What To Do If Your Kid Struggles at School

Like many of you, we took a class before our first baby was born. We learned about breathing and packing for the hospital and a whole bunch of other things that were really only useful in the very short term. Our instructor gave us a piece of advice then that has stood the test of time: “You will always be your baby’s best advocate.” She was right then, and she’s right now. And she was especially correct when it comes to navigating the education system.

I’m writing this from the perspective of a long-time elementary school counselor with experience in Missouri. I’m not speaking on behalf of my school or my district or any other district. I’m sharing this information with you as I would with a friend.

Sometimes kids struggle at school. That’s totally OK. Kids develop at different rates, and they may not be quite ready to master the skill. In fact, some kids are on grade level or advanced in some areas and struggle in others. Teachers often have a good sense whether the struggle is one that will be resolved in time or whether additional help might be needed. If you’re wondering, ask.

Did you notice that I said “on grade level”?  Remember that these levels are artificial and can vary from district to district and state to state. Whether your kid is ahead or behind, it matters most that they are making progress in learning. Ideally, each kid would have a year’s worth of growth in each grade.For example, kiddos who are reading the same kinds of books year after year, might not be making growth in reading—even if they are reading above grade level.

Teachers and counselors and principals have lots of experience. They have known lots of kids. You know your kid. If you are concerned, don’t be afraid to ask questions and keep asking questions. (This is true no matter what expert you are consulting with. You’re always going to be one who knows your child best.)

Like most industries, education has its own jargon. Educators can be so familiar with these acronyms that they may forget parents don’t speak the language. Be sure to ask questions if you’re not sure what they mean. If you have a friend or family member who is an educator, you might ask that person to translate. And it’s always OK to ask for information in writing so you can think or talk it over.

Most schools provide extra support for kids who are struggling through a process called MTSS or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. That’s a giant name for something that’s really pretty simple. Here’s what it means in practice:

Mrs. Carter (that was my third grade teacher’s name) introduces a new concept like subtracting with two-digit numbers. After a few lessons and some practice, most of the students (about 80 percent) master the concept and can demonstrate the skill independently.  The other students need a little extra help. Some of these students might just need to learn in a small group because they are easily distracted. or need to hear the concept explained in a different way. Most of the students in the small group master the skill with this level of support. A few students might need more intensive instruction to be successful.

School districts call this process different things. Whatever it’s called or whatever the process, your school should provide this kind of extra help to kids that need it. If your child is in middle school or high school, these kinds of supports should be in place but they might be offered during a particular hour of the day.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. You’re not bothering the teacher or the learning coach or the counselor. You’re doing your job, mama. You’re advocating for your kiddo!

Beth is mom to a high school sophomore and a first year college student. After fourteen years as a professional writer and editor, she earned graduate degrees in counseling and play therapy. Now she exercises her creativity as a school counselor. Beth loves reading, especially mysteries.

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