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Problems at School?
How to Handle the Top 4 Issues

by Carole Banks, MSW PSL Advisor
Problems at School? How to Handle the Top 4 Issues

At some point as a parent, you will likely be faced with the dreaded email from your child’s teacher telling you that your kid has crossed the line and that you need to come in for another conference—or the principal will call to tell you that your teen has missed the last week of school altogether, unbeknownst to you. Maybe you’ve discovered that your child’s grades have plunged from acceptable to barely passing. What’s a parent to do? Carole Banks, MSW addresses the top four school emergencies parents struggle with the most.

Leave discipline for acting out at school to school officials—don’t punish your child twice.

1. Acting out in school

When your child acts out in school, it can be worrisome, frustrating and embarrassing. On top of the actual misbehavior, you fear that he’ll make a bad name for himself—that his reputation as a troublemaker will follow him from grade to grade. You may also feel judged—and blamed—by teachers and other parents for what your child does at school.

Related: Feeling judged? Learn how to parent more effectively.

Some kids act out when they’re feeling left out or left behind.  Make sure that your child is capable of doing the class work he is being asked to do, for example. Being behind (or ahead of) the class can create boredom, frustration, and anxiety—which may lead some kids to act out verbally or physically. 

I want to stress that for the most part, you should not give consequences for school misbehavior at home, unless your child is damaging school property or hurting others physically. That's because punishing your child at home is not going to give him the skills he needs to behave more appropriately. In some cases, letting the school hold your child accountable is enough, but in chronic or severe acting-out situations, it will be important to work with the school to get of what is going on. You may then need to work with some local supports to address the behavior.

But for the most part, leave discipline for acting out at school to school officials—don’t punish your child twice.  Understand that in this case, giving consequences is far less important than figuring out what your child needs to do differently the next time he wants to act out. In other words, if you say, “You have to stay in your room because you acted out in school today,” you’re not addressing the behavior and it will not help your child because you’re not teaching him anything—except how to do time.  Sometimes parents assume that their kids will figure out things on their own, but if you’re dealing with a chronic issue, you have to face facts: your child has not figured it out by himself and he is not likely to do so.  You need to help him. So talk to the teacher—that’s your best first step. Take it from there. You need a sense of why he’s acting out and what’s happening in order to know how you can help your child change.

And pay close attention to what your child is saying at home; he should know that all experiences are okay to share. A word of caution: One important lesson James Lehman teaches us is to support the school authorities in front of your child. If your child hears your criticism of school officials and his teachers, he is likely to be disrespectful to them in class—and also to you, later on down the line.

Related: Disrespectful child?

2. Dropping Grades

If your child’s grades are dropping, rule number one is to become an investigator. In other words, really find out what’s going on with your child. Is he having problems at home or with other kids at school? Is he having a tough time adjusting to middle school or high school? Are his study habits poor—and can you work on that together? For some kids, learning disabilities and medical problems may play a role. And for still others, drug and alcohol use may be the cause of falling grades. The main thing for you to do is find out the “why” and then come up with a plan to help your child.  Here are some steps you can take immediately:

  • Meet with your child’s teacher: Call your child’s teacher and ask for a meeting.  Tell her what you are seeing at home—and then ask what she has observed in the classroom. Ask her for any ideas she might have to help your child get back on track.
  • Set up more structure at home. A common problem for many kids is a lack of structure in their after school schedule.  Make sure sports or other clubs do not come first, with homework being fit in at the end of the day (when your child is exhausted).  This is not a good lesson to teach your child because it gives them the message that play comes before work—and is therefore more important than work. Clubs or sports should not come before school work and family time for your child.  The bottom line is that schoolwork has to be prioritized, and a structure has to be set up so it isn’t squeezed in at the last minute.
  • Be realistic in your goals: When you structure your child’s study time to help him bring his grades back to an acceptable level, be realistic in your goals. Remember, it took time for your child to get behind, so you need to allow time for him to catch up.   Get actively involved in your child’s homework by reviewing it and helping with study strategies. I also recommend that you try to be present during study time. I know that many parents work and can’t be at home with their children after school. As a working parent and grandparent myself, I completely understand and sympathize with that situation. If you or your spouse can’t be there, try to get your child into in an after school program or ask another trusted adult to be there with them.
  • Don’t restrict your child from privileges until his grades improve. Understand that restricting your child from all of his privileges until he brings his grades up usually backfires. In effect, you end up taking away something that might actually motivate your child to improve. Instead, I recommend that you require your child to study for a certain amount of time each day to earn those extras that night. 
  • Talk to your child about what’s going on.  Have a frank conversation with your child about his grades. Say, “Look, I’ve been letting you manage your homework on your own, but it’s not working. Now we’re going to set up a study time every day where I supervise your work. We can talk about not doing that once your grades get back up where they need to belong. But in the meantime, we have to seriously set aside some time to work on this.”

