When Your Child Has Problems at School: 6 Tips for Parents

by Janet Lehman, MSW
When Your Child Has Problems at  School: 6 Tips for Parents

Have you gotten "the call" from your child's school? Janet Lehman, MSW talks frankly about how she and her husband James dealt with it when their son had trouble at school.

In September of our son’s third grade year, we got the phone call from his teacher. She said she was really concerned about our child’s chances of passing that year. I was shocked, angry and anxious—and terribly embarrassed, both as a mother and a social worker who “should have known” what was going on. I immediately took the stance of viewing myself as the victim in the situation. In fact, very quickly it became all about me.

It’s not about you. It’s about your child, and what is best for him. As much as you can, put personal feelings aside and focus on your child.

I was upset at the school, the teacher and the administrators. My husband, James, intervened at that point and said, “It isn’t about you. It’s about our son and his odds of succeeding.”

What could I say? I knew he was right. After I calmed down, we sat and talked about what we were going to do about our child’s school problem. We also knew we needed to plan out how we were going to present ourselves at the meeting with his teachers. James and I decided that we wanted to be in partnership with the school as much as possible, because this would give our child the best chance of getting through the year and moving on to fourth grade. As hard as it was, I knew I needed to put all of my personal feelings aside and focus on what was best for our son.

This brings me to my first tip for parents when their child is having trouble at school:

Tip #1: It’s not about you. It’s about your child, and what is best for him. As much as you can, put personal feelings aside and focus on your child.

James reminded me again before we went into our meeting: “It’s not about you. It’s not about how you feel about the teacher. It’s about our son.” And then he said, “To be honest, our kid can be a bit of a pain in the neck sometimes and the teacher has 30 other students she needs to deal with. Let’s really try to find a way to work with her.”
We went to the meeting and presented ourselves as wanting to work with the school instead of against the school. We weren’t blaming the school; we were trying to be realistic about our son—both his behavior and his needs.

And even though at first I was angry at the school for not noticing our son’s issues sooner, I was grateful to his third grade teacher for noticing what was going on. Up until third grade, our son had been able to use charm to get by in school. But charming wasn’t going to make it in the third grade, where they introduce more challenging content and a lot of new learning. Fortunately, his teacher saw through that act and realized it was a bit of a cover for some of his learning struggles.

This brings me to my second tip:

Tip #2: Generally speaking, blaming the school or your child’s teacher won’t do any good. As much as is possible, work with school administrators and teachers. Partner with them instead of making an adversary out of them.

In my opinion, the only way to create success is to partner with the school. If you’re really struggling with your child’s teacher, find somebody else who you can create that relationship with. Pinpoint someone in the school who you can work with—it could be a guidance counselor, school social worker, a coach, or even the principal. This person will be able to advocate for your child more effectively than you can in some instances, and might also be able to shoot you an email when they notice something or feel like your child needs some extra help.

Our whole family worked especially hard during third grade: we put in a lot of time sending notes back and forth to our son’s teacher and keeping her abreast of his progress. James would also sit with our son and do homework every night. He never did the work for him—he was just there to answer questions and give him help if he needed it. I won’t lie—at first, it was a bit of a struggle. But as our son did more homework, his classroom performance improved, which then encouraged him to do more homework. It became a positive circle or a “win-win” situation for him.

So my third tip is:

Tip #3: Communicate regularly with the school. At home, sit with your child if possible and help him through his homework assignments.

I think one of the key things our son realized was that his teacher and his parents were going to hold him responsible for his own work. He couldn’t get out of it, because everyone had joined together to make sure he succeeded and got through the year. We also attended an evaluation meeting for him where testing was recommended. He had some tests done and it was discovered that he had a mild learning disability. As a result, the teachers arranged for some accommodations so he could do certain things differently. So again, the school was taking some responsibility to help him, but even more importantly, our son was gradually taking responsibility for his learning.

