General Education

When Academic Trouble Means Something Else

When Academic Trouble Means Something Else
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Ann Matturo Gault July 31, 2014

Sometimes low grades or test scores may be disguising another problem. Identifying what’s behind the academic trouble can help you help your child.

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Some school struggles are academic; some are not.

Before diving in with a tutor to rescue a student drowning in unacceptable grades, Shannon Jones, director of education at Rick’s Center for Gifted Children at the University of Denver, urges parents to figure out what’s actually going on with their child. “Tutoring won’t make any difference at all if you are not tutoring the right problem."

According to Jones, emotional issues and learning difficulties can present themselves (at school) in all sorts of ways. “Anxiety can be disguised as math trouble, and while there are many educational strategies for teaching fractions and algebra, the world’s best tutor can’t remedy a problem better solved by a therapist and some cognitive behavioral therapy."

Jones recommends getting the whole story: “Sit down with teachers and discuss the stumbling blocks. Parents may have a different experience working with the child at home, and it’s helpful for both parties to exchange this information."

She tells the story of a family whose son was struggling at school with math but at home when mom read the sports pages with him, he was a whiz at calculating and keeping track of stats. “This piece of information revealed a lot to the teacher and helped her try another approach in the classroom to better engage him."

Explaining Your Child’s Needs to a Tutor

If the school believes the student would benefit from a tutor—and the family goes forward and hires one—educational data should be gathered and shared with the tutor. Parents should know the kinds of assessments that have been done with their child and share them.

Providing the tutor with a checklist is ideal, says Jones. “Detailed information from the school such as: the main problem areas; the learning strategies that have been attempted and the amount of time each was tried; what’s worked; what hasn’t and reasons why are all important. This will give the tutor the big picture and enable him to hit the ground running."

When The Problem Isn’t Academic

Some issues may benefit from the help of a school psychologist. “All public schools have access to specialists trained to get to the root of learning difficulties, like why Johnny isn’t grasping certain math concepts, or why Katie can’t follow test directions or read aloud fluently even though she scores extremely well on reading comprehension tests," Jones explains.

Note to parents: Working one-on-one with a specialist is expensive and making it happen may take time and persistence. Jones says most states are required to provide these services if parents request them, but there can be wide variability in how readily available the district makes them.

Once the problem is identified (usually through specially-designed assessments), a specialist should be able to suggest next steps. “A child may have a learning disability that qualifies him to be classified and entitled to an IEP (individualized education program) or 504 plan which can accommodate his particular learning needs. In some cases families will be referred to a doctor who can treat depression or anxiety or another type of educator with expertise in a particular learning issue."

Sometimes the problem is being disorganized. “I’ve seen tutors make an impact setting up simple systems. Learning to be organized is an important life skill that often isn’t taught at school and can be a game changer for a child whose family isn’t organized or has ADHD that is interfering," Jones explains. “Once a child knows how to organize, suddenly completed homework gets turned in because he can find it!"

Tutors can help with note taking and teach better ways to prepare for exams, too. “With detailed information from the family and the school, a skilled tutor will help a child feel more confident and improve the entire educational experience."


Shannon Jones, Director of Education, Rick’s Center for Gifted Children at the University of Denver. Phone interview July 24, 2014