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Why is my child not performing at school?

7 April 2021
4 minute read

Parent talking to child at home

It’s heart-breaking to see your child struggling at school, and not know how to help.  We help you identify what the problem is, so you can take action and give your child the support they need to achieve their potential. Clinical psychologist Candice Cowen provides tips and advice.

Emotional problems
Emotional problems ranging from anxiety and depression to problems at home or bullying by peers, can contribute to academic problems. “If your child had no issues before, and now there is a drop in academic performance, this is a telltale sign of emotional difficulties, that your child may be going through something that needs investigating,” says Candice. If school performance has dropped noticeably and suddenly, be on the lookout for the symptoms below.

Emotional disorders can affect a child’s ability to concentrate

Difficulty concentrating or remembering: Emotional difficulties can affect a child’s ability to concentrate and interfere with their memory.

Social withdrawal: Negative thoughts and feelings can make a child want to isolate themselves from others.

Physiological problems: Your child may internalise their emotions and, as a result, experience physical symptoms, like tummy aches.

Change of ‘character’: Has your child changed from being chatty and sociable to being withdrawn and quiet?

Eating or sleeping problems: These are common signs of emotional turmoil.

What to do
Make time to chat: Keep the communication channels open. Ask your child what is happening at school and among their peers.

Identify ways to cope: Talk to your child about ways to de-stress, like playing a favourite game, reading, talking to friends and family, or other relaxing activities.

Read up: There are books and online resources that provide good information and advice for parents.

Seek help: If the concerning behaviour continues, or your child asks to speak to a counsellor, don’t delay. Your family doctor or the school should be able to give you a recommendation for a child psychologist or counsellor.

Struggling with schoolwork
Aside from low grades, one of the telltale signs that your child isn’t coping with schoolwork is that they get homework anxiety or try to avoid going to school. Here are some signs to watch out for.

Too many sick days: Children do sometimes get sick, but if it happens continually, it could be a sign that things aren’t going well at school. You might hear things like, “I have a headache, can I stay at home today?”.

Issues with homework: Avoiding homework or spending too much time on it could be a sign that a child is struggling. For primary schoolers, homework shouldn’t be more than about 20 minutes per subject, and total homework shouldn’t take hours each night to complete.

Major attitude shift: Your child starts expressing anger towards the teacher or school, or they complain they are “bored”.

Misbehaving at school: Sometimes this is a way of deflecting attention from the fact that the child is struggling with their work.

Teacher expresses concern: The teacher is closest to your child’s school performance, so when she raises concern, take it seriously.

What to do
Talk to the teacher: Teachers generally know when a child is struggling and might have suggestions as to the cause and what to do, so start by having an informal chat with the class teacher.

Check in with your child: Ask them about their day, touching on both academics and social life, and listen carefully. Give them the opportunity to speak about anything they are finding difficult or worrying.

Find a private tutor: If your child is struggling with a particular subject, find a recommended tutor who can offer extra lessons to catch up and build confidence.

Get your child tested: If you’re unsure if the problem is temporary or a learning disorder, book an assessment by an occupational therapist or educational psychologist.

Learning disorders
Many children have trouble with reading, spelling, writing or maths from time to time, but if these problems persist, this could be a sign of a learning disability, such as dyslexia or ADHD. It can be hard to tell the difference between a temporary learning difficulty and a learning disorder, but a learning disorder usually persists and there is typically more than one of the following symptoms.

Falling behind: Not mastering skills in reading, spelling, writing or math at the expected age and grade levels.

Cognitive deficits: Difficulty understanding and following instructions.

Memory lapses: Your child might forget what you just told him, or constantly forget where his books or other school items are.

Lack of coordination: Poor motor skills and difficulty in physical skills like catching a ball or holding a pencil.

Poor time management: Difficulty understanding the concept of time and in getting things done.

Defiance: She might react emotionally or aggressively to small things.

What to do
Talk to the teacher: The teacher might have some insight into what the problem could be, or if a professional evaluation might be needed.

Get your child tested: An assessment is the first step to identifying a possible learning disorder and getting your child the help they need. If you or the child’s teacher suspects a learning disorder, book an evaluation by an occupational therapist or educational psychologist, or contact an assessment centre in your area.

Get more information about learning disorders here

Take action
Rather than worry about your child’s poor performance at school, take steps to support and encourage them to do better and achieve their potential. Many problems can be overcome or at least lessened with input from parents, teachers and other specialists, so do get help. Remember that learning to overcome difficulties is one of life’s big lessons, for adults and children.

Useful contacts
The Family Life Centre 011 788 4784 

SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) 0800 21 22 23

Find Help - a listing of therapists for learning difficulties.

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