If your child is getting all A's and B's, is involved in school activities, has gotten into no
trouble in school and is usually happy and positive about school, she is doing fine. But you
already knew that. Here is what you may not know. The number of children who are doing well
in school is about the same as the number who are having serious problems. Generally, about
20% of our children are very successful in school and about 20% are in very serious trouble
academically or because of behavior problems. The other 60% or so are somewhere in between.
Most children are in this middle group where they need help but their problems are not at a crisis
What about the 20% at the top? Check back in twenty or thirty years. Most of them will
be teachers, doctors, scientists, business people and leaders in the community. In short, they will
continue to succeed.
What about the 20% at the bottom? It is sad but true that most of them will still be at the
bottom. Sure, some will succeed but most will not. It is easy to spot these kids when they are
teenagers dropping out of school, getting into trouble with the police and headed nowhere. These
high risk children are harder to spot when they are five and six and seven. Nonetheless, they are
alive and failing in our community today.
The dimensions of learning
Learning is not simple. There are three important areas you need to think about. First,
your child's abilities are where learning starts. Some children learn easier than others. However
easily your child learns, he learns some things more easily than other things. Some assignments
and subjects are easier and others are harder. Even if he is a very good learner, learning is hard
work at times.
Next, his attitude is important. Does he want to learn? Is he willing to do what he needs
to do to get the job done? It comes down to this. Does he think he is important enough to work at
it? Is his future important enough to him to bother learning? Learning takes self-discipline and
hard work. It also takes an attitude that says, 'I am important enough to do what I have to do.'
Third, your child needs learning skills. Some of these skills help him pay attention and
study. Some help him listen and try to understand. Others help him cooperate. Still others help
him follow the rules. He also learns about what adults expect and about the rights of others. If
your child has problems learning, look at his abilities, attitudes, and skills.
To start your evaluation of your child's learning success and school adjustment, answer
these three questions. First, does he or she have the ability to do assigned school work? It is easy
and natural for a parent to answer yes to the question. No one likes thinking his child does not
have the ability to succeed. Unfortunately, some youngsters do not. Here is how to tell.
If your child does well with some assignments, he likely has the ability to do the work. If
you have not seen him do well on a repeated basis, you do not know whether he has the ability.
Start your evaluation by talking to your child's teacher. If she says he has the ability, have
her show you several examples of his work where he did well. If she cannot do this, you and she
need to check into it further. She knows how to do this and has access to the necessary resources
through the school.
Next, evaluate your child's attitude. Is he generally positive about school and learning? If
not, there is a problem. It may have to do with his confidence and self-esteem. It also may be
because he is not very successful at school. Remember this. Bad attitudes are much more likely
caused by failure than is failure caused by a bad attitude. Failure and little to no success come
first. The bad attitude comes last. Unfortunately, the bad attitude is what everyone notices and
tends to see as the problem.
Finally, does your child have the skills he needs to succeed? If he is not succeeding, this
is the most likely source of his difficulties. It is unusual to see a child who knows how to succeed
but fails anyway. It happens but is a most uncommon kind of learning and school adjustment
problem. Your child's having this problem is very unlikely. He or she deserves your sincere effort
to find out what the real problems are.
Signs of learning and school difficulty
As we looked at the dimensions of learning, you saw that your child's ability, attitude and
skills combine to determine whether he will succeed in school. Now we look at the most
common signs of learning and school difficulties. You learn how to evaluate how well your child
is doing and what types of problems he or she may be having. We will then look at each of these
signs in more detail, including thinking about how you can help your child if you see signs of
learning and school adjustment problems.
Think about these questions. They get at common signs of learning and school problems.
As you consider each question, ask yourself if your child ever has the problem. If not, go to the
next question. If he or she sometimes has the problem, put a check mark beside the question and
then go to the next question. Repeat the process until you have thought about each question.
Does your child;
Have trouble making good choices and decisions?
Have problems expressing his thoughts and ideas?
Have trouble doing things most children his age do easily?
Have difficulty understanding school assignments and what teachers expect?
Have trouble understanding what he reads?
Get confused about what he is doing, what people expect or what people are saying?
Find that trying harder does not lead to his homework and other assignments getting
better and easier?
Do some assignments very well and others very badly?
Forget to do homework or have trouble remembering what was assigned?
Have difficulty following instructions and directions?
Have a problem paying attention to time or managing time?
Get bad grades?
Have trouble asking for help or letting anyone help?
Have difficulty accepting or dealing with criticism?
Always have excuses for not doing well?
Think his not doing well is someone else's fault?
Have to have an adult standing over him to get him to do his school work?
Feel teachers and other adults at school have it in for him?
Disrupt the classroom or the activities of other children?
Make no effort to cooperate and get along?
Skip school or miss school a lot?
