If your child’s grades are slipping, there are a few things that could be going on. Here’s what you should know.
Let’s be honest: Parents often worry just as much or more than their kids about a bad report card.
If your child has repeatedly received lower grades in school, chances are you’re probably worried about the next report card almost as much as they are. It’s easy to worry about what poor grades could mean.
There are many reasons why your child may be having difficulty at school. Sometimes, it’s just a temporary issue, explains Amy Marschall, a licensed psychologist who works primarily with children and teenagers.
“There is a huge range of ‘typical’ development, so often a child will be a bit behind but then catch up without intervention,” says Marschall. “I was the last kid in my kindergarten class to be able to read. I just was not getting it, and within 2 years, I was reading at a 7th-grade level.”
However, there are things parents and caregivers can do to help, and early intervention can have major benefits.
“A lot of parents will tell me they had a gut feeling when the child was very young,” Marschall says. So, if you’re worried, a good first step may be to figure out why your child is having difficulty academically.
“If there has been a sudden change in your child’s performance; if they were doing well and suddenly began [having difficulty], look into stressors or changes in their life that might be affecting them,” suggests Marschall.
Stressors that might influence your child’s performance in school could include:
- bullying from their peers
- changes at home, such as the arrival of a new sibling or the separation of parents
- a demanding schedule
Stressors rarely occur in a vacuum or without warning. For example, if your child is being bullied, you might notice that they seem particularly distressed or sad about going to school — in addition to getting poor grades. They might even try to fake being sick just to stay home.
If they’re experiencing troubles at home, you might notice that they no longer seem to be reaching their academic potential. They may also lash out more at home, throwing tantrums or behaving defiantly toward family members.
The good news is, intervention or treatment can help improve your child’s mood and school performance.
For some kids, the problem with school isn’t academics. Instead, they have difficulties with social situations or controlling their emotions.
Some children take longer to learn how to control their emotions or resist impulsive behavior. This can lead to temper tantrums and outbursts.
Of course, it’s normal for young children to experience temper tantrums or meltdowns when they’re toddlers — they don’t call them the “terrible 2s” for nothing. But most children learn to regulate their emotions by the time they enter kindergarten.
If they don’t, it could be a sign of emotional dysregulation, according to experts.
If a child can’t easily control their emotions, they may be prone to getting frustrated with homework assignments or acting out in the classroom.
Some children may have difficulty in school due to social anxiety.
With social anxiety disorder, children get so anxious and stressed around large groups or in social situations that it interferes with their schoolwork or relationships with other children, according to
For example, your child might worry excessively about their appearance or about how others see them. They might be terrified of embarrassing themselves, so they may find it difficult to give a class presentation, for example.
According to experts, social anxiety generally begins around ages 8 to 15, and symptoms can include:
- avoidance of social situations, like birthday parties
- isolation, such as during recess
- fear of public speaking
- performance anxiety, affecting their ability to take tests without a panic attack
- fear of attention, which can cause children to not raise their hand, even if they know the right answer
Executive dysfunction affects kids’ (and adults’) ability to pay attention, remember information, or multitask, according to
Sometimes, another condition or an injury, such as a traumatic brain injury, can cause executive dysfunction. Other times, an executive dysfunction disorder may be the source. Symptoms can vary from child to child but could include:
- trouble planning ahead or getting organized
- difficulty adjusting to changing plans
- trouble doing homework when you want to go play
- trouble remembering to bring home your books or homework
- losing important papers or school materials
- difficulty with memory recall
One common cause of executive dysfunction in children is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
If your child has ADHD, they might:
- daydream a lot
- have a hard time focusing when they find a task to be “boring”
- frequently interrupt you or their teacher
- behave restlessly when asked to sit still
- be hyperactive during class
- get easily distracted from homework or other activities
- talk a lot, without staying on topic
- lose or forget things, like their school bag
- be prone to outbursts, especially when asked to be patient
- find it difficult to wait their turn
Signs of ADHD might start early. For example, a toddler with ADHD might not sit still during circle time or might have trouble playing by themselves.