Related: Having a hard time getting through to your child?

And remember to ask your child about his day and show that you are interested; ask questions that require a longer answer than “yes” or “no.” On the Support Line, I’ve found that when parents really make a consistent effort to keep up with their kids, they are seldom caught unawares when it comes to dropping grades or poor school performance.

3. “I hate my teacher!”

Every so often, your child will have a teacher with whom he just can’t seem to get along. Sometimes it’s a simple personality conflict; other times, your child is having difficulty responding to authority. I think that the very first thing to do for your child in this situation is validate how he feels. Don’t agree with him and say, “Yeah, you’re right; your teacher is a jerk.” When you undermine the teacher’s authority, you are giving your child permission to disrespect her. On the other hand, you should allow your child to share with you what it’s like in class. Don’t tell him he’s wrong or that he shouldn’t feel a certain way. Once your child has been heard, he’ll be more receptive to hearing your ideas about what he can do to make the situation better.

If your child is old enough, he has to learn to accept the fact that certain teachers require things that he might not agree with. It’s a fact of life that not every teacher is able to give your child what he would like to have. It’s a fact of life that some teachers are quite strict; they’re not warm and fuzzy. As a parent, you definitely would not want to ask them to do their job differently. Instead, work on helping your child. Say something like, “You know, you’re going to meet a lot of people in life, and you have to learn how to get along with them. Even though this teacher isn’t your favorite, part of your job this year is to get through it, be respectful and do your best. I wonder how we can figure out how to do that?” (There’s nothing wrong with asking the teacher for some ideas, as well.)

If the teacher does seem to be at fault, meet with him or her and share what your child’s experience has been. You will want to try to find some middle ground if at all possible. You might also want to bring in another administrator or official, like the school social worker, to this meeting. This will keep things civil and give you some support should you need it later.

Related: What should—and shouldn’t—you give consequences for?

4. Skipping school

If your child is skipping school—either playing sick or skipping out of classes—again, you first need to investigate and find out why. Is your child failing, being bullied, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or does he have physical problems? Some kids develop anxiety around going to school; they can have stomach aches or headaches as a result. Younger kids might cling to parents and cry. A lot of kids will say they’re sick in order to avoid school because they have anxiety about it. If there’s an anxiety issue at play, a visit to your child’s pediatrician to determine whether counseling is in order might be your best course of action. A skilled counselor can gently get your child over the hump and teach them ways of coping with their nervousness around school. So the reason why your child is missing school chronically needs to be understood so it can be resolved.  For example, if your child is being bullied, you will need to work with the school to make sure your child is protected and that it stops.

It’s no secret that failing to attend school can lead your child or teen to become involved in risky behaviors, especially if he is not supervised consistently at home. If your child skips school chronically, you may have to involve community services and ask them to address the underlying reasons for school truancy. The juvenile justice system does not like the idea of kids skipping school and loitering around town, so there may be hope there. You might call up your local police department and say, “I can’t get my child to go to school. Are there any resources available in this community to help me get him back on track?”

Understand that if your child is chronically skipping school, it’s usually the result of a problem that has built up for quite some time. Often it’s the end of a long string of problems, rather than the beginning. For this reason, I believe this is an issue that’s important to nip in the bud at an early stage. So when your child’s grades start dropping or he’s coming home moody and sad, intervene then. Keep the communication open and always stay interested in what’s happened to your child from day to day—it will pay off in the end, I promise you.


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Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. She has been with Legacy Publishing Company for four years working on the Parental Support Line and writing for Empowering Parents. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 10 years, and is the mother of 3 grown children and the grandmother of six.

