Faculty Essays

How to Help When Your Child Is Struggling Academically

Written by Michael Moynihan on August 27, 2015.

A student may underperform academically for a number of different reasons. Each of these situations has its own challenges and requires a different response on the part of both the school and parents. The following are general observations of some reasons why a student does poorly. Each individual situation is unique and in some cases more than one of the following applies:

1. Family difficulty, learning disability, other medical issue or situation beyond one’s control. Though there can be some really difficult situations that inevitably impact one’s academic performance, it is almost always possible to implement strategies that make the situation better. Teachers and administrators at The Heights are willing and eager to work with parents on these situations, whatever they are. Reasonable people understand, for example, that someone with a severe concussion cannot be expected to keep up with his schoolwork until his brain heals. Accommodations can be made for events such as a death or illness in the family. Effective accommodations are possible for learning disabilities. Parents should reach out to their son’s teacher, advisor or school head to discuss these situations. Sometimes parents make the mistake of not wanting to “bother” the school with a particular difficulty. Heights faculty are here because we want to help; our mission is to assist parents in the education and upbringing of their sons. Heights teachers are careful with whatever information you share with them, practicing appropriate discretion. In almost every instance, when a parent contacts an advisor or school head with a particular difficulty, the outcome for the student is positive; sometimes working together results in an unexpected solution that greatly helps the situation to improve.

2. Academic schedule is too difficult. It sometimes happens, especially in the upper school, that a student imprudently embraces an academic program that is unrealistic for him. Maybe instead of taking the normal course load of seven classes he opts for taking eight challenging classes. Perhaps he is trying to do one too many college-level classes. It can quickly become obvious that things are not well when he finds himself up late several times per week, studying an average of over four hours each night but still not able to complete all his work. In this type of situation the solution is simple: talk to one’s school head about making a schedule change. Sometimes an upper school student does not realize that the best course of action is to take an easier schedule. In this case, it might be necessary for parents to get involved, perhaps working with Mr. Moynihan to help the ambitious young man see the reasonable course of action.

3. Hard worker but disorganized. In most cases, the last thing a parent should do in this situation is to try to find out what his or her son’s assignments are so as to manage the process for him. Even if a parent could find out each assignment so as to inform his or her son, this would not help the student with his organization problem. There is a much simpler solution: insist that your son effectively use his assignment notebook. Ask to see your son’s assignment book. Does it have the assignments for every class clearly written down? If there is any doubt, have your son call a friend to ask about the assignments or email his teacher (“My son’s assignment book indicates that the next assignment due in your class is a paper next Thursday. Is that correct?”) Encourage your son to approach his teachers and ask them for hints about how to improve. If your son takes the initiative to approach a teacher and explains what he is currently doing in the class and then humbly asks if the teacher has any suggestions for improvement or better studying strategies, it is likely that he will be facing a very impressed teacher who will do his best to help. It really helps to write down these goals/strategies in the assignment notebook.

It is also very helpful to take out the assignment notebook before studying, look it over and use it to help form a concrete study plan for the time that will be spent studying. If, for example, a sophomore is planning on studying for 90 minutes an excellent study plan could be something like the following example:

  1. Read and take notes on the Odyssey for 25 minutes.
  2. Review Latin vocabulary flash cards for 10 minutes.
  3. Do Chemistry homework problems until finished.
  4. Read history text until time is up.

A student can easily fall into a difficult situation: the danger of the overwhelming pile of books and the corresponding lack of focus when attempting to study. It is easy for a student to spend 90 minutes “reading” but really be mostly thinking about something else. When talking to boys about study habits, I am often met by knowing smiles when I describe how someone’s eyes can be going over words on a textbook page while he thinks about something else, so much so that one realizes half of a page has been “read” without any idea of what it says. The simple practice of breaking down a block of time into specific parts and crossing off completed tasks can help tremendously to avoid the malaise of empty time passing.

4. The student who does not work hard and shows no real initiative to take responsibility for doing his work well. This is a more difficult case than simple disorganization. Nonetheless, the same caution about parents trying to take on the role of executive administrative assistant for their son still applies. Trying to fix this problem by finding out what the assignments are and trying to do them with your son is usually a critical mistake. Not only is this approach not practical (the only way it could really work would be for a parent to follow his son around all day), it also undermines what really needs to happen, specifically that the student shoulders responsibility for his own work. So what is the solution? How does a parent respond to the son who claims “I finished all my homework in study hall” when it is obvious from his grades that something is not right?

