By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Teenaged schoolboy

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  • Children who don’t have positive learning experiences at school are at risk of losing interest in learning and in school.
  • School and study problems were ranked in the top 10 concerns of over 47 000 young Australians aged 11-24.
Celebrating your child’s school highs is important – but so is being aware of the signs your child might be having problems. When you pick up on school problems early, your child has a much better chance of getting back on track. Here’s what to look for.

School problems: what to expect

Ups and downs at school are part of life for many young people. A good relationship with your child’s school and teachers can help you head off problems. If school problems do come up, it’s important that you quickly recognise and address them.

School problems can show up as poor academic performance, lack of motivation for school, loss of interest in school work, or poor relationships with peers or teachers.

School difficulties range from minor to severe, might be very short-lived or last for longer. Even short-term school problems can have a negative impact on how young people feel about school – and themselves.

Children do better and stay longer at school when their parents and families are involved. A strong relationship with your child’s school and its staff is important, even if your child isn’t struggling.

Common signs of school problems

Some signs that might indicate your child is having problems at school include:

  • drop in marks in one or more subjects
  • lack of engagement, connection or involvement with school – for example, your child might not be interested in extracurricular activities or have very few friends
  • embarrassment or discomfort when talking about school
  • refusal to talk with you about school, or rarely talking about school with family or friends
  • resistance to doing homework, or rarely talking about homework
  • low confidence or lack of self-esteem – your child might say he is ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’ or not as clever as his friends
  • detentions at lunch time or the end of the school day
  • excuses not to go to school or skipping school without your knowledge
  • boredom with school work or not feeling challenged enough – your child might say he’s not learning anything new
  • attention or behaviour problems
  • experiences of being bullied or bullying others.

Sometimes, school problems will be easy to spot, and your child will willingly talk to you about them.

But some children hide problems from their parents, teachers and peers. They might copy homework, pretend to be sick during important tests, or not bring reports home. This can make it very difficult for you to pick up on a problem. Sometimes even teachers might not spot the clues – especially if your child is absent a lot.

You might find that your child doesn’t really want to talk about what’s going wrong at school. It might help to talk about what you think your child might be feeling. You might say ‘You look sad. I wonder if you’re feeling worried about school?’ Our article on having tricky conversations can get you started.

Why it’s important to pick up school problems early

If existing problems aren’t picked up and addressed early, they can have significant, long-term consequences.

To start with, school problems might contribute to poor self-esteem. In the longer term, they can significantly affect your child’s wellbeing.

School problems can also lead to an increased risk of dropping out. They might make children more likely to avoid school and less likely to want to go to school. Poor academic performance is connected with negative long-term consequences such as an increased risk of absenteeism, leaving school early, and being less likely to undertake further education or training.

Another consequence of problems at school is that children can get tagged with unhelpful labels such as ‘uninterested’, ‘easily distracted’ or ‘doesn’t try hard enough’. Worst of all, young people often ‘own’ the label and begin to believe that they are ‘troublemakers’ or ‘misfits’. All these labels suggest a child is somehow to blame. But school problems are often a sign that systems and support networks around a child aren’t adequate.

Finally, children who have problems at school can experience a reduced sense of belonging. Young people’s success at school depends on their wellbeing – how they think, feel and act both in and out of school. Studies have found that fitting in at school and feeling like they belong improve young people’s wellbeing. 

Causes of school problems

Some of the more common causes of school problems are underlying learning difficulties or learning disabilities – such as dyslexia – or behavioural or emotional issues. But there are many other reasons why a young person might not be achieving academically.

Personal factors might include:

  • chronic illness
  • intellectual or cognitive disability
  • behavioural or developmental difficulties or disorders
  • mental health issues such as depression or anxiety
  • experiences of trauma
  • difficulties with self-esteem, communication skills or social skills
  • difficulties with listening, concentrating or sitting still.

School factors might include:

  • being bullied
  • disliking, or not feeling connected to, the school culture or environment
  • disliking school subjects, not liking the choice of subjects, or not feeling challenged by the work
  • poor school or academic support, especially in relation to heavy workloads
  • not getting along with teachers or other students at school
  • skipping school because of any of the reasons listed above
  • competing demands on time, such as extracurricular activities.

Getting help with school problems

Depending on the problems your child is experiencing, it might be a good idea to talk to your child’s teacher, the principal or assistant principal, the school welfare co-ordinator or other specialist teaching staff, or classroom learning support assistants.

You could also talk to your GP, who might refer you to other health professionals, such as psychologists, speech therapists or occupational therapists. 

Children with special needs

Some young people with attention problems, high levels of anxiety, or impulsive or aggressive behaviour are at greater risk of difficulties at school. This is because they might find it harder to adapt to the demands of the classroom setting, or they might find it difficult to concentrate during tasks and teacher instructions.

There’s also a strong link between physical health and academic performance. Some children who have special needs resulting from chronic illness, intellectual disability, or behavioural or developmental difficulties might be more at risk of developing academic problems or difficulties with relationships at school. 

A child who misses a lot of school because of a temporary or chronic condition might find it difficult to catch up.

Academic performance might be influenced by reduced self-esteem or changes in peer relationships that are linked to a child’s special needs.

Although not every child with special needs will have academic problems, establishing a strong relationship with your child’s school early and regularly monitoring your child’s progress throughout schooling can help you pick up on early signs of problems.

If problems do come up, you can get help from school staff as well as your GP and other health professionals.

It’s also important to be aware of your child’s rights in relation to their education. For more information, read our article on education rights for children with disabilities.

Video School and socialising for children with a disability

This short video features parent stories about school options and experiences for children with disabilities. These parents talk about choosing between special needs schools and mainstream schools. They note that every child with a disability is different, so your choices will depend on your child’s and family’s needs and circumstances. They also mention how typically developing children can benefit from mixing with children with disabilities at school.

According to these parents, the ‘school years are the best years’.

  • Last updated or reviewed 13-02-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.