Tip #4: Your child is responsible for his own work; it’s vital that he knows that he’s being held accountable by you and his teachers. If your child has an issue with the work he’s doing, and you believe he is sincerely struggling with the work, talk to the teacher. If the struggle persists even with teacher help and parental support, have him tested professionally immediately to determine whether or not he has a learning disability.

For the most part, we found our son’s teachers to be dedicated and receptive, but through the years, he did have some experiences with teachers he wasn’t particularly crazy about. We thought that was an important life lesson for our son: he wasn’t going to like everyone and not everyone was going to treat him as fairly as everybody should be treated. I think dealing with these teachers helped prepare him for the real world, where he’d have to work with folks who might not be as understanding of his needs as others. We made sure to never criticize his teachers when our son was complaining about one he didn’t get along with. Openly complaining only encourages your child to blame the teacher for his problems, and to stop being accountable for his schoolwork.

Tip #5: When your child complains about school, don’t join with him in criticizing his teacher. By being in that teacher’s classroom, your child is learning an important lesson.

Don’t badmouth the teacher along with your child. There’s the potential that you could make the situation much worse by doing so. Remember, you’re only going to hear the story from your child’s perspective. If he doesn’t like the teacher and you fuel that dislike, it’s only going to make it worse for your child who is in that classroom so many hours every day. Again, the most important thing is to try to join with the teacher if possible so that your child becomes responsible and can’t deflect that responsibility to a “bad” or a “mean” teacher.

Also, I believe it’s important to recognize that teachers have a really hard job. They generally respect parents who are aiding them by helping their child learn. The fact that James and I would take the time to write notes to the teacher and sit with our son and do homework was time well spent, from the teacher’s point of view. That’s an investment, and teachers respect parental investments in their child’s learning.

Teachers also want to feel support from parents for what happens in the classroom. I’ve seen parents immediately take their child’s side and not take the time to get the full picture from the school staff or teachers. I believe it’s important to see the full picture. You may not like it when you get it, but at least you’ve taken the time to get the other side of the story.

James used to say, “Sometimes it’s easier to fight with the school than fight with your kid.” After all, you can walk away from the school and go home. It’s a lot harder to hold your child accountable and sit and do the work with him—especially if he is defiant or has other behavioral issues. But in the long run, holding him responsible is the best thing for his future.

Tip #6: Recognize that your child’s teacher has a difficult job. Get the full picture when there is a situation at school—don’t simply rely on your child’s retelling of the story, because he will only see things from his point of view.


It’s often really intimidating to get that initial call from your child’s school. Sometimes it brings up feelings you had when you were a kid. Maybe you acted out a bit or had some struggles with learning yourself; perhaps you didn’t feel smart enough or good enough. Often, a parent’s first response, given their own experience, is to fight the system. And believe me, I had some of those feelings. Thank goodness for James. He was able to turn my thinking around and really take it off me and focus it on our son. It was a turning point for me as a parent and in the way I viewed myself as a social worker.

I believe that one of the keys to helping your child succeed  in school is really a lot more parental involvement in general. They may never realize how helpful some of the school folks have been. They may never appreciate the fact that you’ve sat there every night and helped them do their homework. But if you can see their success, you know you’ve done the right thing.


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.


What a great article! My son had ADD and even though he is in the sixth grade this year, we are having to go through these exact same steps. He is totally overwhelmed by the whole middle school experience and as a result, he is having a difficult time in the classroom and at home with homework. He doesn't take medication in the summer and we couldn't get him in to see his doctor until the 16th of September, so he has started his school year without meds. Hopefully things will take a turn for the better after he gets back on medication. Also, I still have to sit with him the whole time he is doing homework. It's definitely not what I prefer, but as you said, it's not about me and it is VERY important. Thanks for your helpful article. I feel like we're doing the right thing!

Comment By : sams_mom

Parental Involvement!!! I am so glad to hear it. I am available for questions, encouragement and helping my daughter stay on task with the homework. I do think it shows. She knows nothing else happens until homework is finished. I check her homework over (4th grade) and point out which answers need a second look. Sometimes I do feel like the teachers, but it pays off. She may have drifted off in class and missed out on the explanation, so we discuss whatever she is not sure about. I think this definitely helps her. She knows mom is serious about school and this will not change.

