Kids who Struggle in School


Most of our kids want to do well in school, and as parents, we want them to, because we look at that as the first test of their ability to be okay in a competitive world.

Many of the teens who come to see me in my office for therapy are struggling with mental health issues exacerbated by their failures to measure up academically. The stress they are experiencing worsen their mental health issues. Often they have learning disabilities on top of these unaddressed mental health issues. A therapist's job is to help their client feel understood. Understanding their perspective is not that difficult. They open up to me because I am not their parents.

They may complain about their homework, the dull subject matter, unfair teachers, unreasonable expectations, and in most cases, these are things I find to be true. Classrooms continue to deliver learning in substandard environments, teach outdated curricula, and use delivery methods such as chalkboard lecturing that don't maximize learning. It's hard to defend these things. Kids may also tell me about their difficulty with learning subject matter because they can't keep up, can't stay organized, they don't understand, they don't want to do the readings, or they can't pay attention.

In the role of a therapist, I listen for where they may be struggling due to depression or anxiety. Sometimes I may detect that they may have a learning disability or ADHD that complicates school for them. In these cases, I might need to recommend an evaluation, a tutor, or an iep meeting. I focus on understanding the child's experience. 

I know that my teens are bright, capable, creative beings who could otherwise be extremely successful if they had the opportunity to be supported in their educational environments. Still, instead, they often have school experiences that crush their spirits and harm their self-esteem.

In many cases, children receive harsh punishments or criticism from their parents, who are well-meaning but don't understand why their children are not successful in school. In some cases, parents continue to put pressure on their children to take more and more advanced placement subjects or difficult curriculum classes without regard for the impact on their mental health. In these cases, where children feel pressure to please their parents but unable to meet their standards, they are more likely to cheat and lie. That doesn't go over well.

Parents' behavior is usually motivated by the fear that children will not be successful in life. Fear motivates much of our interactions with our children, but it colors our judgment. When we act out of fear, we are likely to make less mindful and intentional parenting choices. Things go wrong.

In the role of the therapist, I have an easier time spotting all of these issues. When I am in the role of parent, I don't have an easy time at all. I put too much pressure on my child, lose my temper, and let fear get the best of me despite all of my 25 years of practice as a therapist helping parents. 

Fear can cause us to be blind to how children feel, why they are struggling, and what they need from us. Most children struggle at school not because they want to do poorly but there is a skill deficit of some sort at play. We need to understand what that is, figure out how to help them, and adjust our expectations accordingly. We especially need to build on their strengths and limit our criticism.

Teachers, who are underappreciated and underpaid, and often subjected to abusive work environments, can sometimes not act from a kind, compassionate place. Children's interactions with teachers powerfully impact them. A few unkind words with an adult can have a scarring impact on a child. I hear about these interactions over and over in my office. Conversely, a teacher who cares can change a student's life. Children on the brink of depressive episodes can be lifted out of them by positive interactions and encouraging words from teachers that believe in them.

Working with teachers in my practice has also helped me be more empathetic and compassionate towards them when dealing with them as advocates for a struggling child. Recognizing anger at a teacher for their behavior and understanding where it might be coming from, and finding the best way to tap into your compassion for their possible circumstance before approaching the situation can be helpful.

You are likely to get much further when considering this than if you approach a teacher with frustration.

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade


Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

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Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.