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LearningAchievement

Is Your Child Earning Bad Grades?

Young girl raising her hand in a classroom.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 12 May 2022
Published 16 Jan 2022

What Is Achievement In Childhood?

Academic achievement in childhood is your child’s performance at school.

Academic achievement is a crucial component of a child’s life. While you go to work each day, your child goes to school. Whether in the home or the office, your work becomes a part of your sense of self and your ability to contribute to the world.

Your child has the “job” of

  • listening to the teacher,
  • following classroom rules
  • completing schoolwork 
  • learning to be a part of a social community of peers, with exposure to sports, art, music, and other extracurricular activities.

Feedback comes in the form of grades, tips, and comments on a report card. Just as you would know if you were not making the cut at work, your child will know whether they are not making the cut at school. 

It can be challenging for a child to maintain interest and motivation in school if they are constantly failing. At these times, some children cope by disengaging.

As a parent, you will want to ensure that your child’s school experience is as positive as possible and that your child’s family and community life is positive as well. 

Find ways to set your child on the right path to feel ready to tackle the challenges and approach the future. You may need to find a tutor and ensure your child has extra help. Encourage your child’s strengths by pursuing school programs that fit your child’s strengths and interests. Perhaps a STEM school, an Art school, or an Expeditionary Learning school could meet your child or teen’s diverse needs and interests. 

Talk to your child or teen and make sure they feel like a smart kid. “Smart” can look and feel different based on your child’s goals and interests. Maybe your teenager is headed for college and maybe for a trade school, apprenticeship, or another job. Discuss your teen or child’s interests, ask questions, and work together to reach goals. 

Symptoms of Achievement Struggles in Children

  • Has trouble in school: you may notice your child is underperforming, receiving poor grades, receiving complaints from your child’s teacher 
  • Has poor grades: your child is demonstrating low academic achievement
  • Does not want to go to school: avoids, skips, pretends to be sick, feels sick with anxiety, tells you school is awful
  • Not  following teacher directions: you are receiving complaints from your child’s teacher about their academic performance, behavior in class, or how your child may be treating other students 
  • Struggling to cope with challenges at home: your child is struggling with their home life, a recent divorce, violence, or trauma in the family that makes it difficult for your child to focus on school  
  • Not completing or starting homework assignments: often in trouble with their teacher for missing assignments, not caring about missing work
  • Not on grade level and not seeming to care: your child may be falling asleep in class, struggling to complete their work, and not participating in school activities

Causes of Achievement Struggles in Children

Clinically, several reasons are possible for explaining poor achievement or low motivation

Learning or language disabilities

Learning or language disabilities like Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Dyscalculia indicate a difference in the auditory or spatial processing in the brain that impacts the ability to read, write, or complete math.

The way someone with one of these disabilities sees, hears, and remembers information is different. Phonological processing, which refers to processing the sounds that form language, is often impaired. This impairment can be very frustrating for a school-aged child.

Attention, focus, and distractibility

Attention issues and distraction can also make it very hard for a child to do well in school. Sometimes, motivation drops when it is tough to do well in school. A school team can make accommodations for attention, which could turn things around. Maybe your child has trouble with attention in a traditional school setting, while perhaps a different kind of school would be a better fit. 

Social isolation

Social isolation is another variable that could impact motivation. Children may struggle when they feel picked on or left out by others. Children need to feel comfortable and to feel a part of the learning community.

If a child is spending their time worrying about what insult they will hear next or feeling alone, with no one to have lunch with or talk to on the playground, these experiences will likely impact performance at school.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors are important to consider when a child is doing poorly in school, refusing work, or challenging the teacher. Just as your work may suffer after the death of a loved one or a change in family structure (like marriage, divorce, or a new baby), your child may have a tough time feeling motivated and engaged at school when dealing with such issues.

Teachers must know the demographics of their community, understand the family structure of their students, and be sensitive to what children may be going through.

Families in poverty, suffering through traumatic circumstances, or experiencing big changes are not often able to provide their children enough stability. Sometimes, these situations are far beyond the family’s control. In these situations, having nurturing role models at school, extra support, and second chances to succeed can help a child build positive self-esteem.

Anxiety

Anxiety affects a student’s ability to focus and pay attention. Anxiety can cause your child’s mind to worry about tasks that are not school-related, leaving your child unable to concentrate on schoolwork. 

Your child may be so anxious about completing a task perfectly that they would rather not start an assignment. They’d prefer to get a bad grade for not starting the work instead of putting in the effort and possibly doing poorly. 

Depression

Problems with sadness and overall enjoyment in life may cause lower achievement or motivation. Family system challenges can also influence mood and engagement

Very bright or gifted

Often very bright or gifted kids will have a pattern of under-achievement. Gifted kids tend to stubbornly avoid non-preferred tasks, resulting in lower grades in school.

Trauma

Families suffering from traumatic circumstances or experiencing big changes are not often able to provide as much support or stability for learning at home. Nurturing role models at school, extra support, and second chances can help a child build positive self-esteem, increasing their achievement levels and school success.