Comment By : smartgirl'smommy

Thanks for continuing James work and yours! so appreciated! I love your articles - helps us refocus!

Comment By : e dazi

I think parents are TOO INVOLVED these days and in some instances TOO QUICK to lean on meds for a "Learning Disability". True you need to keep abreast of what's going on but I can't think of a neighbor that doesn't pay $50.00 and hour for tutors or additional study on behalf of their children and in my opinion your not doing your child any favors by "taking care" of every situation that arises with school....at some point at some level all humans need to fail...failure results in experience and learning...now a days nobody allows this to happen and this is supposed to emulate good parenting? I think this generation of children are being raised in a huge plastic bubble and one day when they get out into the real world they will be like a deer in headlights. School situations are not really over whelming it just becomes that way because they never actually deal with it themselves - mom and dad are there to rescue at every corner. I LOVE my children the same as the next person but don't participate in the helicopter parenting at any level. Sometimes children need to fail in order to succeed..this is human nature sometimes at it's best. I have way too many examples of this to type out - quite frankly it's pathetic.

Comment By : Lisa

Two thumbs up!

Comment By : adelanoval

Thank you for this wonderfull article Janet. I am from South Africa and have experienced myself what it does to a parent to hear a child is struggling. I am trying to explain to teachers why parents often react negatively. I try to be the negotiator between parents and teachers nowadays. What about an article to tell teachers how to approach parents about a struggling child

Comment By : Karin

I have to sit with my ADD son to get homework done. I believe he feels more supported and I can stay on top of what he's supposed to be learning so I can gauge whether or not he's really "getting" it. These kids get so much negative feedback that I've found spending time side by side is helps balance this out with some "wins." I'm there to say "That printing looks like 5th grade stuff! Nice job." (compliment to the next highest grade-- they love the feeling of being up there with the big kids!)He and I have some enlightening conversations along the way, too. I think the time together really helps.

Comment By : marilyn

I have a 5th grader that supposededly has ADHD.If he has this it is a very mild case.His grades last year were terrible.He was living with his Mom and there wern't any consiquenses setup.He has since moved in with me and I have setup a structure for him.No games..tv..or playing until homework is complete.I would like to know if I should sit with him every night to help with homework.As it is now he does it on his own and if he has any questions he can come to me to try to work it out.

Comment By : Jack's dad

I totally agree with Lisa.

Comment By : Tamera

I have been struggling with my son for 6 years now. Since he was in the 2nd grade, his school performance has just been getting worse and worse. He was tested for ADD/ADHD back then and found to be fine. At the beginning he was still passing; barely. By the 6th grade he decided he didn't need to do the work any more. Didn't do classwork and never brought the homework home for me to even help him with. He failed that year. The next year, second year of 6th grade, he did the same thing and failed. Since we were working with the school to get him evaluated and due to his age, the school went ahead and placed him in the 7th grade for this year. His testing turned up that he does not have a learning disability. He just doesn't want to do the work and is still failing. This concerns me even more, because this is showing him that he may continue to move up in life without any responsibilities. Believe me, we have tried everything! He is scheduled for another testing for ADD/ADHD, but if that turn out to be another dead end, where do we go from here?

Comment By : troubledmom

These are great points, but what if you child is having problems in Kidergarten? No so much with the work (he may be the brightest in class), but with controlling his emotions and behavior toward authority fiqures

