When School Is Hard

What do you do when your child is struggling in school? This primer can help get you started on identifying and solving the problem.


Worried about your student’s progress at school? Whether your child is 6 or 16, it can be difficult to know where to begin when he or she is struggling.

In the following, I outline an approach that can facilitate real change, starting with an overview of some of the most common difficulties. The first step, however, is to have your child’s hearing and vision checked. (Don’t forget to include testing for color blindness.) Sometimes a new pair of glasses solves everything!

Common Concerns

Reading. In the realm of academics, reading is the number-one referral concern. It is a concern not to be taken lightly, either. Researchers have found that after third grade, it becomes significantly more difficult to acquire basic reading skills.

Common problems include difficulty sounding out words and automatically recognizing common (e.g., “sight”) words. In high school, comprehension is more frequently reported as a problem. In fact, comprehension may be compromised at any age if there is a deficit in basic reading skills.

If your child is receiving a reading—or any other—intervention, ask whether it is research-based and targets the child’s specific weaknesses (have specific weaknesses even been identified?). Be wary of hodgepodge interventions by instructors who are not credentialed in the areas of reading or special education.

Writing. It is rare, in my experience, to receive a writing referral that is not connected with other concerns, such as reading, motor skills, speech or behavior. Writing referrals generally fall into two categories: mechanical difficulties and production difficulties.

The former could include trouble with handwriting (e.g., holding the pencil, hand fatigue, forming letters, spacing). An occupational therapist should evaluate these difficulties and develop a treatment plan for anything related to the fine motor and visual skills involved in writing, including recommending technological accommodations.

Production difficulties can consist of trouble developing ideas, putting them on paper and organizing them. Sometimes a child just needs help in the form of graphic organizers and idea generation strategies; sometimes the issue goes deeper.

Math. Mathematical difficulties are also typically of two types: basic calculation and problem-solving. In truth, math difficulties often stem from complex patterns of weakness in visual-spatial abilities, language development, abstract reasoning and/or memory. Interestingly, students who move frequently may seem to have a math disability, when the real issue is gaps in knowledge due to varied curriculums and timelines.

A student who struggles with basic calculation will often struggle with higher-order problem-solving, as well. Just as in reading, you have to have the fundamentals down so you can devote your cognitive energy to more advanced problems. An experienced educational or school psychologist should assess true math disabilities.

Non-Academic Concerns

Most schools, including international schools, also have a variety of specialists on staff, or available on an itinerant basis, who deal with non-academic concerns.

Speech and language. Common referral concerns, in my experience, include deafness, stuttering (e.g., disfluency), lack of vocabulary development and difficulty generating and organizing speech. Because language development is so integral to academics, it can be very beneficial to have a speech pathologist weigh in whenever a student is struggling academically. For more information, please refer to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Occupational therapy. Frequently reported concerns include handwriting, visual tracking and visual-motor skills—all important to academics. Please see the American Occupational Therapy Association’s page on Children and Youth for more information.

Seek out the learning specialist or special educator even if your child presents with a non-academic problem.

Behavior. There is a wide spectrum of concerns in this area, but they tend to fall into two categories: externalizing and internalizing behaviors.

Externalizing behaviors typically involve “acting out”—children may be described as hyperactive, aggressive, defiant or “out of control.” Internalizing behaviors are those exhibited by “quiet sufferers,” who may be seen as withdrawn, inattentive, anxious or depressed, and difficult to engage.

There are a myriad of factors involved in untangling a behavior issue, from neurological (e.g., executive functioning weaknesses, injury to the brain, developmental trauma) to environmental (e.g., response to a classroom management style). Often it is a combination of factors. In cases of mild to moderate behavior difficulties that continue for more than six weeks, it is strongly advisable to engage a mental health professional.

Finally, whether the referral concern is academics or behavior, I strongly recommend getting a thorough evaluation by a licensed American psychologist.

How to Proceed

In the school setting, a working relationship with the teacher, teacher’s assistant, specialists and administration will be paramount to your child’s success. You may be at the beginning of the problem-solving process (“Why does my child seem to be reading more slowly than his peers?”). Or you may be farther down the road (“Sally hit another kid—time for our 10th meeting!”).

No matter where you are in the process, it will be essential to work with the school—not just to solve a problem, but to get key information to better understand your child. They see him or her every day and, whether they realize it or not, will have observed what is and is not working.

Everyone is there in the best interest of the child (or so we hope), so it’s important to build an alliance conducive to cooperation. Also, you never know who your greatest ally may turn out to be.