READER'S COMMENTS

This article was right on target: 5 stars. It is counter intuitive not to take away privileges for bad grades and not to punish the child for acting out in school. She explained beautifully how to deal with these situations. I have only one child out of my three at home with me now and I have learned through a great deal of trial and error over the years. She is offering great advice.

Comment By : blandy

Good article. Not sure I agree with not giving consequences for school behavior at home. I have a 5th grade Asperger boy and an ADD-inattentive 4th grade girl. Our problem is with the kids not trying very hard at school. They could care less about their grades. I'm hoping that comes with age? Our school grading system is 1-4 with 4 being mastery of subject, 3 is meeting grade expectations and 2 is under grade expectations. When my kids get a 2 on a test, it tells me they need more work in the subject and I add extra work until they bring it up to a 3. No need for a 4, I wasn't a mastery student either, but a 3 means they "got" the subject. We had to add tutors this year (before school with their teachers) in math. I do think that until they can take it seriously enough to work harder in the classes they are struggling with by themselves, I need to provide this support. Otherwise, how will they learn what they need for the upcoming years of school as most subjects keep building upon themselves. We do have homework fights and battles, I just thought that was part of the parenting deal. I used to fight about doing homework when I was a kid too!

Comment By : Mom of 3

I have two teenage boys, 15 & 17, who have terrible grades (failing at times)because they won't do their homework ("it's stupid"). I have had conferences with teachers, expectations have been shared with them (the boys), I check their assignments online, yet when I ask them about homework they say it's done or they did not bring home the required materials. Discussions don't work, encouragement/rewards don't work, withholding of privileges doesn't work, and they don't have conflicts with ohter commitments. They just don't care. Short of going to school with them, I've run out of ideas, and patience.

Comment By : Frustrated

Nice article, but I DO NOT agree with not giving consequences at home for misbehavior at school. The school can only punish so far. The parents have to send the message. Yes, they are being disciplined twice... So what?

Comment By : Telaine12

Your article always says "he". What about using some "she" examples?

Comment By : marmee

The "structure at home" addresses my concerns. My 3 kids ages 15-11-5 attend a charter school where the main focus is education...I am 200% supportive but when is homework too much....I feel my kids are missing out on "being kids". Their school has no band, football, chearleading, etc... So these extra curricular activities are non-existent unless they are enrolled thru our local parks & recreation department. Is there such a thing as too much homework? I am confused.

Comment By : 247 Mom

I have to agree with some of these comments about still punishing at home for school consequences. Lets them know we are standing behind the school's decision and gives them more incentive to do right if there isn't any fun for them at home.

Comment By : CindyBabs

* Dear ‘Frustrated’: It can be so difficult when kids refuse to do their homework-- even more so when you have multiple kids dodging their academic responsibilities at the same time. In cases like this we recommend that you establish a mandatory daily study time. For example, each day after school you require the boys to study for an hour at the table, or another approved place. Study time happens whether they did the work in school or not, and whether or not they have their materials; they still have to do something academic like work ahead, get ready for an upcoming test, or read a book. The key is that there are no privileges happening until they complete the time. This gives them the chance to earn their privileges each day. The tough part is they may choose not to, especially at first. If you have a structure like this, though, that motivates them to make the right choice and holds them accountable when they don’t, that is the best you can do. You are not responsible for their choices—you can only control how you respond to their resistance. Be calm and consistent. You might want to check out one of our other articles about homework for more information and ideas. Good luck and hang in there.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I am a dad of 4. My eldest was a sophomore in H.S. last year and it was dizzying how quickly, and steeply, her grades fell during the year. That, coupled with extreme disrespect to me and her mom - well, needless to say it was a very trying time. I did not earn good dad honors as far as staying calm. She barely passed her sophomore year, and i suspect some of her teachers were being generous, at that. Over the summer it dawned on me - wait, perhaps she simply is not capable of performing well, which if that's the case, is unfair of me to bear down with such pressure. In August, before the school year started, I calmly told her that college is not for everyone and that you can make it in life without it, and it's ok. I had arrived and accepted that's the place where she is. She was outraged, and hurt, that I would say such a thing. In a classic case of reverse psychology, she has maintained A's and B's during her junior year and (I think) takes some delight in knowing she accomplished this on her own, without the dunces that are her parents helping in any way. Our major problem is with child number 2, a freshman in H.S. who was on the Natl Jr Hon Society but now thinks C's and D's are "ok." grrrrr. Of course I have communicated that it's not. Jury's still out on whether she'll turn around. I'm hopeful but not optimistic. I hope my other 2 - who are 7 and 5 - won't experience what the older two are experiencing, but I just don't know anymore.