Comment By : Concerned Dad

This article was perfectly timed, as far as I'm concerned. As I was leaving school Friday with my son, his second grade teacher lifted her hand to the side of her face like a phone ~ thumb and pinkie extended, and mouthed the words, "CALL ME." Our son's behavior has improved tremendously since he was first placed with us for adoption at the age of 18 months. And, over the past year, since we've implemented The Total Transformation Program into our lives and our approach with him, he's made even more progress. However, I felt my stomach lurch when his teacher asked me to call her. So far all signs pointed to this being his best year ever as far as making friends, getting work done, and behaving properly in class ~ and then this setback! My husband got the information ~ another kid cut in front of our son in line and our son pushed him. We've stressed that it's never okay to push someone, EVER, and our son lost some privileges for this. Reading your article makes me feel better prepared to talk with his teacher ~ she's a good teacher and I know she's got his best interest at heart. Even so, those "meetings" can feel so awkward if we don't approach them correctly ~ especially with my own feelings of defensiveness and/or embarrassment. Getting myself out of the way and keeping the focus on helping my son better prepares me to deal with things in order to help him. Thanks so much!

Comment By : Nancy

* Dear ‘Jack’s dad’: You can start by offering to ‘stand by’ and have him ask for help if he needs it, as you are currently doing, but go over his completed homework everyday since he had problems in school last year. If you find lots of errors, he may need more assistance from you and not even realize it. In that case, work along side him daily. James Lehman says there’s nothing wrong with giving kids ‘hurdle help’. If they’re stuck on a problem, help them over that hurdle by getting them started but then let them finish their work on their own.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear ‘troubledmom’: As you have pointed out, prior to failing 6th grade for the last two years, your son has had school performance problems since 2nd grade. It seems appropriate to request that his school’s special education department become involved. It can take some time to complete assessments. One of the reasons that kids quit trying is that they feel overwhelmed and unable to do the work that is asked of them. So it’s important to thoroughly determine your child’s abilities and needs. Therefore, it sounds appropriate that you have scheduled him for more testing. There is good parent information on evaluating your child to determine eligibility for services from the government agency, NICHCY: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear ‘Concerned Dad’: Whenever you’re concerned about your young child’s behavior, it’s best to start by consulting his pediatrician. Share your concerns with his doctor who can rule out any underlying medical causes for the behavior or determine if your child would benefit from working with a behavioral specialist.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I agree

Comment By : kittys 11

I am pulling my hair out....I do not know what else to do with my 11 yr old son. He has a mild learning disability and I have him in one of the best schools that is specifically for kids with L.D. It is an awesome school and he likes it however; he DOES NOT CARE about his work, what me or his teachers think or even if he passes/fails. In this particular school I know that he is not overwhelmed at all, he just doesn't care. I am a single mom and he no longer listens to me, is disrespectful etc. He isn't like that with anyone but me. Obviously that means the problem is with me, but I don't know why. We are very close, he's an only child and I am good to him. I give him clear expectations and boundaries. Literally everyone who is around him comments on how well behaved he is. He surely is not like that at home! I consistantly take away priviliges when he misbehaves, to no avail. I do not know what else to do. I am worried that if he is like this at 11...how will I ever raise him at 15? I have tried counseling...but again, no help. Any advice at all would be so welcomed.

Comment By : Pulling My Hair Out!

I found this article good and filled with valid points but I think you should give advice about what to do when the teacher really is the problem. My daughter was so terrorized by her first grade teacher last year that she actually started bedwetting and having nightmares. The teacher was rude, bullying and verbally abusive to many of the children. We went to the pediatrician and my daughter told of her nightmares etc. and has now been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. After volunteering in the classroom and seeing how she was treating the children (and hearing similar stories from other parents) I was compelled to speak to the principal and lay down the law with the teacher that her behavior was unacceptable. In such a situation how do you deal with your child's deteriorating behavior due to the misconduct of the teacher.....working WITH the teacher doesn't work in such a situation.