Did you spot any problems? If not, your child is likely doing quite well in school. You
should be pleased with him or her and also pleased with yourself. Your hard work and effort are
paying off nicely for both of you.
It is more likely that you spotted some signs of difficulty. Most children are having some
problems that need attention. The problems may be mild and within the normal ups-and-downs
of kids and school. Nonetheless, they require your help today to prevent more serious problems
tomorrow. They also may be even more alarming. If so, you need to start working with your child
on them now or you can be sure they will become very serious tomorrow.
If you have spotted some problems, do this. Reconsider the questions where you made a
check mark. For those questions, put a 1, 2 or 3 next to the question. A 1 means you see the
problem once in a great while. For those problems, talk with your child about your concern and
then watch for a couple weeks to see if things get better. They usually do.
Put a 2 beside the question if you notice the problem more than once a month. For those
problems, talk with your child about your concern and also mention it to his or her teacher.
If you cannot stop by school, call her at school or in the evening. The school office will
have her number. Teachers normally want to hear from parents. If you cannot get in touch with
the teacher, call the principal at your child's school. Follow any suggestions you get from the
folks at school.
Put a 3 beside any question that identifies a problem you see once a week or more.
Something is definitely wrong. Also, talk with your child's teacher. Just remember this.
Something more is wrong than will be fixed by telling your child to pay more attention, listen
better, study more, or work harder. All of these are ways of blaming your child for having the
problem. He needs to take his share of responsibility for things getting better; but you and the
people at school need to do your share of the work too. It will take all of you to help him. It is not
just his problem. Each of you must take responsibility for what's wrong.
Does your child have trouble making good choices and decisions?
How many choices and decisions does your child make in a day? When you stop to think
about it, there are a lot. He decides whether to brush his teeth and what clothes to wear to school.
His choices include when to talk or stay quiet. He decides who he will hang around with and
who he will avoid. Does what his teacher is saying make any difference to him? Almost
everything in his day requires decisions and choices.
Most signs of school and learning problems have bad choices and decisions as an
Give this some thought. Has he had a chance to learn what he needs to know? This does
not have much to do with whether he can learn. Homework is a good example.
Greg is twelve and in the sixth grade. He is not doing his homework. Is he lazy? Is he
being difficult? Is he not doing it because he does not know how? Is it because he does not have
a good place to do it? These are important questions but are not the place to start.
Has Greg had a chance to learn to do his homework? Has he decided it is important? Can
he choose a good place and time to do it? Has he learned how to start? Doing homework requires
many choices and decisions. It is not common sense or something a child just knows. It is a mix
of skills he has to learn before he has them.
Think about problems your child is having. Is she having trouble with homework? Does
she have problems with other children? Is it a hassle to get her to brush her teeth? Does she have
problems listening and paying attention?
What choices and decisions does she have to make? If she made better choices and
decisions, would the problem go away? If so, this sign needs your attention.
The point is this. First help your child learn what to do and how to do it. It is not fair to
insist he do it until he knows how. Children do what they know how to do. If there is a problem,
they likely do not know how.
This is equally true for making good choices and decisions. If your child makes bad
choices, he likely does not know how to make good ones. Start by teaching him how to decide.
Help him understand why it is important.
Does your child have problems expressing his thoughts and ideas?
Many things can lead to your child's having problems expressing his thoughts and ideas.
Children get excited or upset. They find themselves in new situations. They have to deal with
things they do not understand.
Some children are more talkative and others are quieter. Some find it hard to write about
things. Some can let you know what is on their minds from their facial expressions and other
body language. The ability to communicate varies a lot. For that matter, it varies for each child at
times. Some days he can get his ideas across better than others.
There can be several reasons why your child has more trouble communicating than other
children. Ask yourself these questions. Has he had a chance to learn to communicate? Does
anyone at school or at home care what he has to say? At least you will take the time to give him a
chance. You care what he has to say.
Another reason for trouble communicating is a part of human nature. Children think and
feel a lot more than they can communicate. It can be hard to find the right words or put thoughts
and ideas together. The child might think he is not smart enough to explain things. Even worse,
he might believe it is not worth the bother.
Learning problems are connected. Trouble expressing thoughts and ideas can be
connected to problems making choices and decisions. Think about it like this. Your child has
many thoughts and feelings. Which thoughts does he tell you about? Which feelings does he
share? How does he choose? Deciding may be hard for him.
Also keep this in mind. If he thinks you will not believe him, he will keep his thoughts
and feelings to himself. Saying what is on his mind might not be smart. It could go like this.
'Did you do your homework?' 'No.' You then ask, 'Why not?' He says, 'It was too hard.
I don't like school anyway.'
