About school problems
School problems are common for pre-teens and teenagers. They’re part of the ups and downs of school life.
School problems can show up at any stage. They can be big or small. Sometimes they go away quickly by themselves, and sometimes they last longer and need some input from you or other adults.
If your child is having problems at school, it’s important to pick up on problems early and address them. This gives your child a good chance of getting back on track quickly.
If your child is going to school regularly, has a positive attitude and gets on well with teachers and peers, your child is more likely to do well academically and feel good about themselves. They’re also more likely to finish school and go on to post-secondary education.
Building a good relationship with your child’s school is crucial – even if your child doesn’t seem to be having problems. You can do this by getting to know key staff, going to school events and meetings, talking informally with teachers at school drop-off and pick up, volunteering at the school canteen or fundraising events, and so on.
Common school problems
Some school problems are easy to spot, and your child will want to talk with you about them. Other times school staff might contact you to let you know that there’s a problem.
But sometimes your child might hide school problems from you or from teachers and friends. For example, your child might copy homework or pretend to be sick during important tests. This can make it difficult for you or teachers to pick up on problems.
If you’re worried about how your child is going at school, here are some things to watch out for. Your child:
- makes excuses not to go to school or even wags school
- doesn’t want to talk about school or particular subjects, or seems critical or uncomfortable when talking about school, teachers or peers
- doesn’t seem engaged with school, extracurricular activities or friends and peers
- seems low on confidence – for example, they might say they’re ‘dumb’ or not as smart as their friends
- gets detentions or has other attention or behaviour problems at school
- refuses to do homework, rarely talks about homework, or seems bored with schoolwork
- has trouble making time for extracurricular or other activities
- is getting lower marks than usual or seems to be struggling with their schoolwork.
Talking about school problems
Talking with your child about school gives you the chance to find out what’s happening from your child’s point of view. And if your child is having problems at school, calm and caring conversations with you will also help your child feel loved and supported.
If you’re concerned that your child is having some problems at school, you might be able to start a conversation by asking some specific but positive questions. For example:
- What’s school like this year compared to last year?
- What subjects are you enjoying at the moment?
- Who did you hang out with at lunch today?
- How are you going with your assignments this term?
If you try to start a conversation about school but your child doesn’t want to talk, it might be a good idea to prepare for a difficult conversation. You could start this kind of conversation by reflecting what you think your child is feeling or raising some of the things you’ve noticed. For example:
- You seem a bit down. I wonder if you’re feeling worried about school?
- It sounds like a lot of your subjects are boring at the moment. I wonder why that is?
- I had a call from the school today. They said you’ve had three detentions in the last two weeks. What’s happening?
- I got an automated text message from the school this morning to say you hadn’t arrived. Just wondering where you were?
There are many reasons why pre-teens and teenagers might be struggling academically or socially at school. For example, they might be experiencing bullying or mental health issues like depression or anxiety. They might be finding that the work is too hard or boring, or they might not be getting the support they need. When you understand what’s behind your child’s school problems, you’re better able to find the right strategies to address these problems.
Working with schools on school problems
Once you understand what’s going on for your child at school, it’s important to get the school’s help.
You can start by talking with a teacher who knows your child. At primary school this is your child’s classroom teacher. At secondary school you might need to speak with the year coordinator, or you could ask to speak with the school’s welfare coordinator.
You can talk with teachers at any time during the school term – you don’t need to wait until a scheduled parent-teacher interview. You might need to arrange a meeting time so that you can have an unhurried conversation.
The teacher or staff member should be able to tell you how the school can help with your child’s academic, personal or social problems. Your child should be able to get a range of services through the school. These might include:
- study skills support
- homework clubs
- assessments by psychologists, speech pathologists or occupational therapists.
If the school can’t provide what your child needs, it should be able to refer you to a service outside the school. You could also talk with your GP about other services and support.
If you talk with your child about addressing their school problems and involve them in coming up with solutions, it can help your child feel better about themselves and more in control of things.
Supporting pre-teens and teenagers with school problems at home
While you’re working on problems with the school, your child needs your love and your support for their learning at home. Here are some ideas:
- Praise your child for effort, not just for success. Let your child know that you’re proud of them for trying hard at school, whatever their grades. This will teach your child to try new things and to keep going if something is hard.
- Celebrate your child’s individual achievements, and avoid comparing your child with peers or siblings. For example, celebrate when your child does better on a maths test compared with the last test, even if the mark isn’t very high.
- Let your child know that learning and education are important to your family. You can do this by reading the school newsletter, talking about school in a positive way, and taking an interest in or helping with your child’s homework.
- Minimise the effects of school absences. If your child needs to be absent more than just occasionally, ask teachers what your child can do to catch up, and how you can help. Or ask whether your child can do the work they’ve missed at home.
- Consider a home tutor or a study group. Many schools and organisations run free homework programs or homework clubs. You could ask your child’s teacher or your local council or neighbourhood centre for more information.
- Look for interests and activities outside school that your child is good at or enjoys. Taking part in extracurricular activities like sport, music or drama, volunteering or getting a casual job can bring your child joy, keep them motivated and help them succeed at school.
Children with disability, autism, chronic conditions and other needs
Some pre-teens and teenagers with disability, autism, chronic illness, behaviour difficulties or learning disorders are more likely to have school problems.
This is because these children might find it harder to adapt to the demands of the classroom setting, concentrate during tasks, or do what teachers ask. Or they might miss a lot of school and find it hard to catch up.
Although not every child in this situation will have school problems, it’s a good idea to establish a strong relationship with your child’s school early. This relationship might include a student support group, an individual learning plan and other kinds of support plans. When you have these things in place, it’s easier to regularly monitor your child’s progress and pick up on early signs of problems.
If problems do come up, you can get help from school staff as well as from your GP and other health professionals.
You can read more about supporting children with disability at school, supporting autistic children at primary school and supporting autistic children at secondary school.