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


Frustrated boy with red hair in classroom at school

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.

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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.


Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

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