When your child struggles academically
What to look for when choosing a school
By Glen Hoffmann
If your child is struggling academically, you'll need to find a school that provides them with the right learning environment and ample support. While this is no small feat, we’re here to help.
Not two academic challenges are exactly alike. While some are more serious, others aren’t. A student may struggle in one subject or many. In some instances, academic challenges stem primarily from a learning or developmental disability and tend to be ongoing. Other times they’re more situational.
While it’s not uncommon for a student to struggle academically, don’t take this lightly. When left unaddressed, it can lead to short- and long-term academic underperformance. It can also give rise to a host of emotional issues like low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and unhappiness.
Sometimes academic challenges can be addressed by your child’s current school.
“Your child may be struggling academically in one or two subjects and they don’t know what to do and the parent doesn’t recognize this early enough,” says Ruth Rumack of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space. “This calls for a kind of surgical solution: offering targeted academic support.” (Read Ruth’s interview.)
Often, however, this won’t be enough.
If your child is struggling across the curriculum, this is more serious. This is of special concern if they’re depressed, lack motivation, or have other significant psychological problems. No matter how accommodating and well-intentioned your child’s current school is, it may not have the infrastructure to help your child with these kinds of problems. (Watch our video of education experts discussing how to know when a school is or isn’t working.)
In this instance, a change of scenery will likely be required. The question is, what should you be on the lookout for as you embark on your quest for a new school for your child?
Needless to say, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution: no school can meet the needs of all kids with academic challenges. The right fit for your child will depend on several factors like the kinds of struggles they’re having and why.
"Just after Christmas in Jessica's Grade 2 year, the troubles she was having came to a head," recalls Barbi Levitt, Jessica’s mom. "Each student was told to present a book to the class, and while the other kids were reading at level four or five, Jessica was still at level one. She felt embarrassed and came home crying."
So, what did the Levitts do? They went to work.
With careful research, they were able to find a school that fit perfectly with Jessica’s academic needs, not to mention her social and emotional ones.
Like the Levitts, the right school for your child will depend on their specific academic challenges, among other things.
Kids with academic challenges need plenty of support. Make sure a school has what’s required to address your child’s specific issues.
If they’re having a difficult time learning to read, like Jessica, they may need an onsite reading intervention specialist. Or, if they’re struggling in math, they may need an after-school math tutor.
However, if your child struggles in many subjects, they’ll likely require more support. For instance, they may need an in-class educational assistant. They may also benefit from in-class accommodations, such as extra time for assignments or tests, note-taking assistance, quiet workspaces, assistive devices, and duplicate notes. If your child’s struggles are mostly due to a learning or developmental disability, a full- or part-time dedicated special needs class may be a good fit for them.
Make no mistake, the right kind of learning environment is vital for kids who struggle academically. Schools with smaller classrooms make it easier for teachers to provide lots of one-on-one support and individualized instruction.
But what other features of a learning environment are needed to support your child academically? One universally acknowledged benchmark is strong teaching.
“Good teachers know their students well and have a varied curriculum,” say Ann and Karen Wolff of Wolff Educational Consulting. “They take the time to understand students’ learning needs and differentiate the curriculum accordingly.” (Read Ann and Karen’s interview.)
Differentiated instruction is especially important for students with academic challenges. A teacher who tailors instruction to individual children’s learning needs can help ensure each child gets exactly what they require—that they learn the right material, at the right pace, in the right format. This can help your child acquire the knowledge, skills, and confidence needed to stay on track (and sometimes thrive).
Just ask this teacher (quoted in Beyond Intelligence by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster):
“I teach one of three Grade 4 classes in my school. During the reading period, I teach all those who are reading at grade level, while one of my colleagues takes the children who are having difficulty, and the other teacher works with the advanced readers. Every child is challenged at his own level, and no teacher is trying to cover the whole spectrum or short-changing any of the learners.”
You should always fully acquaint yourself with a school’s curriculum: the material it covers and how it covers it. This is especially true if your child struggles academically: consider whether a school’s curriculum will support their specific needs.
For instance, your child may be best suited to a school with an alternative curriculum that allows for more individualized learning. This will give them more freedom in what material they cover and the pace they cover it at.
On the other hand, some students with academic challenges may struggle at a school with a mainstream curriculum (especially one with high academic standards), in which they cover the same material as their peers (at roughly the same pace), which is often delivered through whole-class lessons. These schools may not tailor instruction enough for students who tend to need plenty of flexibility and targeted support.
If you do choose a mainstream school, ensure it offers the in-class resources, accommodations, support, and environment your child needs. Ideally, it will have small classes with plenty of one-on-one support and differentiated instruction, and it will offer the in-class accommodations your child needs (e.g., extra time for assignments and quiet spaces to write tests).
Inquire into the causes of your child’s academic struggles. Are they related to serious problems with depression or anxiety? Might your child have a social or emotional disorder? If so, their issues might be best addressed outside of school (at least partially), for instance, through regular visits to a psychologist or psychiatrist. (Or your child might be a good fit for a social and emotional disorder school.)
On the other hand, though it may seem counterintuitive, your child might struggle academically (and/or with depression or anxiety) because they’re not getting enough challenge in school. Academic understimulation can breed boredom, which can lead to disengagement (a frequent cause of social and emotional issues). A school that provides your child with enough academic challenge can, then, help alleviate their academic struggles, and, sometimes, their attendant social problems.