You now say, 'It doesn't matter whether you like school or not. You have to do your
The child has to wonder whether it might be smarter to just say nothing the next time. For
what it is worth, he really did say the homework was too hard. This usually means he does not
know how to do it. Not knowing how was a reasonable explanation. Also, it was the truth. He
cannot do something he does not know how to do.
Just taking time to listen is not enough. Your child needs to be taken seriously. He needs
to know that you will believe him or at least hang in there until you understand why he thinks
and feels what he thinks and feels.
Does your child have trouble doing things most children his age do easily?
This is a complicated sign. The main question is why your child cannot do things when
others the same age can. Ask yourself and the child whether he had a chance to learn. Was his
chance as good as other children got? For example, just because he has been to school does not
mean his chance was as good as theirs. Most children have parents who help and encourage
them. Have you done this for him consistently? Also, children do not all get equal treatment at
school. Children who are clean, well-dressed, friendly, smart, and like school get a better shake
than those who do not fit the mold.
If your child cannot do things most children can do, several steps are in order. First, do
not jump to conclusions. The explanation likely is more complicated than you may think.
Anna cannot play games as well as most children her age. Here are some possible
reasons. She does not know how. She does not enjoy playing games. She does not like the other
children. They do not like her. She is ill. She does not understand the rules. She has a physical
problem that keeps her from doing as well as the other children. She is afraid.
Start to help by seeing if she will play with you. Now watch closely. You will get ideas
and clues about what the problem is. Check them out.
Here is the key. Think about what it is she cannot do. Does she have problems
understanding? How does she get along with the other children? Does she pay attention? How
are her coordination, vision, and hearing? Do you notice something else that may cause her
For example, you might notice that she does better when playing with just one other
child. Does she have a social problem? You also notice she loses track of what is happening as
she plays. Does she have a problem understanding what is happening? You notice she has trouble
taking turns. She wants to keep all the toys for herself. Does she have problems cooperating? All
these skills are used when playing. It now makes sense she might have problems playing games.
It may not be a simple problem at all. It may be a complicated learning problem that needs
Does your child have difficulty understanding school assignments and what teachers expect?
The most likely reason for this is easy to miss. It is because the assignment or expectation
was not clear. Maybe it was not explained in a way your child could easily understand. This is
usually the trouble if the problem comes up mostly with one teacher or with another adult. If the
problem often comes up with several people, something else is going on.
There are several possibilities. Put vision and hearing problems at the top of your list.
Even if the teacher tells the child about the assignment, vision problems still need checked.
Gestures, facial expressions, and other visual clues are important parts of listening and
If the assignment was in writing, hearing is important. The teacher probably said
something when giving the assignment. Other children may have made comments that could
serve as clues. Any time a child has learning problems of any kind, have his hearing and vision
Note that whispering and talking quietly do not adequately test a child's hearing. It is the
same idea as simply looking at objects or pictures does not adequately test his vision.
Maybe he did not understand because he was not paying attention. This could be because
he did not think the assignment was interesting or important. Maybe he figured he would screw it
up anyway. Children with low self-esteem often think there is little point in trying.
Two other possibilities need some thought. He might have special problems paying
attention. For example, he might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Be sure
your child is seen by a psychologist or your doctor to check this out if he consistently has trouble
paying attention. The child will be checked for other possible problems at the same time.
The other possibility is harder to check. The assignment or what the teacher expects may
be beyond your child's learning and experience. He has not learned what he needs to know to
understand the assignment. This may be because his education has been neglected. He may have
serious mental or emotional problems. He just may not have the needed ability. You may not
want to accept these as possibilities but your child deserves consideration of every possible
Your child's not understanding can be complicated. Keep an open mind. Encourage and
support him while you check it out. The key is not to do anything he may read as blaming him. It
is not his fault he does not understand. There likely is more to it than his simply being difficult
and not cooperating.
Does your child have trouble understanding what he reads?
Your child's not understanding what he reads is a serious problem. In fact, it may be the
single most important sign of learning and school problems. It can have several causes.
Vision problems go at the top of the list. For children in school, undiscovered vision
problems are not very likely. Illness, difficulty concentrating and paying attention, not liking
what is available to read, and finding the effort required a bit much also are possibilities. Here is
the key idea. Not understanding what he reads has little to nothing to do with not trying, being
lazy, or a bad attitude. These kinds of things could cause the child not to read; but they would
have nothing to do with understanding or not understanding. When this sign is present, the child
goes through the motions of reading. It just does not lead to understanding.
If you ask your child to read a page from one of his school books and he looks at all the
words, he has gone through the motions of reading. You then ask a question or two and discover
that he does not understand. What is happening? Here is what to think about.
Your first idea may be that he is not smart enough to understand. Maybe he does not
know some of the new words. He may not know anything about the ideas or subject area. Any of
these problems could cause him to have trouble understanding. They should be checked out. But
the problem usually has little to do with these kinds of things. It is more likely he has a reading
What is a reading disability? There are several kinds. They sometimes involve perception:
the child sees what is on the page but has trouble making any sense of the marks and squiggles.
