father and daughter doing homework together in the kitchen because child is falling behind in school
Learning at School

Is Your Child Falling Behind in School? Try these 6 Powerful, Actionable Steps!

Are you noticing a downward trend in your child’s academic performance? Do you have a sneaking suspicion that something isn’t right with your kiddo at school? It’s normal to feel nervous when your child is falling behind in school, but these steps can make a huge difference if they are taken early enough!

As a third and fourth grade teacher, I have a lot of opportunities to talk with parents about their child’s performance in school. I am always gentle, yet honest about what I see happening in the classroom. I consistently talk about the whole child, because a student is SO MUCH MORE than how well they can complete an academic task.

The range of responses from parents is fascinating. Some are truly concerned and eager to intervene. Others bury their noses in the sand, deflect, and refuse to engage in the process of getting their child additional help. Those are the situations that break my heart.

mother and son in glasses working on homework together

How do I know if my child is falling behind in school?

There are several ways to know that a child is falling behind in school.

First, you’ll notice a poor data point on something like a benchmark test if the child is older. This might also be an iStation test or other literacy-focused computer program if your child is in kindergarten-2nd. If you see this in isolation, it could merely be a sign that the child had a bad day.

If the child is older, you might see a string of low grades on assignments.

You can also expect to receive some assignments that come home (or show up in an online portfolio) in which very little work is even attempted – a sign that the child is feeling disengaged and unmotivated.

In a parent-teacher conference, the teacher might say something like, “I’m concerned that he’s having a hard time keeping up,” or the teacher might show you that the child is below grade level in reading.

It’s important to realize that the teacher may not directly communicate with you about the problem until she’s very worried. Often, teachers adopt a “wait and see” approach, especially early in the school year. That’s because it takes time to get to know a student, and we may be assessing motivation, perceiving the child’s natural ability level, etc.

Whereas a parent might immediately recognize that the student is struggling, teachers sometimes need a bit more time to get to know a student.

father and son practicing writing skills in a composition book

Never adopt the “wait and see” approach (unless it’s kindergarten or early first grade).

If it’s preschool, kindergarten, or early in the first grade year when a student shows signs of falling behind his or her peers in school, we often don’t worry TOO much. That’s because students enter school on radically different levels, and most of this can be explained by this simple phrase:

“Every kid develops at their own speed.”

But as students get into second and third grade, they regress to the mean pretty quickly. Those developmental gaps begin to close, the late bloomers have big growth spurts, and it becomes clear which students truly need more support as opposed to more time.

If your child is late in the spring of their first grade year or beyond, and they are falling behind in school, you need to act quickly. Here’s why.

Poor academic performance affects self esteem in kids.

Some kids begin to realize fairly early that they’re falling behind their friends in school. They notice which kids get pulled into certain reading groups. They recognize when other students are able to raise their hands and answer questions.

My third graders ALL know who the highest performers are in the class, despite my best attempts to celebrate every child for their own growth. In third grade, teachers begin fighting against comments like this: “I’m too stupid to do this. I’ll never figure this out, so why even try?”

Academic self concept forms early and can alter the level of motivation a kid possesses. Your child spends SO MUCH of their lives in school, and you want them to enjoy as many of those hours as possible.

You want to get them the help they need early in the elementary years, so they know what success in school feels like.

Often, a child doesn’t need high achievement to feel successful and happy in school, but they do need GROWTH. When a child feels stuck and helpless, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Does your child have poor self esteem and say things like “I’m stupid!” or “I’ll never be a good reader!” If so, here are 10 positive ways to react.

child in her desk in tears - falling behind in school

Problems compound very quickly.

In early elementary school, when kids are learning to read and working on basic math concepts, small gaps turn into bigger holes.

When students miss a single concept in these formative years, it takes time to close that gap before it causes even bigger problems. If your child struggles at all in school, it’s important to avoid unnecessary absences.

Third grade is a critically important year.

Third grade is not like any other year in elementary school.

It’s the first year where we expect students to come to the classroom fully fluent readers. Starting in 3rd grade, students are expected to read in order to learn new concepts.

Until third grade, we learn to read. After that, we read to learn.

If your child leaves 2nd grade reading below grade level, third grade is going to be challenging. Here’s some hope: with the right interventions, kids can grow QUICKLY.

It’s also important to realize that in third grade, many states offer their first standardized test, and the classroom culture (at least in Texas) changes dramatically.

Suddenly, there’s no more time for coloring. Using scissors and glue sticks is a thing of the past in many schools where standardized testing presents a problem for the campus. It’s all testing, all the time!

