Toggle Mobile

At least one in five students will have trouble keeping up academically at some point during junior high and high school. School slumps require our immediate attention, before the damage to self-esteem is irreparable or a youngster develops an aversion to attending school.

While the root of the problem may be school related and nothing more, a drop in grades can be a warning sign of one of the underlying causes below:

  • Physical ailments: undiagnosed sleep disorders, anemia, infectious mononucleosis, thyroid conditions, impaired vision or hearing, others
  • Emotional disorders: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, others
  • Learning disabilities/developmental disabilities: dyslexia, central auditory-processing disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), others
  • Substance abuse: a drastic decline in grades may be an indication that a child is experimenting with alcohol or illicit drugs

What You Can Do

Talk to your teenager. After all, she’s the ultimate authority on what’s behind her academic difficulties. But this should be a conversation, not a confrontation. Let her know that you’re on her side and want to help her get back on track:

“Honey, this is the fourth test in a row that’s come back with a C or a D. You’re usually a B-plus student. Is there anything going on in school or other areas of your life that you’d like to tell us about? We’re concerned and we want to help.”

Arrange a meeting with the teacher(s). Even the most involved parent doesn’t truly know what goes on in school. Adolescents sometimes reveal sides of themselves at school that they keep under wraps at home—or vice versa. So a teacher’s observations can provide invaluable clues to the cause of a child’s academic troubles.

In the days leading up to a parent-teacher conference, write down questions addressing the areas that most concern you. You may not be pleased to hear everything the teacher has to say once you get to the conference. But try to keep in mind that with rare exceptions, less-than-glowing feedback is not a personal attack on your youngster’s character or your competence as a parent. If your son’s home economics teacher says that he disrupts her class with his wisecracks, accept that what she says contains at least a shred of truth.

Ask her to be more specific and listen politely to what she has to say. For instance: “Could you please give me an example of what you mean? How frequently does he act up in class?” Then work together to come up with a solution. Perhaps you decide to warn your son that any future incidents of misconduct will result in the loss of a privilege, such as one week’s allowance or use of the family car.

“And,” you can add, “we’ve asked Mrs. Jackson to call us immediately if you should ever disrupt her class again.”

Memo to Mom and Dad: After a conference, always dash off a thank-you note to the teacher.

Consider hiring an after-school tutor. One-on-one sessions with a private tutor can work wonders with students who just weeks ago seemed unable to grasp the subject matter. Learning in a pressure-free environment probably has as much to do with that success as does the one-on-one instruction. Another advantage of letting a tutor work with your child, says Dr. Coleman, is that “it gets parents off their kids’ backs.”

Private tutors, listed in the Yellow Pages under “Tutoring,” generally charge between twenty dollars and forty dollars an hour. If that’s beyond your budget, you may be able to locate help through your teen’s school. “A lot of high schools,” says Dr. Coleman, “have study-buddies programs where teachers assign a peer-aged student or an older student to tutor a child at home or at school.” The cost is nominal—four or five dollars an hour—or sometimes free. Local colleges and organizations such as the YMCA may also offer tutoring.

Tutors can also help bridge the gap of time that teens are out of school because of a brief illness, extended family trip, and so on. Instead of falling behind during these short but crucial periods, tutors can make sure students stay caught up and on track until they return to the classroom.

Chronic complaints of feeling either bored or overwhelmed at school may be an indication that a youngster is trudging along on the wrong academic track. The student who yawns at schoolwork that leaves most of his classmates scratching their heads is more likely to thrive if his day includes some more challenging courses, while the perennial D student who has never shown much interest in school may be best served by a vocationally oriented program.

In the past, boys and girls belonging to the latter group might have been written off as lost causes destined to drop out. Since the 1970s or so, the educational system has made a greater effort to reach out to these youngsters. Some schools have implemented policies specifically designed for high-school freshmen with histories of academic failure, truancy and misconduct. As we noted earlier, ninth grade is a critical fork in the road for such students, who are considered high risks for quitting before the end of the year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, strategies like those below have been successful at helping them achieve school success:

  • Allow students to delay some required courses that may prove too difficult and discourage them to the point of dropping out. In their place they may take more courses that interest them.
  • Assemble these students into small groups, who then go from class to class together, offering one another support.
  • Establish alternative schools and mini schools for alienated students, either within the school building or off-campus. Youngsters who function poorly in a conventional school environment may find the less-structured, less demanding environment to their liking and be able to graduate.

If you believe that school could be made more enjoyable and fulfilling for your teen, arrange to meet with the guidance counselor or principal. Find out what accommodations could possibly be made in your child’s educational plan so that it better meets his or her needs.