How Should Parents Support a Student Who Has Fallen Behind in School?

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How Should Parents Support a Student Who Has Fallen Behind in School?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Try to name as many reasons as you can why a student might fall behind in schoolwork — reasons that are particularly relevant to the challenges of the current school year. Why can it be difficult to pull oneself out of a downward academic spiral or “homework hole”?

What do you think teachers, parents, family members or friends can do to help a struggling student? What would you do if a student who is stressed out about school came to you for advice? What would you suggest? Why?

In “How to Help a Teen Out of a Homework Hole,” the psychologist Lisa Damour writes about the reality many students face: Not only have they fallen behind in school, but they also feel they won’t be able to catch up. The article begins:

Pandemic school is taking its toll on students, especially teens. A recent study, conducted by NBC News and Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, found that 50 percent more kids in high school report feeling disengaged from school this year than last. In December, Education Week reported that schools were seeing “dramatic increases in the number of failing or near-failing grades” on report cards.

A major symptom of school disengagement is not turning in homework, a problem that can easily snowball. The further students fall behind, the more overwhelmed they often become and the less likely they are to feel that they can catch up.

Ms. Damour then gives three pieces of advice for parents, though they might equally apply to anyone else who wants to help a struggling student, beginning with a reminder that “empathy will get you further than anger.” She writes:

At this point in the pandemic, finding out that your child has let schoolwork slide may trigger an angry response. Everyone is worn down by the demands of pandemic life and many parents are already operating on their last nerve. Getting mad, however, is likely to cause kids to adopt a defensive or minimizing stance. Instead, try to be compassionate. What students who have fallen behind need most are problem-solving partners who want to understand what they are going through.

If you’re having trouble summoning your empathy, bear in mind that there are many good reasons a student could fall off pace this year. For instance, Ned Johnson, a professional tutor and co-author of the book “The Self-Driven Child,” noted that most teens have very little experience managing email, which is now a main source of information for those in remote or hybrid arrangements. “We know how overwhelmed we as adults are by email. Imagine not being comfortable with it, and then suddenly getting everything — from Zoom links to assignments — that way.”

Some students learning remotely may also have unreliable broadband service; others may miss key information because their attention is split between the teacher on the screen and distractions at home.

“Many adults are having the exact same issues,” said Ellen Braaten, a psychologist and the executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “They are really productive when they can physically be at work, but may find themselves less attentive in the unstructured environment of working from home.”

Even teens who are attending school in person and using familiar systems for tracking assignments may be having a hard time managing their work now. The mental skills that help us stay organized — commonly called executive functioning — are being undermined by psychological stress, which is unusually high among today’s teens.

Next, she recommends working with the student to diagnose the problem:

Finding out that your child is in academic trouble can tempt you to jump to solutions. It’s best, however, to properly diagnose the problem before trying to address it. Liz Katz, assistant head for school partnership at One Schoolhouse, an online supplemental school, suggested looking into the reasons students fall behind at school. Some don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, others know and aren’t doing it, and still others “are doing their best and just can’t meet expectations.”

As you talk with a teenager about where things have gone off the rails, be kind, curious and collaborative. “This isn’t about you being in trouble or getting off the hook,” you might say. “It’s simply about figuring out what’s going wrong so we can solve the right problem.”

Students who are struggling to keep track of what’s expected of them may need to reach out to their teachers, either for clarification about specific assignments or for general guidance on where and when they should be looking for information about homework. As a parent or caregiver, you can coach them on how to approach their instructors. Start by pointing out that teachers are almost always eager to lend support to students who seek it. You can also offer to give feedback on a draft email to an instructor explaining where the student got lost and what they have already tried.

“For many students, the ability to ask for help is not fully formed,” said Ms. Katz, “or it can feel like an admission that they’ve done something wrong. Normalizing and praising self-advocacy is so important.”

For students who know what they’re supposed to do but aren’t doing it, other approaches make sense. They may be having a hard time sustaining motivation and need support on that front, or they may be swamped with commitments, such as caring for younger siblings, that make it impossible to complete their schoolwork. Here, parents and students will want to work together to make a realistic plan for addressing the biggest priorities in light of these circumstances. This might mean coming to an agreement about where the teen’s energies should be directed or exploring what additional support might be put in place.

Finally, Ms. Damour suggests that people who want to help should “step back and see the big picture.” She concludes the article:

“We all need to be easier on ourselves,” Dr. Braaten said, “and to sort through what students really need to do and what they don’t.” Well-meaning parents might hope to motivate students by emphasizing the importance of high grades, but that can make it harder for kids to recover from a substantial setback.

As students start to work their way back, give some thought to how comprehensive their turnaround needs to be. Do they really need to get equally high grades in every class? Could they instead direct their energy toward getting square with the courses they care about most? Could they work with their teachers to agree upon trimmed-down assignments for partial credit? According to Mr. Johnson, “Lowering expectations, for now, can actually help kids to get back on track.”

Dr. Braaten also noted that much of what students gain from school is not about content, but about learning how to solve problems. Engaging teens in constructive conversations to figure out how they fell behind can be an important lesson unto itself. “Having a 16-year-old who understands, ‘When I’m stressed, this is how I react,’” says Dr. Braaten, “may put us further ahead in the long run.”

In any school year, students learn a great deal beyond academic content. This year, more than most, might be one where students gain a deep understanding of how they respond when feeling overwhelmed and how to ask for help or rebound from setbacks — lessons that they will draw on long after the pandemic is gone.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • What two pieces of advice in the article do you think would be most helpful to a student who is facing academic challenges? Why?

  • In moments when you were stressed about school, did anyone try to help you? If so, were the strategies similar to or different from anything you read in the article? What, if anything, that the person said or did seemed to help you, academically or with regard to your mental health?

  • Consider the three reasons Liz Katz says students fall behind in school. Suppose you were trying to help students whose troubles with school fit neatly into one of the three categories. How would your approach differ from student to student? Explain.

  • Have you ever experienced anything described in the article? For instance, were you encouraged to tell a teacher that you were in need of support, or did you prioritize some of the work you had to accomplish before moving on to other tasks? Based on your experiences, what worked and what didn’t?

  • The article states that stress levels are high among students, but also suggests that this challenging year could give them the skills to effectively deal with setbacks and feeling overwhelmed. What are your thoughts about this? Have you gained more coping and problem-solving skills? Or, has stress gotten to the point where you can’t see it leading to any positive outcomes? Do you and your friends talk about stress, and if you do, what sorts of things do you share?

  • Finally, the psychologist Ellen Braaten is quoted in the article as saying, “We all need to be easier on ourselves.” Respond to this statement. Are there ways you can ease up on the expectations you have for your grades and for life in general? Or does that not seem possible? If not, why not?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.