The child may see things backward or upside down. He may be unable to track the line of print
across the page. He may have problems keeping oriented on the page. A reading specialist can
help define the problem(s) and suggest ways to help him.
Keep this point in mind. Children who can learn usually do learn. Youngsters who can
read and understand usually do. If your child has a problem, just trying harder is very unlikely to
do any good.
Does your child get confused about what he is doing, what people expect or what people are
You will notice this sign in your child in a couple of ways. First, the child has trouble
getting the story straight when talking about things that happened. He might leave out important
details or get things out of order. He might not have the time element right or misread the
motives or behavior of people. The problem also can come up in a different way. Your child gets
into trouble. He is surprised and does not understand. He may become angry, very upset, and then
get into more trouble. It is like a confusing snowball. When it gets as big as it is going to get, the
child has no idea what happened. He just figures he is in trouble again for who knows why. It is
for sure he does not know.
This sign can cause your child to have problems at home and can cause him to have
behavior problems at school. He also may have other school problems because he gets as
confused in class as he does almost everywhere he goes. Many children who have trouble getting
along have this problem.
This kind of difficulty is hard to diagnose and understand. The child may have more
problems in some situations than in others. It is hard to predict. It also can spill over into what he
reads. He may get as confused about events in a book as in the real world.
Your first step is to see the problem when it is there. There are many other explanations
that are quicker and easier. It is easier to chock the problem up to not paying attention, lying, not
trying, and on and on. Youngsters do get confused; and for some, it is a serious learning problem.
An example may help. Jerry is fifteen and is suspended from school. The latest mess went
like this. He had been doing well for almost three months. This was a long time for Jerry. It
started one Thursday when he got into it with a teacher.
'She just cracked on me and gave me a detention.' He was asked why she did this. 'I
don't know. She doesn't like kids. She likes all the power.'
What happened? 'I wasn't doing anything. She just comes up and tells me I have to
Why did she want him to move? 'Who knows? She just likes jerking kids around.'
A few minutes later, he went on. 'I don't have to take it from her and told her so.'
What happened then? 'I'm suspended aren't I? What does it look like what happened?'
No, he is not covering up; he really does not understand what happened. Whenever your
child has difficulties at school, gets into trouble, or messes something up, ask yourself and him if
he may be getting confused. It is a real problem and deserves the same attention as you would
give to any other learning disability.
Does your child find that trying harder does not lead to his homework and other assignments
getting better and easier?
This is very common for children with learning problems. If it goes unnoticed, and it
often does, they finally get to where they just quit trying.
Think about this. Suppose you had tried for years to learn how to do something and could
not learn to do it. Add to this people who keep telling you, 'You are not trying hard enough.'
'You just need to put forth more effort.' 'You are failing, and some day you will wish you had
taken advantage of the opportunity.' How long would you keep trying? What would your attitude
be? How would you react to those people? Maybe you are a saint; but most of us would probably
do and say things we should not put in writing. It may be the youngsters who dig in and fight
back are the healthy ones. The ones who passively keep trying may have another kind of
problem. Whatever you think you would do, trying harder and still not succeeding is very
What is wrong? Why is your child not learning, not succeeding? For his sake, you need to
find the answer before he joins the ranks of those who just quit.
This is something worth thinking about. With some exceptions, children who do not do
well in school are trying as hard as those who are doing well, those for whom school comes
easier. It does not take as long to do homework if you know how to do it. It does not take as
much effort to read assignments if you are a good reader. 'It is not fair. I spent two hours to get a
D and others spent less than an hour to get B's. I quit!' The point is that any time your child is not
learning, help him find out why. It likely has little to do with anything that will improve just by
Does your child do some assignments very well and others very badly?
This sign can be hard to spot since it goes against the way most people think about
learning and achievement. Any child might have a bad day, get a bad grade, or just not do very
well. This sign gets at something a little different.
Here is the point. Youngsters' performance and achievement are fairly consistent over
time and across the board. If a child gets A's and B's in some subjects, it is unusual for him to get
D's and F's in other subjects. Here, we are talking about basic subjects such as Science, English,
History, Math, Social Studies, and the like. Subjects such as Music, Physical Education, and
Shop sometimes do not show the same pattern, although they usually do. Getting D's and F's
usually does not go with getting A's and B's. If the pattern for the child is not consistent, there is
often a problem needing attention.
For example, Renee was in the seventh grade and was a good student. She always had
trouble with Math; but this year, she started failing Math. Her other grades were fine. She was
told that she was not paying attention and was not trying hard enough. Also, Math was just
harder for girls or so the argument went. As you see, the message was to tell her it was her fault.
