The Big Picture

Help for Struggling Students

By Margie Sims
Posted 9/18/19

Years ago when a local move brought big changes for two of my kids, I did not anticipate the difficulties they would encounter. Despite having to switch schools, I mistakenly thought the adjustment …

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The Big Picture

Help for Struggling Students


Years ago when a local move brought big changes for two of my kids, I did not anticipate the difficulties they would encounter. Despite having to switch schools, I mistakenly thought the adjustment would be seamless, since they were still in their elementary years. Yet when one struggled with conduct, and the other with grades, I concluded it was time for this seasoned mom to try some new methods.

If your student is facing some challenges now that the school year has begun, here are four tips to help pull them out of the slump.

Take a new approach

“Parents should try a fresh approach instead of what is familiar to them,” says Pamela Palmer, owner of Tutoring for Success. Palmer suggests that children sit at the kitchen table instead of in their rooms to do homework, for instance. “If a child is going off to a room by himself to tackle a subject in which he is already struggling, the temptation to procrastinate becomes too much.”

Sometimes the smallest change can help foster success. When my fourth- grade daughter got bogged down with math, a colorful practice workbook for home use helped kick her enthusiasm up a notch. It almost seems too simple, but her response to the bright, cheery characters drawn in the margin was amazing. Additionally, hiring her older sister to guide her through daily math homework and even tutor her through new concepts also made a difference.

“Because a tutor can concentrate on how each student learns best, the one-on-one instruction can relieve kids’ anxieties,” says Palmer. While parents may not always be able to think of a new approach, a tutor not only knows different ways of solving a problem but also takes the child into an environment that is less stressful. “Having someone else do it is worth it — just to take the emotion out of it for the parents.”

Tutors can also produce the proverbial ounce of prevention. One summer when I knew my husband would not be available during the ensuing school year, I hired a college student to help my kids get ahead in math during the last two weeks of summer. That fall, my then fifth-grader’s teacher was in awe that she began the school year with her math skills sharpened. And though some of them objected when I first mentioned a tutor, they actually thanked me just a few weeks into the school year.

Get in the zone

Whether it is a new school or simply a new concept that presents the difficulty, find your child’s comfort zone. “Children are especially disrupted by change so first get them comfortable in their new setting,” says Palmer. “When a child has been moved, they may still be wishing for the learning methods that brought them success at the previous school,” she says, adding that since kids find security in the familiar, parents should take note of the classroom setting and reintroduce things that might be similar to methods at the former school.

Another way to get them comfortable is to be intentional about helping them develop friendships. Something that helped my daughter over her slump is realizing she already knew another student who attended our church. After a few weeks of swapping Fridays home on the bus, seeing a familiar face put her much more at ease despite her academic struggles.

Offer incentives

I have never been one to reward my children for simply doing what is expected. However, when they were still struggling well into the school year, I felt I had to try. This was new territory for both of us: Not only did my daughter need help in math, she also needed help staying organized and remembering to bring home her assignments.

For the first few weeks, new stickers from the dollar store did the trick; then a few bucks for the school store every Friday. Being consistent and intentional with rewards has had a definite impact on her performance at school.

Addressing my younger child's behavior issues was a little more complex when he repeatedly got in trouble for being a class clown. When consequences were not as effective as with my other children (he is my ninth), I decided to focus more on rewarding the good behavior, resorting to a “Behavior Chart” posted on the fridge.

The concept was simple: for good days, he drew a smiley face, for bad days (a note got sent home) he drew a sad face. If the smiles outnumbered the frowns, he got rewarded on Friday (quarters for a giant gumball machine at church). Keeping score seemed to motivate him to make sure the good days outnumbered the bad, bringing a noticeable improvement. Although I still give consequences for bad behavior, the extra incentives to stay on track have been successful.

Explore every option

When it comes to helping my kids hurdle an obstacle at school, I try to embrace every option. When my daughter’s teacher suggested she attend “Lunch and Learning” sessions, I agreed. In addition, I posted math facts on the bathroom mirror. Finally, I make sure I am off the phone and ready to hear about her day when she gets off the bus.

Sleep is also an important factor in learning. “When kids don’t get enough sleep, they may try to tune out anything around them so they can at least get near sleep with their eyes open,” says Palmer, adding that parents of night owls should bump bed time back gradually. Also, parents should lead by example, modeling that preparing for the next day is simply part of growing up. “You might have to reset the whole family clock or at least retreat to your room so your kids don’t feel like they are missing out,” she says.

Remember, struggling students are more likely to find new motivation when they see their parents making every effort to help them succeed.

Margie Sims is a writer and a mom of ten who lives with her family in Fairhope. Her first book, Launch: Preparing Your Kids for Takeoff, will be released in October.