What to Do About Achievement Struggles in Children

The first thing to do if you are wondering about your child’s school performance is to consider whether there are factors in your child’s life outside of school that may have an impact.

Factors that can impact your child’s achievement and what to do about them

Recent changes at home: Consider any significant recent changes. Talk to your child in a calm and accepting way; work to understand how emotions and environmental variables may impact your child.

Depression or emotional distress: If you suspect depression, find a therapist to work with your child. Make yourself available for love, comfort, and support (even if your child does not indicate that they want it)

Physical problems: Make sure your child has a current physical; be sure there isn’t a medical cause for your child’s challenges. Children with frequent illnesses, allergies, and poor eating or sleeping habits are likely to have concurrent learning challenges. 

In that case, teachers may notice that your child is lethargic, seems tired, or falls asleep in class.

Learning or attention problems: Talk with your child or teen’s teacher and school team about your concerns. 

Ask whether learning or attention problems are evident in your child’s thinking and reasoning abilities, reading, writing, or math skills. If so, your school can evaluate these areas to determine if your child has a learning disability, challenges with attention, or a different profile that needs support. 

Suppose your child has a different learning style or needs. In that case, the school psychologist and school team, including teachers, can help support your child with a Section 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Sometimes a better school or program would fit your child’s needs. These are important areas to explore. 

If you don’t get the support you want from your child’s school, consider seeking a private evaluation to see how your child is doing cognitively and academically, with a focus on social-emotional development. You can share this outside information with your child’s school to help determine the best next steps.

Positive behavior: If your child does not have any disabilities impacting their learning, you can employ supportive strategies at home. For example, you may work to develop age-appropriate and meaningful rewards.

  1. Meet with the teacher for your elementary school-aged child and determine what rewards and motivators are present in school. 
  2. Set up a simple reward system at home with privileges or treats earned with effort, such as listening to the teacher and completing assignments. This system should not be grade-based but effort-based.

Motivation: Although reward systems are generally helpful, remember what is at the heart of motivation: autonomy (choice). Although we can garner compliance through reward systems, work hard to find intrinsic motivators that already exist within your child.

Entire books are dedicated to the subject of motivation, but we will skip to the punchline here. The way to create conditions that motivate our kids is to ensure the child has autonomy, competence, and positive relationships.

  • Autonomy: Maybe your child does not want to do it your way. Allow your child to choose the times of day to study, the topics to research, and the approach to assignments
  • Competence: Individuals maintain motivation when they feel that they can do the task
  • Positive relationships: Individuals feel more motivated when they feel good about their relationship with the people involved in the activity. Your relationship with your child is the foundation that will guide them through these challenges at school. Make time each day to talk and do something fun that your child enjoys, regardless of what happened at school.

When to Seek Help for Achievement Struggles in Children

If your child is struggling with achievement to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, reach out to professionals who could help.  They may be able to offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

Further Resources on Achievement Struggles in Children

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: Have a comprehensive evaluation to determine your child’s profile and consider learning, attention, ability, and emotional symptoms. This evaluation can help guide your next steps.
  • School psychologist: to consider symptoms in a learning context or evaluate for school services. *Note just because your child is struggling or has a disability does not mean your child necessarily qualifies for services on an Individualized Education Program (IEP). 
  • Occupational therapist: to look at fine motor needs in the classroom if there are any
  • Speech-language pathologist: to look at issues with receptive or expressive language if these may be contributing to achievement struggles

Similar Conditions to Achievement Struggles

  • Learning problems: difficulty with study skills, cognitive ability, reading, writing, or math
  • Basic reading skills: problems in decoding, accuracy, or fluency
  • Reading comprehension: problems in understanding written language
  • Writing: spelling, grammar, or organization
  • Math problems: math facts, calculation, or problem solving
  • Executive functions: problems getting started, planning out assignments, and keeping track of progress
  • Family problems: problems within the family system, such as divorce, illness, or poverty that impact a child’s ability to engage in learning
  • Behavior problems: problems with compliance, not listening, or following directions
  • Emotions/mood: emotional challenges can have a huge impact on academic performance
  • Attention: problems shifting or sustaining attention

Book Resources on Achievement Struggles

Anderman, Eric M. & Anderman, Lynley Hicks (2009). Classroom motivation.

Eide, Brock & Eide, Fernette (2006). The mislabeled child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success.

Deci, Edward L. (1995) Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation.

Perseverance books for kids 

Esham, Barbara (2014) Keep Your Eye on the Prize (Adventures of Everyday Geniuses).

Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.

Kobi, Yamada & Besom, Mae (2013). What do you do with an idea?                    

Zentic, Tamara (2015). Grit & bear it activity guide: Activities to engage, encourage, and inspire perseverance.

Deak, JoAnn & Ackerley, Sarah (2010). Your fantastic elastic brain stretch it, shape it. 

Hamm, Mia (2006). Winners never quit! 

McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.

McCumbee, S. (2014). The garden in my mind activity book.

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