Trying to Understand Your Struggling Learner

Trying to Understand Your Struggling Learner

March is typically the month when most schools issue the report card, a ritual that often gives reason for celebration or consternation. By this time in the school year, parents expect that their child has mastered basic concepts and skills and is well on their way to demonstrating a mastery of the overall curriculum offered at their grade level. However, for too many students and their parents, the report card underlines the ongoing difficulties that their child has with one or more subjects. When this is the case, parents tend to look for explanations. Is their child not working hard enough? Do they not understand the subject matter? Are they experiencing emotional difficulties that are impeding their learning? Why are they doing well in some areas but not in others?

The reasons for underachievement are varied and complex. Sometimes all that is required is for the parent, child and teacher to sit together to make a plan. Perhaps the child is not completing the require amount of work or is demonstrating minimal effort. Your child's teacher will be able to show you work samples and explain the grade level expectations. Depending on the age of the child, an improvement plan centred on tangible goals and which is closely monitored by the parents and the child's teacher is all that is needed to help a struggling student get back on track.

Sometimes a child's academic achievement is adversely affected by difficulties focussing and sustaining their attention in the classroom. Even a highly intelligent child who is unable to pay attention to the important parts of a lesson will typically have difficulties when they have to produce independent work; they will often only partially understand the concepts or not understand the nature of the assignment. Too often, these children miss crucial pieces of information such as due dates for assignments or dates for tests. They become easily frustrated because they often see their peers experiencing success while they are struggling. 

The issue of attention problems in children is highly complex and it can be caused by many factors such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, trauma and other physiological variables. Again, parents should meet with their child's teachers to learn more about their child's attention challenges. It is important to learn whether these attention problems occur in just one subject or are more general in nature. If the attention problems tend to be reported by several teachers over several school years, then the nature of these difficulties should be explored with a paediatrician or child psychologist. 

Often parents notice that their child continues to experience difficulties year after year in only one or two subject areas. If, for example, there is a marked difference in the child's performance between math and language arts, the root cause may be a learning disability. Students with learning disabilities possess average or above average intelligence and yet struggle with specific aspects of their learning. They often require a modified program in their area of difficulty, specialized teaching approach and often benefit from extra time on assignments and exams; the use of assistive technology has also greatly enhanced the prospects of academic success for many students with learning disabilities. Again, the best course of action is to meet with your child's teacher and school based resource personnel in order to map out an appropriate plan of action.

Some parents are surprised to learn that some children who are highly intelligent can appear to struggle in school. For some highly intelligent or gifted children, the pace of learning is too slow to attract and sustain their attention. In order to achieve at a high level, they require tasks that are complex, varied and that often demand creative and critical thinking. To parents and educators, these children are frequently the most puzzling as they seem capable of excellence, learn new concepts extremely rapidly, pose interesting questions and yet fail to achieve at a level that one would expect. In these cases, parents may remark that their child learns with ease, tends to prefer the company of adults, has interests that are typical of an older children and seems to enjoy learning about advanced concepts outside of school. This type of information, shared with school personnel, will often help the school to understand the child better. The school may then want to have an intellectual assessment conducted on your child to determine their learning potential in order to better program for their needs.

Whatever the cause of your child's school difficulties, the best course of action is to first meet with the school to assess the root causes and create a plan of action that will enhance the educational experience for your child. If the problems persist, then a further consultation with a professional who specializes in school aged children may be necessary.

© Ivonne Fuechter-Field 2016-2017