on the difficulties the child seems to be having. Follow up interventions will be suggested by the evaluator.


A psycho-educational evaluation may be administered and paid for within the public school system, but can take a long time to be completed.  Some families prefer a private evaluation, which is somewhat faster and you can choose your own evaluator, but it is expensive.


Aside from the expense, there are times that it is preferable to seek support outside of school – this may be as simple as tutoring, or more complex such as psychotherapy.  Your decision will depend on the preferences of your family, the needs of your child, how private you wish to be and what is available at school.  Often children don’t like being pulled out of class to receive extra help.  They believe everyone is looking at them, making judgments and fear being teased.


For children with severe difficulties, for example, a child on the autistic spectrum, you will likely become involved with a while team of professionals in and out of school.  But the process will start the same way, and one conversation, for example, with your doctor, will lead to the next referral.


In this article I have provided a very general overview of ways that a child’s failure to thrive may manifest, what your child may be experiencing if he or she is acting differently, and where a parent should turn to get the process of diagnosis and intervention started.  Please contact the EAP if you need further information.


* Sidebar:


Academic – problems affecting performance in school, which may be attributable to learning issues, giftedness, or social/emotional causes.

Social – difficulties in interactions with peers and adults.

Emotional – stem from difficulties understanding, expressing or regulating feelings, but may be displayed behaviorally, academically, or socially.

Behavioral – withdrawal or acting out symptoms that may be caused by any of the previous.


Sidebar #2:


Manifestations of these problems include but are not limited to:

  • school avoidance
  • sleeping difficulties
  • eating problems
  • anxiety, sadness
  • acting out or withdrawal
  • poor performance
  • boredom
  • difficulties with peer group
  • social awkwardness
  • bullying or target of bullying.
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