Her parents did not accept these explanations and looked for other reasons. As it turned
out, there were three problems. First, she was now in Middle School and was a little
overwhelmed. The work included some beginning Algebra and she was afraid to ask her teacher
for extra help. Next, she had a habit of being a little sloppy and was not keeping numbers and
other symbols aligned on her paper. This was causing her to become confused. Finally, she
believed boys were better at Math than girls and thought she was just not a good Math student.
The result was failure.
With a little extra help and some additional attention to neatness, her Math grades went
up to B's. This was a big improvement.
There may be many reasons for this problem. Some subjects emphasize reading more
while others emphasize thinking and discussion. Some are more visual and others are more
mental. Some add to knowledge and skills the child already has while others add new ideas and
require new skills. When you see a big difference in how your child does from one subject to
another, work with the child to figure out why. The real problem is likely not his fault.
This sign also comes up with activities away from school. How well youngsters do most
day-to-day things is usually consistent from activity to activity. Do not count exceptional talents
such as music and playing ball. Be concerned if your child usually does average or above in most
things and has a few things he does badly.
What do the activities where he has trouble have in common? Your child's trouble likely
has something to do with one or more of the common elements. It might be eye-hand
coordination, working in groups, getting organized, or something else.
If you watch closely and give some thought to it, the problem can usually be spotted. This
gives you a chance to give your child some extra help. It also gives you a chance to point him
toward activities where the problem does not get in the way so much. You want him to spend
most of his time doing what he does well. He needs success as much as he needs to improve his
Does your child forget to do homework or have trouble remembering what was assigned?
Real memory problems are uncommon. But forgetting or not remembering to remember
is very common. If it only happens once in a while and seldom involves important things, it is no
big deal. It is a problem if forgetting is a regular reason for not doing things. It does get to a point
when 'I forgot,' is not just one of those things.
It is tempting to accuse the child of lying or not paying attention. Either may be true. If so,
they are themselves problems needing your attention. More likely are several other explanations.
First, your child did not see the assignment or expectation as important enough to
remember. He thought it did not matter that much. Dealing with this is not complicated. It also is
a good place to start when you first notice the sign. Talk with your child about how important
you think the assignment or expectation is. Stress with him how important you think it is for him
to treat it as important. This often helps a lot all by itself.
Also be sure you are not using 'I forgot,' with him or others in the family over things they
thought you were going to do. Remembering is a part of caring, respecting each other, and living
in a family.
The next step is to be sure your child understands what you expect. When you ask her to
do something, have her repeat your request and briefly tell you how she will go about doing
whatever it was. Take five minutes for her to explain her homework assignments and describe
how she will do them. She might tell you, 'I will start on page 144 and read to the end of page
147. Also I will work the nine problems on page 201.' The point is to be sure she knows what to
do before you expect her to remember to do it.
The next step if the first ones do not work is to set some clear consequences for not
remembering. You might say, 'You forget to do your home work a lot. I also know you often
forget to clean your room. You say they are important but you do not act like they are. I want to
make them a little more important. Here is how I am going to do it. We will work on organizing
and scheduling things. You and I are then going to figure out what will happen each time you
forget to do your homework or clean your room. There need to be consequences. What should
they be? If we cannot decide together, I will decide for us. What do you think?'
Positive consequences for remembering are a good idea if you can come up with them. If
you use a negative consequence, be careful. It needs to be mild. The point is to help the child
remember and not to punish her for forgetting. It also needs to be something you can do daily if
necessary and something you will remember. Your forgetting would itself be a problem.
Does your child have difficulty following instructions and directions?
This sign usually is because your child did not understand the direction or just forgot. It
likely does not have much to do with defiance or intentionally not cooperating. Be sure he heard
the instruction or has read the direction. Have him repeat it to you and tell you how he will
follow it. This lets you know he got the instruction and understood it.
Here is the key. You say, 'Change your clothes after school.' When he tells you how he
will do it, some detail is important. When he gets home, what are the steps? He goes to his room.
He takes off his school clothes. He gets out his after-school clothes and puts his school clothes
where they belong. He then gets dressed and goes onto his next activity. Almost any instruction
can be put into a series of steps to follow. Also, most of the earlier discussion on forgetting
works here too.
Does your child have a problem paying attention to time or managing time?
This is a complicated sign. It has as much to do with the example you set for your child as
anything. Your setting a good example will help as will letting him know you think time is
Be sure you can answer Yes to these questions. Are you usually on time? Do things
happen at regular times such as dinner time? Do you usually get everything done you planned for
the day? When you tell him it will be a few minutes, does it really happen in a few minutes? Be
sure you are setting a good example.
Here are a couple more points. Doing school work has a lot to do with time management.
He needs to get to school on time and get to class on time after he gets to school. He needs to do
school work in the time he is given to do it and then turn it in on time. He needs to figure out
how long work will take and pace himself so he gets it done.