Comment By : calimom

* Dear calimom: We’re sorry to hear you and your daughter experienced this. Your approach was correct, in that you volunteered at the school to observe the classroom interactions firsthand. It’s always best to ask to speak directly to the teacher first. Explain your concerns and give the teacher an opportunity to tell you about her techniques. If after talking to the teacher, problematic behavior continues, then ask to meet with the teacher and the principal together. You want the teacher to have an opportunity to share her perspective. Guard against the meetings becoming confrontational. This will just cause people to defend themselves and stick to their positions instead of encouraging an openess to approaching things differently.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Pulling My Hair Out!: One of the teachings in the Total Transformation Program is that consequences alone do not change behaviors. Even if you are very consistent with taking away privileges when he misbehaves, you still need to help him learn how to solve problems. Ask yourself, “What is he trying to achieve when he acts out?” “What should he do instead of acting out?” Don’t focus on ‘how you feel’ as a motivator to do school work. It’s more important to teach your child to do what needs to be done despite his feelings. Since your child is attending a school you have a lot of confidence in, take advantage of the teacher’s expertise regarding how to support him in his school work.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Excellent article. When my 13 yr old comes home from school, she can have a snack and watch TV or go outside,to unwind for about 20-30 minutes. She really likes that. Then she has to do her homework. No TV; playing; sports, etc until HW is done. I sat with her in grade school, then gradually sat with her less and less. I then told her that she needs to do everything that she can on her own, and only ask me about things she is stuck on. It worked out well. It forced her to try to figure things out for herself. It was amazing how much she could do on her own, when she read the directions before trying to complete an assignment, instead of me trying to explain each step she had to do. Once she got into middle school,I did not have to sit with her, but I'm always available if she has questions.

Comment By : Kiki\'s mom

Great article! I am so glad I found this website! My daughter was in honor's classes last year and this year has been more than a challenge. I have done everything I could to try to help my daughter, and I am now figuring out that I can only do so much, the rest is up to her.

Comment By : JK FLORIDA

Hi - great article! My son is in Kindergarten and I already had this experience throughout the entire school year! (Now we are in May, thus the last month of the school year). I got calls from the teacher, from the assistant principal and from the principal, in total maybe 5 calls during the school year. However, I understood immediately that it is better to work with the school than against it, for my son's sake. In addition, I knew that my son was diagnosed with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) and I was taking him to therapy sessions each week. Thus, I was ready to work with the school and also to "instruct" his teacher about this condition (she had never heard about it) and also give her some resources on understanding my son's behavior. Throughout the school year, I kept in close touch with the teacher, sending e-mails back and forth regarding my son's behavior. She is a great teacher - we were so blessed to have her! And yes, I like the advice you gave "Concerned Dad" - if the child has a hard time managing his behavior already at the Kindergarten level, it might be a sign of an underlined condition and the pediatrician might be able to help. It helped us! The sooner the problem is recognized the higher the chance that the child will get the right help. I am so glad our pediatrician was able to recognize our son's condition right away and we started getting help through weekly OT sessions. Thus, working with the school on helping my son was the best decision we could have made!

Comment By : LoraLia

This is great advice, except one thing. How is a single Mom supposed to do all of this by herself?! What if the ex husband totally blows off the importance of school? Then what?

Comment By : Nettie

* To “Nettie”: Thank you for asking a great question. On the Parental Support Line, we speak to many parents who are in similar situations. We suggest parents focus on what goes on in their household and not on what the other parents does or doesn’t do. Ultimately, the only person you can control is yourself. Decide what rules and expectations you want within your house and hold your child accountable for either meeting or not meeting them. Focus on one thing at a time; don’t try to address everything that may be going on. Debbie Pincus gives some excellent tips on what to do when you and your ex parents differently in her article Parenting After Divorce: 9 Ways to Parent on Your Own Terms. Another article you may find helpful is The Disneyland Daddy by James Lehman. You might also consider finding out what resources are available in your area. You can contact the 211 National Helpline at 1-800-273-6222 (online at 211.org) and ask about support groups or other resources for single parents in your area. It’s important to take care of yourself. This can be easier when you’re able to talk to and interact with people who are in similar situations. We wish you and your family the best as you continue working through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

As a mom, I'm very lucky because I never have a problems from my jewel daughter especially at her school. She is such a good girl, always understand what I said and I'm proud of her. Anyway, thanks for this article :)

Comment By : Kori Soenarko

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