HELP! My Child is Struggling in School!


From kindergarten through high school, our children spend the bulk of their day at school. Within the school setting, they learn new skills and demonstrate mastery of educational concepts, form new friendships and nurture old ones, solve problems, manage conflicts and disagreements, and grow. Not infrequently, however, children begin to experience symptoms of a psychiatric illness that may greatly interfere with his ability to accomplish these tasks at school. The statistics bear out this very real risk of psychiatric illness.

Let me highlight several statistics as according to the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • 1 in 5 youth ages 13 - 18 have or will have a serious mental illness
  • 11% of youth have a mood disorder
  • 8% of young people have an anxiety disorder
  • 10% of kids and adolescents have a behavior or conduct disorder such as ADHD
  • almost 50% of students age 14 and older with a mental illness drop out of high school

What are parents to do to address their child's school difficulties?

Here are 5 critical steps to take for you child once he or she has started to struggle at school.

1) Meet with the teacher

Maybe your child comes home increasingly frustrated at the end of each school day. Perhaps her grades are starting to decline. Or maybe the teacher starts sending notes home or requests that you call him/her or even that you come to the school to pick up your child for the day. These are red flags and signal that you need to talk to the school and find out more information about what's going on. One of the most important first steps is to arrange a school meeting with your child's primary teacher to begin that critical discussion and get answers to your pressing questions - What is happening at school? What are your concerns?  How are your child's behaviors impacting him academically, socially, and emotionally at school? This is a time where you can also share your own observations as to what you see at home or if there are some changes going on personally that could be negatively affecting your child and his/her school performance.

2) Consult with your child's pediatrician or family physician

Medical illnesses can mimic or exacerbate psychiatric symptoms. Children who have trouble seeing or hearing may fail to complete tasks and make bad test grades. Children with a certain type of seizures called absence seizures that manifest as staring spells may appear distracted. A child with a bladder condition may wet himself but runs out of the classroom when he has an accident at school. Please schedule an appointment with your child's primary care provider to ensure there is no underlying medical explanation for your child's symptoms. Primary care physicians can also screen youth for illnesses like Autism and ADHD.

3) Understand the laws designed to protect the educational rights of children with disabilities

Through Section 504 and the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) federal civil rights laws, all children, including those with disabilities or special needs, are entitled to a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) and that children receive their educational instruction in the "least restrictive environment." These laws also specify that children with disabilities receive periodic re-evaluation and assessment to appropriately identify their needs which often change over the course of their academic tenure.

The provisions contained with Section 504 are less rigorous compared to those within IDEA. Typically, Section 504 covers general classroom accommodations or curriculum modifications such as extended time to take tests, modified tests and homework assignments, adjusted class schedule, and learning aids whereas IDEA requires an Individualized Education Plan or IEP that is a much more comprehensive and detailed educational blueprint that clearly identifies the conditions that impede the child's learning and the school's strategy very clearly spelled out to address those conditions.

4) To receive special education services under the IDEA, a child must meet the federal and state eligibility criteria for at least one disability category

These disability categories include: Autism, Visual or Hearing Impairment, Developmental Delay, Emotional Disability, Intellectual Disability, Traumatic Brain Injury, Speech or Language Impairment, Specific Learning Disability, Orthopedic Impairment, or Other Health Impairment

5) Requests an evaluation in writing.

Once you see that your child is struggling at school and you suspect that he or she may have a disability, request an evaluation in writing. While a letter is not required, this helps parents to spell out their concerns and better keep track of when the initial request was made.  Once the school has received the request, a team of qualified professionals with meet to review the request for evaluation and determine whether your child should be evaluated. If the school deems that an evaluation is appropriate, the school will obtain parental consent to proceed. If the school does not believe further assessment is warranted, you can challenge the school's decision or follow up with the school's Problem Solving Team.

Once an evaluation ensues, the school will review grades, disciplinary reports, attendance records, health information, and standardized assessments as well as obtain information from parents, current and former teachers, the child's medical providers, or outside agencies. Their evaluation often includes psychoeducational testing to assess for specific learning or intellectual disabilities.  After the evaluation is complete, the school will share the findings with you and initiate an IEP if indicated.

Advocate for your child. No one can best champion the needs of children better than their parents.