Your child's problems usually are because of several things. Not seeing how long things
will take is the most common. Getting better at this requires thinking about it, making estimates
and seeing how they work out and remembering how long it took the last time.
Another common problem is not keeping at it. Putting off starting, getting distracted,
day-dreaming, quitting before finishing and other bad habits get in the way.
This sign may be part of a more general learning problem; but it usually is not. It usually
has mostly to do with bad work habits and not staying with it.
Does your child get bad grades?
A bad grade once in a great while is no big deal. Even the reason for it is not so important
if it only happens very occasionally. Here is the important point. This applies to things like a
single day's homework, a specific test, or individual assignments. It does not apply to grade cards
or to whole subjects. They represent many grades over time. If your child gets a D or F on his
grade card or frequently gets bad grades in a specific subject, he has a problem.
Also think about this. What is a bad grade? It is not unusual to hear someone say, 'He
could get A's if he wanted to.' Here is the fact. Youngsters who can get A's by making a
reasonable effort get A's. It is as simple as that. If he does not get A's, either he really cannot or it
would take a super-human effort. Some extra effort is good. If it goes too far, the good grade
comes at the expense of other activities and at a very high cost in stress and pressure. The A is
not worth it. Perfection can be given far too much importance.
Keep this in mind. C's are average in most schools. Average children get mostly C's. If he
is getting mostly C's or a C among the B's, let him know you think he is doing fine. A little
pep-talk to get him to hang in there and give it his best is okay. Any more pressure than this is a
bad idea. It can actually make things worse.
Bad grades are D's and F's. If your child is getting bad grades in one or two subjects or in
most subjects, there is a serious problem.
First, suspect a reading problem. There usually is one. Next, consider the full range of
possible learning problems. Keep looking until an answer is found. When you see this sign, it is
unlikely it is the youngster's fault or that he can do anything about it by himself. If someone tells
you he just needs to try harder, find someone else who really can help you and the child figure
out what's wrong.
Does your child have trouble asking for help or letting anyone help?
The life-experiences of some children may have taught them that asking for help is a bad
idea. They may not have gotten any help. If they did, maybe it was not helpful or it may have
been unpleasant for them. 'You should already know.' 'You would have known this if you had
listened and paid attention.' 'I am tired of your bothering me.' Also, the youngster may see
asking for help as a sign of weakness or failure. This is not unusual for children whose
self-esteem is low. Start by asking yourself if you have really helped when your child asked for
Too much help also can be a problem. 'Will you show me how to work this problem?'
'This is a good time to get into the ideas and concepts associated with Math. Let's start back a
few pages to see if you have everything up to this point.' When adults try to help, especially with
school work, they often try to give more help and take much more time than the child had in
mind. He may want some help but may not want to spend an hour and sit through a lecture to get
For some children, the problem is not knowing how and when to ask for help. If they ask,
they don't know how to accept and use the help they get.
Here are some tips that often work. Let him know you are interested. Ask what he is
studying, what they did in school today, what he thinks about what he learned in Social Studies.
You are interested in him and in what he is studying. Ask him to tell you about what he reads.
Get him to show you how to work a Math problem or what the point of an experiment is. Get
used to talking about his school work.
If he is having a problem, say, 'You are having trouble with that. If you want, I will help
you with it some time.' Do not offer to help right then. If he has not asked in a day or two, ask,
'Did you figure out how to do the assignment we were talking about?' If he says he has, ask a
question or two to be sure. If not, ask what his plan is to learn what he needs to learn.
Also keep this in mind. Only give as much help as he wants and can accept. If he
misspells a word and asks for help, tell him how to spell it. Dictionary lessons can come later. He
asks how to work a Math problem. Simply work the problem while he watches. Start by giving
him the help he wants in the way he wants it. As time goes on, it will get easier. Later, you may
first check to see if he wants to look up the word or have you explain how to work the problem.
Another group of youngsters have trouble with this sign. They are the ones who are too
into being perfect or are unusually strong-willed. As you work with these children, the problem
usually is their negative or angry reactions. Push just a little but a fight is not good. Say, 'Your
reaction to my trying to help is a problem. I am going to try to help anyway. If you want to react
so badly, go for it. Learning to accept a little help is about as important for you as what you need
help with.' Just remember your success will come through trying to help and then trying again.
Helping your child is a slow process and not a reason to go to war.
Does your child have difficulty accepting or dealing with criticism?
Children who are hyperactive or suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
(ADHD) have a lot of trouble handling criticism. They tend to be emotionally high-strung and
overreact to things. They also are more likely to receive criticism and negative feedback from
adults. All this adds to their frustration and stress to make it harder for them to handle criticism.