It’s also worth mentioning that this is when many parents hear a teacher’s concern for the first time, because this is when teachers first notice major problems with a child’s critical thinking ability.

I had a student who seemed very bright and capable on the first day of school in third grade. She read fairly fluently, communicated well, and seemed happy and eager to learn.

By late October, it was obvious that she was probably not going to pass the STAAR test without major intervention and extra support. While this kiddo was a compliant and sweet student, she really struggled with the level of critical thinking required to perform well on the test that comes in May.

When I talked to her mom at the October meeting, I told her that I was hoping for a big developmental leap that year, because she was struggling on her benchmark and content-focused assessments. She was shocked, because her daughter had always performed well in school.

But really, through second grade, kids are learning to have manners; work in teams; color, cut and glue; and learning to fluently read and count. That’s what makes a great student up until third grade.

When third grade hits, we suddenly expect so much more, and it seems to come out of nowhere: CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS.

boy at his home desk with his head on his desk - frustrated that he's falling behind in school

Here’s how you should talk with kids about their performance in school.

If your elementary student is falling behind in school, here are some examples of things you should say to them, and questions you might ask to gather information.

Remember, you’re not going to surprise them. Unless it’s kindergarten or early in first grade, they probably have an idea of how well they’re doing in school.

  • What’s hard for you at school right now?
  • Do you think school is fun?
  • Everybody has different challenges. Always remember that as long as you try your best, you can be proud of yourself.
  • It’s not important to know the answer to every single question. You don’t have to be the best reader in the class, either! You just have to keep growing at your own speed and trying your best.
  • We think you’re wonderful, and your grades will never change that.
  • Learning should be lots of fun. What have you learned lately that was interesting to you?
  • Let’s try this assignment again, and this time, you can show me your very best work. It’s always good to try again when something is difficult.

Remember when you first noticed or heard that your child was falling behind in school.

If your child is in second grade or older, think back to the first time you were concerned about your child falling behind in school. Perhaps it was as early as pre-k, when other kids were learning the alphabet much faster than your little guy. Maybe everything was going really well until spring of first grade when a teacher mentioned slow growth in reading.

It’s also possible that you noticed a difference in your child’s abilities at a kindergarten birthday party. Sometimes, parents can remember as far back as a toddler play date when they noticed their child was developmentally far behind her friends, or they’ll remember that language seemed to come much later with one child as opposed to siblings.

happy students waiting for the school bus

Consider whether significant changes were happening in the child’s life at the time.

Sometimes in third and fourth grade, we see a child struggling who doesn’t have any serious learning challenges, developmental delays, attention weaknesses, or attendance problems. A parent will often be engaged and helping the child at home.

As educators, we are absolutely stumped about why a child can’t read as well as his or her friends, or seems to struggle so much with math concepts.

And then, at a parent-teacher conference, the parent reveals something really helpful. I have heard all of these before:

“His dad and I went through a really ugly divorce when he was in first grade. But he’s adjusted so well!”

“She was so close to her grandma. She spent entire days with her each week when I was working a lot. She passed away last year.”

“He got glasses over the summer. I felt bad, because I had no idea he needed them. The prescription is pretty strong!”

“When she was a baby, she got ear infections a LOT. She also seemed to talk really late compared to her siblings. But then she got ear tubes, and it was like everything improved all at once.”

“He had a terrible first grade year, but then we got him started on an ADHD drug. The first one was awful. He was like a different kid, and it made me sad. But about 5 months after the diagnosis, we got him on the right medicine, and suddenly he stopped getting in trouble at school, and he was so happy!”

“Ever since we got him the iPad, he’s just not doing as well in school. Maybe we should take it away from him at night. Now that you mention it, I’m not sure he’s sleeping much.”

In all of these cases, it’s entirely possible that the child has some lasting academic affects from these challenging circumstances, even when the kiddo is otherwise totally happy and well adjusted.

For example, it’s likely that the divorce was the right decision for the family and the kid is doing great. Still, that’s a major life change to happen at the same time as a child is learning foundational literacy skills. Even a few gaps in understanding (caused by home life distractions and emotional instability) could compound into a bigger problem later on, well after the child has recovered in other ways.

The death of a loved one can cause a child to be distracted for weeks at a time in school.

The child who needed glasses for quite a while before he got them could have been quietly missing out on a lot of instruction.

A child with damaged hearing might have weaker phonemic awareness as a result, which can cause problems with early reading skills later.

Kids with ADHD often have gaps from their kindergarten year and beyond, if it took a while to get the attention deficit under control.

Students who seem distracted, sleepy, or unmotivated are very often are not getting enough sleep. I’ve had countless conversations with parents who don’t have any idea how long their child is on a device at night.

