Is your child failing in school? Maybe he started out full of enthusiasm, but now his grades are slipping, his attitude is bad and he seems to be falling through the cracks. If your child has hit a slump midway through the school year, you are not alone. James Lehman has some advice for you today on what you can do now to get your child back on track.

Your child might feel as if he’s fallen into a hole and doesn’t know how to climb back out.

Many kids lose steam by the time the middle of the school year arrives. It’s very common for children and teens to get back to school after the holidays and hit a slump. Remember, kids are kids: their attention span is short, they’re impulsive and it can be difficult for them to focus. It’s easy for children to lose energy, and when that happens, a kind of lethargy can set in.

If your child has a learning disability, or performance or behavior problems, this issue becomes magnified. Your child might feel as if he’s fallen into a hole and doesn’t know how to climb back out. (That hole can be caused by missed work, not understanding certain concepts at school, or social problems, among other things.) When your child is in that hole, it’s easy for him to become demoralized, act out more or withdraw emotionally. Often, he won’t ask for help even though he desperately needs it, and soon you’ll see his output start to slow down.

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Although this can occur with any child, make no mistake, for kids with behavior problems or learning disabilities, this is a very serious challenge to their stability for the rest of the school year. As a parent, it’s very important for you to address the problem quickly and get your child back on track before he becomes completely derailed.

By the way, while grades usually go down in a gradual slide, if your child’s performance deteriorates suddenly, it’s important for you to realize that something major may be happening, whether it’s substance abuse, bullying, or an equally serious issue. If your child’s grades drop off suddenly, that’s a signal to have him assessed by a professional.

My Child’s Attitude is Going Downhill—Along with His Grades

You should be very concerned if you notice your child’s attitude has changed for the worse along with his falling grades. When a child’s attitude becomes bad, you can safely assume certain things may be going on:

  • There may be a problem he’s not talking about.
  • He may be doing something that he doesn’t want anyone to know about.
  • He may be getting deeper into trouble without help.

Again, kids cannot climb out of that hole on their own—they simply don’t know how. In fact, a lot of adults don’t either; people get themselves into emotional holes all the time in life. In my opinion, the idea that everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is misleading. Few indeed are equipped to do that—least of all, kids.

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Falling through the Cracks Academically

Sometimes kids fall through the cracks at school because they’re having a hard time academically. Suddenly, the work becomes too challenging, and their classmates seem to pull ahead while they’re still trying to understand a certain concept. Their attitude may worsen because they really can’t do the work. And it’s easy to fall through the cracks nowadays—and by the way, those cracks are huge—because of tightening school budgets and other major problems schools are facing.

As a parent, you really need to have a good understanding of what your child is capable of doing. Remember, we want to challenge our kids but we don’t want them to simply learn how to give up. If your child truly can’t do the work, then your job is to get in there and challenge the teacher and the school to give your child work at his level—or get him placed in the right class. Parents should also be aware of those subjects, like algebra, where if you miss one core concept, you may be in trouble for the rest of the school year.

Try to be as objective as possible. I urge parents to be very, very careful when trying to accurately assess their child’s abilities. There’s a concept psychologists call learned helplessness, where people learn that if they act helpless, somebody else will do it for them. Above all, we don’t want to foster that response in our kids. Truly understanding what your child’s level is can be very tricky, which is why I recommend getting some outside help when you do it.

Here are some things I recommend parents do to get their kids back on track when they’re sinking under the waves at school:

Get an Assessment

If your child’s grades have fallen suddenly, the first thing I’d suggest is to have them assessed by a professional. If a kid’s grades go from an “A” to a “D,” that usually doesn’t happen in isolation. There will be other signs, red flags that will tell you that something’s going on. You might notice that your child has stopped doing the sports that he used to love, or that he’s hanging around with different friends, for example. Start by taking your child to his pediatrician and getting a recommendation for a professional therapist to rule out substance abuse, depression, clinical anxiety or other factors that may be affecting his performance and outlook.

Helping Your Child Manage His Schoolwork

If you’ve noticed your child’s grades are suffering, it’s critical that you put more effort into helping him manage his homework. I know it’s not always easy—everyone is tired at the end of the day, and parents work hard and want to relax, too. Sometimes your child will act as if he doesn’t want you coming into his room, but check in anyway to see how things are going. Don’t assume he understands everything on his own, even if he tells you he’s fine.