They may experience criticism much like everyone else. They just do not hide their feelings as
Children who need to be too perfect also have trouble with criticism. For them, even a
small comment or suggestion may be hard to handle. They see it as an attack on them personally.
If their work is not perfect, they see it as totally wrong. You might see one of these children
destroy all the work he has done on a project if someone finds fault or suggests a way of
improving it. It is perfect or it is junk. This would be the extreme; but degrees of the problem are
Here is the point. If your child can handle criticism, he can manage almost any problem,
including most learning problems. He accepts and follows tips and suggestions. If he cannot
handle criticism, helping him is tough no matter what his problem is.
Talk with him about the problem. Try to see how criticism feels to him. See what he
thinks and feels when someone criticizes. Until you and he get past the problem, it will be hard to
help, hard to deal with anything.
This is the bind. Talking with him about the problem is itself criticism. You are
criticizing how he handles criticism.
This might work. 'You have me in a real bind. I have experience and know some good
stuff. I learned most of it by doing things wrong and making mistakes. Here is my problem.
Sometimes I see you learning the way I did. I see you are doing something wrong or in a way that
doesn't work very well. I think it would be easier for you if I told you what I'd learned; but when I
do, you get upset or bent out of shape. That makes me feel like 'Why bother?' Should I say
something or just let you learn the hard way?'
Does your child always have excuses for not doing well?
This point is easy to miss. When children always have excuses for not doing well, the
excuses are usually exactly what are causing the problem. They are usually right. They say they
did not know what to do or did not understand. They say they forgot to do their work or say they
thought they had done it right. They say they did not hear, and on and on. After a while, their
excuses wear thin. It is easy for adults to get frustrated and just react. A better reaction is to take
the youngster at his word. It is probably the truth.
Listen to your child's excuse. Say, 'I believe you. What you told me is exactly what
happened. I also want you to learn the difference between an excuse and a reason. A reason is an
explanation. An excuse makes it sound like it was okay. Your not doing well is not okay. Now
that we understand the reason, we are going to figure out a way to keep it from happening. You
say you did not do well because you did not hear the assignment. Let's talk about how to be sure
you hear and understand assignments.'
Just be sure you stay calm and focused on the reason. It is a problem to solve and not an
excuse for you to blame the child.
Does your child think his not doing well is someone else's fault?
This is an example of the last sign. Thinking it was someone else's fault is an excuse.
After talking about the difference between excuses and reasons, you might say, 'You think the
reason you did not do well is your teacher's fault. Tell me how it is her fault. That is a good
problem for you and me to solve.'
In another situation, you say, 'Let me see if I understand. Your friend Joe mouthed-off to
you in the hall between English and Social Studies. This got you in a bad mood. Also, some kid
was in your seat when you went into the room. This got you even more upset. You were telling
him to get out of your seat when Mr. Miller came in. He got on your back; and that was too
much. You said some things and he said some things and you ended up in the office. It went
down hill from there and you are now on suspension. Do I have it right?'
The youngster says, 'You have that right. It was Joe's fault.'
You then say, 'Whose fault it was does not make much difference right now. The people
at school think it was your fault. It doesn't really matter. Here is the problem. Whosever fault it
was, you are the one with the problem. Let's think about the reasons why you now have a
problem and figure out how you can manage and control things differently next time so you do
not end up the goat. Of everything that happened, is there one thing that may not have been your
best choice? Is there somewhere in there where you had a better choice if you had thought of it at
Your child's taking responsibility for his behavior can be a slow process but is necessary.
The same holds for making better choices and decisions and not trying to blame others for his
Does your child have to have an adult standing over him to get him to do his school work?
This can be a sign of several problems. The most likely is that your child has gotten used
to only doing his work if an adult is standing over him. He has learned a very bad habit.
Self-discipline, self-direction, responsibility, and the ability to work independently are learned.
Your task is to teach him skills and habits he should already have but does not.
Another possibility is a need for structure, support, and help. The adult standing over the
child is likely to offer suggestions, help keep him on task, and help him organize his work. It
seems like the child needs constant supervision but the real need is for help.
Another reason is a little different. Because of hyperactivity, attention deficits, or other
learning problems, the youngster just cannot settle down and do the work. If these causes are
there, he will have other problems you will notice.
Whatever the cause, your child's need for adult supervision is real. If you watch, here is
what you will notice. He can work alone for short periods. Maybe he can work alone only for ten
minutes. Maybe he can only handle three minutes to begin with.
Keep shortening the time until you find an amount of time he can work without you
watching him. It will take a lot of patience but is nothing to get upset about or frustrated over. If
you do, quit for a few minutes. Say, 'I need a break. How about you?'
If you want to teach your child to work independently, positive rewards work best. Start
with an amount of time short enough to be sure he succeeds easily. If there are not other serious
problems, ten minutes usually works to start.