“I ran into problems with one of my tenth-graders, a bright and articulate boy named Ivor,” says Susan Miller, an experienced teacher (quoted in Beyond Intelligence by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster). “Toward the end of the second semester, he started missing assignments, and his marks really slipped. When I discussed the situation with him, he told me he was bored with school—and had been for many years! I asked Ivor if he would’ve done better in my course if I’d kicked up the assignments for him. He grinned and said, ‘Yes! I would’ve proven to you I could do it.’
I thought about his response, and approached a guidance counsellor to see what could be done for Ivor (and maybe others) during third semester. She spoke with the science and math teachers to see how they could motivate him, and they were willing to investigate a wide range of options. Ivor began enjoying school. He wasn’t bored because he was being challenged to think critically and creatively.
As delighted as I am about how things turned out for Ivor, I can’t help but wonder how many other students are declining academically and maybe psychologically—appearing to be behaviour problems, or invisible, or labelled ‘lazy’ because of their lack of effort—because nobody recognizes or addresses their abilities.”
Academic struggles, like social struggles, can’t be dealt with in a vacuum. It’s important to look at the broader context: their potential causes, effects, timing, and more. This really speaks to the issue of overall school fit: the right school for your child should meet their academic, social, emotional, and developmental needs. Once you find this, the likelihood of them thriving (or at least managing) academically and socially will increase considerably.
It’s worth noting that a private school may provide your child with support it’s otherwise difficult to find.
Smaller classes, a feature of many private schools, can enable teachers to provide the one-on-one support and individualized instruction your child likely needs.
Private schools also often have the infrastructure to support students with academic challenges. Many have robust guidance and counselling departments. Some also have onsite staff to help your child with their specific academic issues, such as academic advisors, guidance counsellors, educational assistants, tutors, psychologists, and speech-language pathologists.
When choosing a school, take a close look at your child. In addition to the types of academic challenges they’re experiencing, consider their other traits, such as their mental and academic focus, social and physical tendencies, learning preferences, and special needs (such as learning disabilities and behavioural issues). And, of course, make sure you look at factors affecting you and your whole family, such as school location, cost, size, community, and values.
Once you’ve reflected on your child’s and family’s needs, create a shortlist of around two to eight schools. Research these schools comprehensively and visit them, either in person or virtually (if necessary). Ask school reps plenty of questions. You should also speak with current students and parents at the school. And depending on the age of your child, it’s often a good idea to involve them in the school-choice process.
You should visit each school on your shortlist. Ideally, tour them with a school official or student. Here’s some advice for your visit, which you can print out, to help you decide whether a school will meet your child’s academic needs:
- Check out a school’s resources: Make sure the school has the resources and staff required to support your child. Important resources for your child may include an academic counselling and a learning resource centre. Find out whether a school has any other special school resource centres. For instance, does it have a health and wellness centre? How about a tutoring centre?
- Observe a class in action: Ask if you can observe a class. If your child is old enough, ask if they can sit in on a class or even have a shadow day (where they experience a full day at the school)? Here are some things to look for: How do teachers interact with students? Do they offer whole-class instruction, and if so, how much? Do they differentiate instruction, tailoring it to each student’s unique learning needs? Is independent learning encouraged? Do teachers provide much one-on-one support? Is there much interaction and collaboration between students? Is there a lively and dynamic “vibe” in class?
- Talk to students at the school: It’s important to find out what other students’ experiences at the school have been like, especially those who’ve had academic struggles. Here are some questions you might ask them: What kinds of struggles have you had? How has the school supported you, and have you felt fully supported? If this isn’t your first school, how does your experience here compare with other schools? Are you doing better academically? Do you still have significant areas of challenge? Is there anything about the school you’re unhappy about?
It’s important to speak with school officials to get a sense of whether a school is the right fit for your child. Ask them plenty of questions to gauge whether a school will likely be able to support your child’s academic challenges. Here are some crucial questions, which you can print out to bring along on your visit:
- In-class staff: What in-class staff do you employ? Do you have educational assistants or resource teachers? What about other special education staff?
- In-class accommodations: Do you offer custom in-class accommodations, and if so, which ones? Do you offer extra time for assignments, note-taking assistance, ability-grouping, assistive devices, or duplicate notes? How about quiet workspaces, preferential seating, flexible seating, and private rooms for tests?
- Out-of-class resources: Which out-of-class resources do you offer? Do you have academic counselling, learning resource, psychology, or health and wellness centres?
- Out-of-class staff: Which out-of-class staff do you employ? Do you have academic advisors, guidance counsellors, social workers, or psychologists? How about tutors or subject-specific support staff (such as reading or math specialists)?
- Curriculum: What curriculum do you use? Is it mainstream or alternative? What subjects do you teach and how do you teach them?
- Class sizes: What are your class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios?
- Differentiated instruction: Do you differentiate instruction according to each student’s unique learning needs?
- Learning skills: How do you help students with their learning skills such as organization, planning, following instructions, and independent and group learning?
- Special education: Do you have dedicated special education classes?
To learn more, read our comprehensive choosing a school guide. You can also read our education expert interviews on finding the right school and watch our parent and school head videos on choosing. Finally, watch our school head video on red flags to look out for and our education expert video on how to know when an educational environment isn't working.