Comment By : Carlton

Finding a Tutor from your child's school takes the pressure off both parent and student. Now,there are no excuses of "no homework". The scores improve and grades go up and the relationship between you and your child will improve as well.

Comment By : Diane

After reading the previous comments I feel like I'm not alone. Oh. It is so hard to see your child not caring a bit about school. Only being driven by consequences and threatening. That's not right. I hurts me to see him acting so irreponsibly about everything except for video games. I worry about his future. However, I have to stop doing that and focus on what's going on now. I try to help him by coaching him w/homework and school projects. It is very hard.

Comment By : sgyuris

As both parent and teacher, I agree with one of the main points, that of finding out what the main problem is behind the negative behaviors, but I disagree that there should be no further consequence at home for poor choices kids make at school. My daughters have both been in classes where their learning has been hampered due to poor behavior of classmates whom I know come from homes where "parents" do not parent. They make excuses for their kids, bail them out, argue with teachers and administrators, and some have even allowed their kids, when suspended for a day, to play video games or run around town. Find natural consequences that make sense. If a child is disrespectful, he/she needs to practice being respectful to others and what that looks like. If a child's grades are lower than they should be, "fun things" and privileges can be earned back, one at a time, until grades have improved.

Comment By : runnermom

* I would like to clarify our stance on giving consequences at home for school behavior. There are a lot of people who seem to disagree with not giving consequences at home for school problems and we appreciate you sharing your opinions with us. As Carole said, there are some cases in which we do recommend consequences at home in addition to those given at school. As James Lehman said,“Here's the truth: you can punish kids until the cows come home, but it’s not going to change their behavior. That’s because the problem is actually not the behavior—the problem lies in the way kids think. This faulty thinking then gets externalized into how they behave. If you punish them for the behavior and neglect to challenge the way they think about the problem—or discuss what their options are for dealing with that problem effectively in the future—then really, what are you doing? You’re punishing your child, but he hasn’t learned anything and he’s not going to do anything differently.” That said, how you handle your kids getting in trouble in school is, of course, completely up to you but we feel that your primary role in handling school behavior problems should be the “trainer and coach” role. Parents should work with children to develop the skills they need to handle school problems effectively, or the behavior will simply continue over time. We do recommend giving consequences at home when kids have destroyed property or hurt someone (either emotionally or physically). An example of a consequence we would recommend would be the restriction of privileges until you talk to the child, come up with a plan for what they will do differently in the future, and the child completes an amends (for example, a letter of apology that includes their plan). If kids are on out-of-school suspension, it is reasonable for them not to have access to their privileges during school hours. We never recommend taking away all of a child’s privileges for long periods of time and having them slowly earn things back, as we do not feel this is effective in changing the behavior. Also, if you are working on several behaviors at home, you will be running short on privileges to take away. It is okay to let the school give the consequences and simply focus on talking about what your child will do next time to make a better choice.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I would add if the teacher is balking and is unwilling to be a team with the parents you may need to go above them ..... some teachers see all kids who need help as just not wanting to do it which isn't always true. Also being military this needs to be addressed, only ONE of our 17yo's teachers asked "when did your husband deploy?" ... umm DUH?! very frustrating .... also teachers need to be aware that parents who aren't always at the school do care --they may be unable or be trying to let the student take responsibility for themselves, refusing to email parents or talk to them or saying "he's a Senior" in a "get over it" tone is not helpful

Comment By : TimsArmyWifey

Totally disagree with not giving a home punishment for acting out at school. I have NEVER heard of this! I was always told, "Your punishment will be twice as bad at home if you get in trouble at school." Not punishing a child for this is like ignoring bad behavior!

Comment By : confused

Yes. I do think that home punishment is appropriate. Also depends on the age. Short and sweet should be the punishment, not for long periods but I also like the 'making amends' idea like an apology and letter if needed. These days ...sometimes...teachers are reluctant to be totally truthful, sometimes they are afraid of repercussions from their superiors. sad.

Comment By : 4ofthem

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