In EVERY case listed above, there is plenty of hope!

There are just little gaps that need to be filled before the student can be successful moving forward. Some extra support now in the form of tutoring, extra small group time, or reading at home with Mama can close the gap and avoid more intensive interventions.

frustrated daughter doing homework with Mom and falling behind in school

Are you worried about dyslexia or a child who keeps writing letters backwards? Here are 13 dyslexia myths to ease parents’ minds.

Set up an appointment with the teacher(s) to discuss possible interventions.

If you’re worried about your child’s performance, do not wait for the teacher to email you or call. Go ahead and take the initiative and ask for an in-person or Zoom meeting. If you haven’t gotten many work samples sent home or in an online portfolio, ask her in your request to bring more work samples and test scores to the meeting.

This is a time when you should be gathering as much data as possible, but also asking the teacher for information about your child’s efforts in class.

Be prepared to hear anything! It’s possible your child is falling behind in school because classroom behavior has become a problem. Stay open-minded about all possible solutions and be determined to work as a team.

Here’s what to know about the parent-teacher conference. It’s my ultimate guide to those hard (and usually rushed) conversations!

little boy working on his homework in a marbled planner

Here are some questions you should ask the teacher at your meeting.

Does my child struggle across all subjects?

This can be very enlightening if your child is no longer in a self-contained classroom. If the child has multiple teachers, schedule it during the team’s conference period so everyone can be present. You’ll want a variety of opinions.

Often, kids will perform well in one class but not another. It might be a personality conflict with the teacher, which is pretty normal and to be expected. Not every student will be a great match with every teacher. It’s common to see kids who try their very best in one subject and basically ignore others.

In a kindergarten or first grade class, the student often only has 1 teacher, and that can be an interesting conversation, too. Find out if they are just struggling in one area.

Does the child seem happy in school?

As a parent, this is a question you really need to ask. Parents often assume that their child is happy-go-lucky at school, just like they are at home. That may not be the case, and if so, you’ll want to know about it. A child who is happy at home but suffering at school is one whose self-confidence is already shaken. Act quickly!

Does the teacher think this child is falling behind in school because of effort or ability?

Unless it’s September or early October, your child’s teacher will have a VERY clear answer to this question. Teachers catch on very early in the year if a student is bright and capable of learning. It’s super obvious when a kid is just not putting in the effort to achieve.

Your response as a parent will be radically different based on the answer to this question.

If the teacher thinks your child is trying their best and simply not able to achieve at the same level as his or her peers, the parental response is extra help, more resources, lots of patience, and love.

If the teacher believes the problem is actually a lack of effort, I believe discipline at home via consequences and rewards is the answer.

What interventions does the teacher recommend?

If your child is simply not trying hard enough or unmotivated, the teacher will likely deflect any questions you have about interventions, like more small group time, tutoring, special education testing, or retention.

They’re not being lazy. They’re just gently pushing the ball back into your court, and hoping you’ll provide a framework at home that might help your child find their motivation.

Teachers have VERY limited time and resources. We typically reserve tutoring for students who are engaged and willing to work hard during every tutoring session. Until behavioral concerns are tackled, there’s not much sense in spending MORE time in the classroom.

If your child is well-behaved, motivated and putting forth effort in the classroom, it may be time to look at other interventions!

child falling behind in school doing homework with a yellow colored pencil

Special Education Testing

If you or a teacher believes your child should be evaluated for special education services, you’ll want to know more about the process. Here is a helpful flow chart and detailed explanation.

I will include some highlights below:

  1. There are lots of opportunities to jump off this train if you don’t like the final destination. Don’t agree with the results of the testing? No problem. Don’t like the IEP that was created? Don’t sign it. You always have the right to refuse services for your child.
  2. If you request testing in writing, the school must respond within a specific time limit, which varies by state. Your request cannot be legally ignored.
  3. Special education services have changed tremendously. One of the main principals of the IDEA act is that students be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” This means your child will be learning in the classroom the vast majority of the time, rather than being pulled out for services.
  4. If your child qualifies for services, you’ll have a meeting every year (called an IEP or “Individualized Education Plan” meeting). In this meeting, you’ll have to agree or disagree with the recommended plan for your child.

Special education services are not something to fear. You’ll be in the driver’s seat for your child’s education, because it’s federal law. If your child qualifies for services based on their evaluation, it’s likely to be a huge help for your kiddo.

Retention

Retention is when a child repeats a grade in order to allow them to catch up and fill learning gaps before moving forward.

For a long time, people believed that retention beyond kindergarten did more harm than good. Most campus administrators in the US will resist teachers who recommend retention in first, second, or third grade. Retaining a student in 4th or 5th grade is almost unheard of nowadays.