Step One: Building Alliances

Take stock of potential allies. Perhaps you know the teacher and principal and have a good relationship with them. But do you know the school psychologist or learning specialist? The reading specialist? School counselor? Social worker? And are these individuals at your parent-teacher meetings? Because they probably should be!

Seek out the learning specialist or special educator even if your child presents with a non-academic problem. School counselors, special educators and school psychologists all have training in behavior, social and emotional difficulties. Some have more expertise than others, but we often have nuanced and sympathetic views when kids are struggling.

Finally, if you are in a small international school, you may find that the lower school has certain specialists that the upper school does not have. Or vice versa. You may be able to request a special consultation from one of those specialists, even if they do not technically serve your child’s grade level.

Reach out, and build rapport. How do you approach the learning specialist or counselor? Don’t be shy! I recommend stopping by their office at a non-hectic time to set up an appointment. Depending on the severity of the issues, the specialist may already be involved and know about the situation.

They may invite you to meet on the spot, or ask you to return at a mutually agreeable time. Either way, be prepared to give your impression of what’s happening, and let them know you would value their opinion.

If you are lucky, you will connect with someone who understands school politics and how to effectively pursue the best interest of your child. For example, there have been times when I’ve spoken with a child or teacher at the parent’s request without mentioning that the parent had sparked my concern. On other occasions, I could conveniently arrange a meeting with the principal because I heard “through the grapevine” about a problem.

Step Two: Preparing for Your First Meeting (Or Your Tenth)

Recognize efforts. Sometimes tensions are running high. The teacher seems averse to helping Tommy. Tommy seems averse to working with the teacher. The counselor is concerned about Marie’s lack of interest in school. You are concerned about the school’s lack of interest in Marie. And so on.

The point is, everyone must come together to resolve the issue for the sake of the child. When approaching issues with school faculty and staff, try first to acknowledge the efforts of the school—even if you don’t think it has done enough to help. For example, “Thank you, Ms. Smith, for meeting me today. I really appreciate your time.” Be sure to cite any extra observations, testing or assessments performed.

Be objective. Do your homework and brainstorm objective language to describe your concerns—language that reflects your observations, rather than your feelings. So for example, instead of “Tommy is a mess!” it would be more helpful to say: “We have noticed that Tommy is struggling with chronic disorganization—the planner, the binder and the management of time and assignments.”

Most academic skills are easier to describe objectively than behavior. But instead of “Jane is always throwing tantrums at home; she shows no respect,” try: “Jane has become very defiant at home, mostly when we want compliance for basic family expectations. Last night we asked her to begin her homework, and she burst into tears and retreated to her bedroom for hours.”

Be specific and try to quantify. Parents (and schools) must also work to identify the data points you believe are important and how you are monitoring them.

You may have observed that your high school daughter is struggling with reading, even though she is in numerous Advanced Placement classes. But what have you noticed about this struggle? For example, she spends excessive time on her assignments. Sometimes her comprehension has holes, as seen on pop quizzes. As a child, you noticed she struggled with sight words but could sound out words. These are all concrete and helpful observations.

Include your child. Consider including your middle school or high school student in meetings. Students often have amazing insights into their own problems. At the very least, including your adolescent provides them a sense of ownership over their own education.

Step Three: What Next?

Explicitly outline how whatever plan you decide on will be monitored, and make sure everyone shares the same expectation of what follow-up will look like. Will there be daily notes home, weekly calls?

Do not conclude a meeting without scheduling a follow-up session. Depending on the severity of the situation, this could be one week later or six. Meetings will serve to keep the situation on everyone’s radar.

Sometimes nothing seems to work, however. How do you know when you have exhausted all the options at a particular school? You may wish to ask your school allies, perhaps privately, “Have we reached the end of the road? Do you think this school is the best fit for my child?” Consider their opinions carefully—if you do not agree, that is okay.

My own rule of thumb is to allow three months, depending on the issue. Typically, if you and the school have been working diligently and there is absolutely no change after that long, it may be time to be officially “concerned.”

Next, ask yourself (and your family), “Are we ready for alternatives?” It may be time to consult with an educational/ therapeutic consultant or other expert who knows placements and understands learning and behavior.

Alternatives could be a summer reading remediation program or a summer camp for kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or social skills deficits. Or it could mean a boarding school that caters to learning differences, or a more nurturing therapeutic school.

The options vary as widely as children, but they are out there.

Michelle Grappo has worked in American International and stateside private and public schools. She is a nationally certified school psychologist and now works as an educational and therapeutic consultant.