When Failing School Grades Are Only The Tip Of The Iceberg

Let’s say your son or daughter usually has great grades in school, and then it changes for the worse and you don’t know why, I have both good news and bad news for you.

My focus for the last few posts has been on poor school performance when children are not motivated. But this is really a very broad topic because lack of motivation is the result of a wide range of situations that are often quite different from one family to the next. The perfect solution for one family may have zero effect–or may even be harmful–for another family.

Working in a school for eighteen years, I’ve learned to easily recognize certain patterns. Though the faces change, it’s the same handful of problems over and over. And it’s amazing how similar those problems are for children all over the planet.

It’s also become easy to notice when child behavior doesn’t fit into the patterns. As a parent, or even for teachers who are closer to the problem and don’t routinely zoom out to take a high-level view of the whole life of the child, it’s usually hard to get a good feel for all the complex issues impacting one another. That’s the bad news.

The good news of course, is that there is a proven, systematic way for approaching these problems. What stands in the way for both parents and teachers is that the folks in student care–your counselors, student care coordinators, academic social workers and psychologists, are the ones who set the process in motion. And here’s the rub: for reasons we only alluded to in a previous post, we rarely do a good job of showing everyone that high-level view of what’s really happening

I experience great sadness when parents of children with behavior problems reach my office after years of heart-wrenching inner despair, guilt and worry. And it’s even worse when I can clearly see that they could have gotten help long ago if someone with an insight into those patterns had taken the time to sit with them and give them a clear view of what they were dealing with.

It’s therefore time to discuss this in just a little more detail…just enough for us to be able to zero back in on school performance motivation in future posts with a lot more clarity.

I believe it will help… a lot!

The Process

Policies differ from school to school, district to district, and country to country. Problems usually climb up the grapevine from just about everywhere. Sometimes students themselves approach a teacher or parent. Sometimes a parent approaches a teacher or part of the school management. Sometimes professionals do assessments that raise red flags.

Perhaps most often, teachers are the ones who first see there’s a problem that needs focused attention. They have to decide whether or not it’s something they should deal with on their own, with a little help, or just refer to someone else higher up in the chain.. usually a member of the student care team if the school has things organized that way.

Most normal problems are handled between parents and teachers. That includes things like homework, student study habits, and mild behavior problems, and isolated incidents in the classroom or school yard…or even incidents that happen outside school that spill over into the school.

However, when there’s some clue of a more persistent problem, teachars are trained to alert management or the school’s care system. There’s a procedure they usually have set up to gather information just to see if it’s something that will take a more invasive assessment. If it isn’t, they may simply advise management, teachers and parents how best to proceed.

But in turn, student care also have their own red flags for doing a more formal or psychological assessment. If the expertise is available within the school, no problem. If it isn’t, the assessment is referred to an outside agency or professional. This is where things can fizzle out or escalate in a number of directions.

In developing countries with limited resources, the problem can linger in this stage indefinitely. A sad situation can persist where the student is passed from one grade to the next–or not. The result is a student who is at an ever-increasing risk of dropping out of school without a proper education.

Fortunately this isn’t the case most of the time.  A diagnosis points to some developmental problem, some disorder or disability.  But another set of challenges emerge. There’s the negative effects of the label itself, not to mention the fact that methods for managing the student are difficult, time-consuming, and often above the competence and/or job descriptions of school personnel and family members who need to interact with such students.

Having said all that, I think it’s amazing that a large number of such problems are being managed successfully everyday in schools with very limited resources. When that happens it’s almost always a result of team-work. Parents, students, teachers and often outside agencies working hand-in-hand in a seemingly endless series of consultations, meetings, and paper-work.

It’s not easy!

The Central Role of Parents

When you look at the whole thing, you can see many points where the above process can and often does run off the rails. To make a long story short, it takes diligent parents to stay on top of it by being their child’s biggest advocate. But what does that mean?

  1. It means maintaining a positive, can-do attitude no matter what. You can’t do it a lone, and help is available if you’re persistent, if you realize that it sometimes takes a polite push to the next step if you want  things to move faster. Never ever give up.. EVER!
  2. It means developing a close and amicable relationship with the teachers and anyone else the school needs to get involved. Keep them close, and make sure they’re always happy to see your face or hear from you.
  3. It means exchanging stories with them. In a spirit of collaboration, seek advice about how best you can add to the school or therapist’s plan of approach with things you can do with your child at home. At the same time, give advice and information that will help them to understand your child better. Tell stories of what works at home, what difference if any their involvement is making that you have noticed
  4. It means seeing the role of finding the proper solutions as your responsibility even when most of the actual work has to be done by others. You’re the one best suited to manage the whole thing. Ask questions. Find out how the system works and where it’s lacking. Where it’s lacking is exactly where your positive input can fill the gap.
  5. And finally, it means developing and maintaining an unbreakable, sweet, playful and compassionate bond with your child. No one can do that better than a parent. Check out the other posts on this blog and gather tips on how that works. Be especially wary of discipline methods that work against that closeness. Every parenting method, and all solutions rest on this most crucial foundation.

Insight, Perspective & Clarity

Now you can zoom back in. Diagnosed disorders and disabilities take a different level of intervention from parents and professionals alike. A few professional interventions however, can also work with situation-related bottlenecks keeping children from developing. A good example is when children become defiant as a negative response to divorce or stressful conflict between parents.

Professionals often recommend programs designed for children diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Opposition Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and Pervasive Development Disorder, or even juvenile-onset Bipolar Disorder. With a little patience, you can often give permission and even encourage them to take the applicable pieces of these programs that will be of great help with your child.

Some professionals are very careful about suggesting these approaches for children unless they have been diagnosed with a disorder or disability. Sometimes they are concerned about offending parents and other family members. So if the information is not forthcoming, go the extra mile and ask the question yourself.   Go even further if necessary and ask what you can do at home, and what the school can do to help with the treatment. Get a written report if you can and share it with care personnel in the school. Doing so often saves a lot of time because student care workers tend to be reluctant to overstep their bounds.

The truth is that until social-emotional issues are tackled head-on, they sabotage your child’s motivation and stop progress with school work. The longer this continues, the more difficult it becomes for your child to catch up.

You’ll only know what works if you’re on top of everything and doing all the things already mentioned. Don’t wait on anything or anyone. YOU’RE in charge.


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