Kids need structure and supervision, and they need somebody looking in on them who will hold them accountable. If your child’s grades start sliding, don’t let him do his homework in his room by himself with the door closed and the music on. That’s simply got to stop. The door stays open, the music stays off, and you should be looking in on him every fifteen minutes or so. The goal is to keep him on track.

Talk to Your Child’s Teachers

Parents should be talking to teachers about the subjects and areas where their child is having problems. Schedule a time to meet and find out what’s going on in class. In my experience, teachers can often be very helpful in telling you what they’ve observed.

Tell the teacher what you see at home, and then ask what they see happening in their classroom. Some questions for you to ask are:

  • Has participation dropped off?
  • Is my child sitting with different kids? Who is he hanging out with?
  • Is my child just tired and bored, or is he overwhelmed by the work?
  • Have you seen a change in his attitude or performance? And how would you describe that change?

If your child’s grades start to fall in one specific subject, find out what extra help is available from the school. He should start to focus more on that subject in the evenings at home. Hold him accountable to do a certain amount of work. And work with his teachers, guidance counselors and the school as much as possible. The better your communication is with them, the more it will help your child.

Ask “What” Questions, Not “Why” Questions When You Talk with Your Child

I think it’s a good idea to sit down and have a talk with your child when you realize he’s struggling at school. You can say, “I notice that things are going downhill and I’m wondering what’s going on.” Ask “what” questions, not “why” questions. “Why” questions invite your child to make excuses—to blame someone or something for his problems. “What” questions ask your child to report the facts. So it’s not, “Why are you doing poorly at school?” it’s, “What’s going on?”

You can also tell your child what you’ve observed: “I see your grades failing, I see you being more irritable. You don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. You’re getting detention for silly things in school, like talking out of turn. These are the things I’m seeing and I’m wondering what’s going on.” If your child denies that anything is happening, say, “What are you going to do to improve your grades?” Listen to see if he has any ideas. By the way, you should already have a plan that says, “We’re going to be checking on your homework more and we want you putting more time into it.”

Make the conversation with your child functional, not emotional. Too many parents get bogged down in emotionality. Kids do better when they keep their feelings out of it. After all, their emotions are volatile: they love you, they hate you; they’re happy, they’re angry. So you want to keep it on a functional level and ask, “What’s getting in the way of you doing your work? What’s going on? And how are you going to change it?”

Giving Your Child Rewards for School Performance

I know families who let their kids do their homework in their rooms as long as they get a “B” or above. If their grades slip, they have to do their homework at the dining room table until they bring them up again. For some kids, that means they also have to do an extra hour of homework a night, but then they’re allowed to stay up half-an-hour later so they still get some free time. That’s part of their reward for doing the work.

When my son was in high school, I would tell him if he got all “A’s” and “B’s” I’d give him a cool reward. If he didn’t get the grades, he wouldn’t get anything. We didn’t make a big deal out of it, and we didn’t punish him if he wasn’t able to do it.

Remember, kids need to be rewarded; they need to be motivated. As parents, we’re taking and we’re giving; we’re demanding but we’re supporting. It’s like a sandwich: on top there’s the pressure for your child to perform, and underneath there’s support with rewards and extra help.

I also want to say that while rewards are helpful, the absence of rewards is not causing the problem. Rewards don’t change behavior: learning problem-solving skills and being held accountable changes behavior. Having a concrete plan and sticking to it changes behavior.

When we talk about grades sliding and kids falling behind at school, it sounds simple but it’s a very complex thing—and something that parents struggle with every day all over the country. My wife and I wrestled with this issue as parents, and we both had Masters Degrees in Social Work and worked with kids for a living. My point is that it’s natural to wonder, “Are the demands too much for my child? Are they enough for him? Or are we taking it too easy on him?” In my opinion, parents who make it a priority to get involved—and then take steps to help their child—are doing them a huge service.

A final word: Kids are resilient. If you help your child and he’s able to get back on track and do the work, in all likelihood he’ll bounce back at school. I believe kids have strengths that aren’t easily observable unless you know how to look for them. As a parent, you need to find that resiliency, find that strength in your child, and work with it.