However, new research from Harvard conflicts with the commonly held beliefs about retention.

This is merely ONE anecdote, but I once recommended retention in the third grade for one of my students. She had been “homeschooled” (but not really) for most of second grade and the first part of third grade. When she arrived in my third grade class in October, she was reading on the first grade level and quickly falling behind.

She also had no confidence, which was perhaps the most concerning part for me.

I couldn’t believe the change in her by halfway through her second year in third grade. She was like a new kid. She hit a massive growth spurt, started reading fluently on grade level, and began making friends. I was so happy we took the risk of retaining her.

child falling behind in school - little girl with notebook and hands over face

Tutoring

If your child’s teacher offers tutoring before or after school, that CAN be great!

If you can afford outside tutoring, that’s probably better. That’s not because your teacher doesn’t know what he or she is doing, but rather because of time constraints. Most tutoring at the public school level is offered once or twice a week for 30 minutes, in small groups. Unfortunately, some of this time is likely being taken up with administrative tasks or behavioral concerns.

And since teachers generally have way too much on their plates, you might see quicker results with a private tutor.

Doctor Visit

If your child’s teacher suggests (or hints) that your child might have an unusually difficult time focusing, check out this post about ADHD kids falling behind in school.

Some parents disagree that their child has trouble focusing because they work well at home with a parent or can complete chores. It’s important to realize that almost all kids work better with few distractions and a parent nearby.

Focusing in the classroom, with 20 friends present and work that is sometimes not perfectly targeted to their current ability level, is much more challenging. If a teacher (or better yet, a group of team teachers) thinks your child has trouble concentrating in school, you can probably believe them.

Also, recognize that teachers are well-versed in best practices about student movement. We all work hard to keep students moving, we changing activities frequently, and we offer regular opportunities for group work and brain breaks.

It’s true that children need more time in PE and on the playground. Very few educators would disagree with that.

However, teachers have the benefit of comparison, while parents often do not. As a parent, you may think it’s normal for a 9-year-old to be unable to sit still. When 19 of our students can easily make it through a 10 minute long whole-group instruction, but one friend cannot sit still for it even on his best day, that’s useful information for a parent to have. Be open-minded about your child’s unique challenges and the teacher’s solutions.

Teachers cannot make diagnoses. They can only tell you what they observe, and they’re hoping parents will fill in the gaps and make an appointment with a pediatrician.

Follow up with your child’s teacher monthly and request hard data regularly.

Send an email to your teacher monthly, asking for an update, once any interventions at school or changes at home have been put into place. Once a month is frequent enough to stay on top of your concerns, but rare enough to give those changes time to work.

Give the teacher about a week to respond to emails. Remember that teachers rarely answer emails with students in their presence, and they only have about 40 minutes a day without students. Emails from parents and administrators pile up QUICKLY.

Don’t be afraid to send a follow up email (or text, if available) after one week.

Anecdotal information is nice, but it’s also great to have hard data in the form of test scores, computer program results, and more.

Does your child use iStation for reading class? If so, check out this post about understanding ISIP testing results.

What can parents can do over the summer to help a child who is falling behind in school?

There are many ways a parent can help a child get caught up over the summer if they are falling behind in school.

Here are my best ideas:

  • If it’s affordable, look into private tutoring over the summer with an established, well-reviewed center in your region. I tend to prefer these centers over individuals on places like Care.com.
    • Tutoring centers usually have a tested and proven methodology and curriculum, and they can quickly assess the child’s needs at the onset.
    • An individual providing tutoring services is usually shooting blind for the first three or four sessions as they work to get a sense for how and why your child is struggling.
  • Read together, just for the joy of it, every night. If it stresses your child out to read out loud to you, don’t do it. Reading as a family should be fun, first and foremost! Even older kids can benefit from shared reading, so try news articles in an area of their interest, and then talk about it.
  • Look into your local library’s summer reading program, and participate together as a family.
  • Limit technology and video games to an amount you think is appropriate. Just remember that struggling kiddos who have unlimited access to video games will almost never pick up a book.
  • Listen to lots of music together over the summer.
  • Make sure kids are getting plenty of rest over the summer. Rest is important for kids’ brains, and it helps them develop at an appropriate rate.
  • Look for enrichment opportunities in areas that boost their confidence. A confident kid learns better. If your child feels proud of their ability in sports, then do sports! If they were born for the stage, put them in a musical or play through your local theater or church group. Also remember that serving others builds children’s confidence, so look at serving opportunities through your church or local support networks.
  • Work on their confidence with affirmations for kids.

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