Say, 'If you stay with it for ten minutes right now, you can quit whenever you want after
that.' The positive reward is getting to quit whenever he wants.
You worry he will not get his work done. He probably will not. It likely will be some time
before he finishes an assignment. Learning to do it himself is the first order of business, though,
unless you want to stand over him for the next ten or twenty years.
Does your child feel teachers and other adults at school have it in for him?
First, consider that it may be true. At least, the child believes it is true. That is a good
place to start. Do not start by telling her it is not true. She will only see you are unwilling to see
her side of things. You are just like those teachers who are against her.
Also, children who are doing well in school almost never have this complaint. Even if
they sometimes do, it does not keep them from doing their work. It may be human nature to feel a
little put upon at times, especially when your child has been criticized or did not get something
Think about this. An adult gets reprimanded at work or does not get a job he thought he
deserved. Do you think you would hear him say this? 'The people at work are always reasonable
and fair. I had the reprimand coming. I appreciate their honesty with me. I am a better person for
it.' Children usually handle these kinds of things better than adults but even they have their
This may help. Say, 'Okay, the teachers have it in for you. You have told me they are not
doing anything specific; but you can tell. Maybe they just don't like kids or at least some kids.
Have I got it right so far?' You then continue, 'They have it in for you; and it keeps you from
doing well, from getting the education you tell me you want. Here is the part I do not understand.
As angry as you are, it surprises me you are going to let them win, let them stop you from getting
an education. It looks like you would fight back. Do you know how to fight back, how to win?'
Listen to see if his ideas would help or if they would make things worse. Likely he will
not have an idea. You then say, 'I have some ideas but I think you would rather be angry and
lose. I wonder if you have what it takes to win. What do you think?' If he chooses to quit, it was
worth a try. His problem goes far beyond feeling picked on.
Does your child disrupt the classroom or the activities of other children?
Adults usually see this as a discipline problem and sometimes it is. But it is usually a sign
of learning problems. Think about your child's behavior. Now ask yourself this question. Have
you ever seen a child who is doing well in school act like this on any regular basis?
Here is the typical argument. If he would just settle down and behave, he would do better
in school. Here is the more important point. If he did better in school, he would behave better.
Almost always, the learning problem came first and the behavior problem last.
Why does he misbehave? He may have a behavior disorder that needs special treatment.
This is so likely, it always needs checked out. Even if he does not have a behavior disorder, it is
nearly certain he has a serious learning problem.
Just getting on him and pushing him to do better can cause him more problems than he
already has. This is a good rule-of-thumb. Until you understand his problems, do not try to fix
Does your child make no effort to cooperate and get along?
This sign is close to the end of the school and learning line for your child. He has quit.
Children usually do not reach this point until high school but it can happen to younger children.
They get failing grades, are punished, and often are suspended and then expelled. Along the way,
they are likely to pass through juvenile court and often end up in foster homes, group homes, or
Here is the point to understand. This sign is an outcome and not the original problem.
How did it start? Usually it started as a learning problem your child should have gotten help with.
Is there no hope? There is if everyone working with your child understands two things.
First, the underlying trouble is a long standing and serious learning problem. It needs treated.
Next, understand that your child's cooperating and trying to get along make little
difference for him. When he was younger, he likely tried. By now, not bothering to try makes
sense. How hard do you think you would try if you failed almost every day of your life?
Helping starts with being honest with the child. Say, 'I think you have a learning
problem. I want to try to help. Let me be up-front with you about this. If I were you, I would
probably laugh at anyone who says she wants to help. You have heard that story before. Also, I
don't think I would be much interested in trying if I had your experiences with school and
learning. I cannot give you any guarantee. I am just offering to try. Can we talk about it?'
Does your child skip school or miss school a lot?
Let's assume this is not because of a medical or physical problem and is not due to a
severe emotional or mental illness. If these were the causes, they should be being treated and
arrangements should have been made for your child's education.
Often missing school is the next step beyond not caring. The young person only goes to
school when someone makes him go. He might go if he has nothing better to do. And he thinks
almost anything is better. Skipping school finally leads to dropping out or getting expelled.
By now, you see how it works. Learning problems keep your child from being successful
at school. He tries but does not succeed. Over time, learning problems turn into behavior and
attitude problems. These lead to severe stress and very low self-esteem. These problems lead to
not caring and often to dropping out.
Here is the sad truth. At each step along the way, it was easier to blame the child and hold
him responsible than to understand and help.
If your child has any of the problems we have discussed, talk with his teacher about your
concerns. They are serious and need attention now. If you do not start now, the problems will still
be there when school starts again next year and when it starts the year after that.
Perhaps you do not have time to talk to your child's teacher. If not, that is a real shame.
Your child will have the rest of his life to deal with the consequences of your being too busy to
help him today.