The following is a six-step program toward a successful solution:

Step 1 – Insist that your son use his assignment notebook (see the above section on the disorganized student). Every day when your son gets home check to see if he has assignments written down in this notebook. If you suspect that he is missing assignments do not hesitate to contact your son’s teachers or advisor. The Heights faculty can help to coach a boy to successfully complete this fundamental task. In some cases a teacher or advisor helps parents by reviewing this assignment book on a daily basis and signing it so the parents can see that it has faculty approval. Insist that your son has a plan of practical things he can do to improve in each class. Your son’s advisor or teachers are very happy to help suggest practical steps for improvement. These steps / tasks should be written down.

If your son does not have his assignment book—“I forgot it at school”—or resists doing a good job with the task of writing down his assignments and study tasks it will be necessary to respond in a strong manner. An example of an appropriate parental response to a son without his assignment notebook or other necessary materials (I lost my book…) is to require that he spend a substantial amount of time (more than you would normally expect him to spend on homework) reading Heights books that evening, as well as the loss of all privileges. The Heights Books program is an extra-credit reading program that can substantially raise a student’s grades in English and history. A response like this will quickly encourage the student who is reluctant to take responsibility for his assignment notebook to do so.

Step 2 – Prepare a quiet place for your son to do homework that is free from all distractions. A good place will have a desk or table where you son can sit with good lighting and ample room to spread out books. It is best not to have a computer nearby. While it is true that sometimes it is necessary to use a computer, such as when using a word processor to write a paper, it is also true that a computer or a cell phone (or similar device) can be a tremendous distraction. Students cannot study well if they are receiving and sending text messages or viewing images on a screen. When talking with boys it is sometimes helpful to explain that the human mind only has the ability to concentrate well on one thing at a time. If some of his power of concentration is taken up with distracting messages, images on a screen or even listening to music, it is obvious that he cannot be putting forth maximal effort to learn the material. There are, however, a few exceptions to this principle. Some students can do math homework well while classical music is playing. Certain subjects like drawing pictures for art class can also be done while music is playing.

Students will occasionally need the Internet to look up something or to use a sensible educational program like Quizlet, PrepMe or Khan Academy. In these instances, it is best if the student leaves the normal place of study and his books, walks to the computer (located in a different place – a public place is a must), does what he needs to do and then returns after the “planned computer use” to his desk or table

Step 3 – Establish a study schedule for your son at home. It is recommended that students in the upper school do two to three hours of study each evening. If your son is struggling academically, it would make sense to require him to spend time studying each evening, perhaps one hour before dinner and two hours after dinner, at specific set times. This should be non-negotiable. If he claims that his homework is finished, firmly let him know that writing down adequate answers to written assignments is not all he has to do. Describe how a good student reads and rereads his texts, takes notes on them, reviews his vocabulary words, practices to master doing math problems and so on. Tell him that you will believe that everything is really done to perfection when he starts getting exceptional grades but that in the meantime he will spend time engaging his texts according to the established schedule each evening. If he is really looking for something else to do he can always do extra-credit reading from the Heights Books list.

Step 4 – Consider removing all video games from the home and greatly limiting computer and screen time in general. Time playing a video game or watching television weakens one’s attention span and ability to concentrate and study. Making a transition from the pace and stimulation of a screen to the quiet and focus of study is very difficult. After screen time it would be helpful for someone to at least take a short walk around the block or do something to rest the mind before trying to engage texts. The bottom line is that the life of a student is closely connected with developing the intellectual virtues necessary for true study. Screens impede the development of these virtues and lead to a dull boredom towards learning about reality. For more information see The Elephant in the Living Room at http://www.heights.edu/dev2/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/The+Elephant+in+the+Room+Moynihan.pdf.

Step 5 – Encourage your son to exercise and require him to do chores around the house. Exercise has a wonderful effect on the mind. A half hour of strenuous physical activity clears and refreshes the mind and better prepares it for intellectual work. At times, physical activity can even be combined with certain types of study. For example, it might help some students to bring their Latin vocabulary words with them when shooting basketball hoops: read a vocabulary word, think about it, and say it to oneself as one shoots a basket. Chores also provide a healthy distraction from study and a concrete way for your son to grow in service to others, specifically his family. Even though it can sometimes be difficult to do a good job studying (Am I studying the right things? Have I really learned the material well enough?) It is always possible for a young man to do a good job in his chores: the dishwasher is emptied, the trash is taken out, and so on. The repeated action of completing tasks well helps to build up virtues that will transfer to schoolwork and all of life.

Step 6 – Contact your son’s advisor or school head to talk through the plan to help him improve. The advisor may have additional ideas that would be helpful and certainly will be able to help you by supporting your decisions as he talks to your son. It can help for a young man who is experiencing some real parental discipline to hear from a “big brother” figure that his parents really do care about him and are acting in a reasonable way with his best interest in mind.