Related content:
Young Kids Acting Out in School: The Top 3 Issues Parents Worry About Most
“My Child Refuses to Do Homework” — How to Stop the Nightly Struggle Over School Work

Notes and References


James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (6)
  • Sunny

    I have had a headache for about 2 months. My 17 year old son has gone from being 9th in his senior class to 25th (as of January). The "slide" really started Spring of junior year looking back. Usually, I'll have to get him focused on his studies in December / January each year. But this year it started second week of school and I found him depression in the fetal position on his bed

    He swears no one is bullying him. He's on antidepressants now I've started therapy for him but it's as if he's imploding.

    He missed college deadlines to apply and I had to force him to take SATs.

    I know all is not lost but I can't light that spark, that drive...He's a senior and doesn't care to learn to drive. He doesn't want to go to prom.

    The only things that interests him are video games, vines, meems and social media.

    I am at my breaking point. I don't know how to be calm in this situation. I don't want him to give up but I don't know how to reach my sweet sweet child.

    • Jc
      Wow I am having the same issue I don't know what to do he acts like a zombie not caring just here sleeping and eating not sure what to do
  • Gel Conall
    My fifteen year old son, who's in ninth grade, was a straight A student until recently. He's in all honor classes but his grades have really slipped since November. He got his first D today in Biology and he's been getting some C's in subjects that he usually excels at.More One of the big problems is that the students do all their homework online, on mac books, which makes it easy for him to sneak onto game sites and play games instead of focus on his work. We can't behind him all evening, so we spend a lot of time catching him 'gaming' instead of doing his work. It's very frustrating to say the least. He's always telling us that he has little to no homework, or that he did it all in school during study period. We've had to take his phone, his home computer and at one point his desk chair from him. We took the chair because he was slouching in it, and hiding his computer on his knees. He had to use a stool for a while and that helped, but then he slips back into his old ways. He is a very intelligent boy, seems content enough, is not very outgoing, doesn't invite friends home, but has friends at school. He definitely likes his own company (as do I), but I do worry he's isolating himself in his room. He'd spend all weekend in his room, if we let him. One thing, is that he's very good at music and is in the school band which seems to be going well. Overall, he seems to like school and his friends and teachers but hates doing homework,
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
    Leawna Rogers We appreciate you writing in to Empowering Parents and sharing your story. I am sorry to hear about the issues you are having with your aunt and uncle, and the struggle with your grades.  Because we are a website aimed at helping people become more effective parents, weMore are limited in the advice and suggestions we can give to those outside of a direct parenting role.  Another resource which might be more useful to you is the Boys Town National Hotline, which you can reach by calling 1-800-448-3000, 24/7. They have trained counselors who talk with kids, teens and young adults everyday about issues they are facing, and they can help you to look at your options and come up with a plan.  They also have options to communicate via text, email, and live chat which you can find on their website, http://www.yourlifeyourvoice.org/ We wish you the best going forward. Take care.
  • Maria Kuntz
    My problem is my son's odd disconnect between his grades and goals. He's a deep thinker, realistic in his goal setting (to a point). He's very gifted athletically and could get a scholarship in any of his 3 sports. The problem is he can't seem to maintain a 3.0 GPA.More His freshman semesters were 2.9 and 2.87. It is so very frustrating that academically he works for just good enough and not what else can I do to get better. He should actually do better (and is capable of this) than a 3.0 but right now that's what we're pushing. The only class I allow a C in is math and he has a strategies class and a tutor for that. He is failing psychology right now and all he needs to do is practice flashcards. It's frustrating to see so much potential, to know that he wants college and a future in athletics and to not have the academic performance match that
  • Joe Bigliogo

    Sometimes the work is just too difficult or they lack the intelligence to succeed at the level they are compelled to learn at. James Lehman, I can almost guarantee that as hard as you try you are not smart enough to comprehend string theory or particle physics. Don't worry very few are. For some people Grade 12 math or grade 10 english is like particle physics to you and I. What students are being asked to learn may sometimes surpasses some their abilities. In most cases young people didn't choose to learn a prescribed curriculum, it was imposed on them as required learning. Why then should we be surprised when they cannot live up to an obligation they never freely chose in the first place? This is a fact of reality seldom acknowledged and yet it plays a major role in why some students fail.

    In such cases assessment is called for and modification of program material and expectations need to be adjusted to the individual student's ability. This means placing the greater time and effort on areas of student strengths, not their deficiencies and weaknesses. 

    "Our goal should be to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make weaknesses irrelevant" ~ Peter Drucker

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