However, healthcare professionals tend to diagnose ADHD in children when they start elementary school — right around the same time as children get their very first homework assignments and report cards.
Because children with ADHD find it difficult to focus, stay on task, or sit still, this condition can lead to poor grades.
If your child isn’t keeping up with their peers academically, it’s possible they could have a developmental or intellectual disability.
In the United States, approximately 1 in 6 children between the ages of 3 and 17 years is diagnosed with a developmental disability, according to the
Intellectual disabilities affect the way a child’s brain functions or learns new skills. They can be caused by injury, disease, complications during pregnancy or birth, genetics, or exposure to toxins — though sometimes the cause is unknown.
Possible intellectual disabilities include:
- Down syndrome: a condition where a child is born with an extra copy of chromosome 21
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: which occur when the pregnant parent drank alcohol during pregnancy
- Fragile X syndrome: an inherited genetic disease
- Birth defects: particularly those that affect the brain
As a parent, you might have noticed signs of intellectual disability when your child was young. According to experts, these might have included:
- learning to sit up, crawl, or walk later than other children
- having difficulties learning to speak
- having trouble understanding social rules
- having trouble solving problems
“IQ tests are often used to determine whether there is a significant cognitive issue, but these tests are typically not valid before the age of 6 because of that huge range of typical,” says Marschall.
That’s why, if your child is younger than 6 years old, early developmental testing could include observational data or other achievement tests, she says.
Specific learning disorder (SLD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s what most people think of when someone says they have a learning disorder. SLD “makes learning difficult, as the name implies,” says Marschall.
“Specific learning disorder refers to when a child’s cognitive abilities predict their learning ability, but their achievement scores do not match up despite receiving appropriate instruction,” she continues.
“A learning disorder can be general and impact all areas or [be] specific to reading, written expression, or mathematics,” Marschall says, adding that it may also produce deficits in a child’s ability to process sounds.
In other words, SLD can affect the way children receive and understand what they’re taught because they might have trouble understanding spoken or written information.
There are three types of SLD, according to the
- Dyslexia: a difficulty with reading
- Dyscalculia: a difficulty with math
- Dysgraphia: a difficulty with writing
While learning disabilities can occur in toddlers, healthcare professionals often don’t diagnose these conditions until kids start school, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Furthermore, people often confuse them with behavioral issues because children quickly become frustrated with their schoolwork.
“After a frustrating hour of schoolwork, little kids often don’t have the patience for social interactions in the class,” says Ken Shyminsky, elementary school vice-principal, neurodiversity coach, and special education teacher. “The result is behavior outbursts directed at either the teacher or fellow students.”
The short answer: Be your child’s biggest advocate.
“A lot of parents will tell me they had a ‘gut feeling’ when the child was very young and [they] were told that the child will catch up,” says Marschall. “If you are concerned, you can absolutely push for some early developmental testing to see where the child compares to their peers.”
You could also start by talking to your child’s pediatrician. They can do some basic assessments to see if your child’s difficulties are outside what is developmentally appropriate.
They could also give your child a referral to a therapist, psychologist, or school specialist who can help with accommodations. In this context, “accommodations” are allowances meant to help your child succeed, such as allowing longer time or extra tools for exams.
You might also find it helpful to just talk — or listen — to your child.
“Check in with [them] and keep ongoing, open communication so they feel safe coming to you with their difficulties,” says Marschall.
This will make it more likely that your child will feel safe enough to tell you if they’re being bullied, feel depressed, or are having trouble for another reason.
It can be stressful to find out that your child is having difficulties in school, and it’s easy to worry. Some parents even worry that it’s their fault, or that the poor grades reflect a failure in their parenting.
Remember, there could be lots of reasons why your child is having trouble. Consider speaking with them, listening with empathy, and trying to understand what they’re going through. See if they’ll tell you what they find hard. The issue may not be what you think.
You could also consider consulting your child’s pediatrician or request early developmental testing.