School is a complicated thing. There is the academic component (obviously), which can be difficult enough. Then there’s the social component, and the drive and desire to ‘fit in’ with your peers. Then there’s also that component about keeping your emotions (and your mind) attentive and ‘in check’ for a large majority of the day, to help you ‘perform’ at your optimal level in both these academic and social domains. So much more than just showing up and learning your times tables, huh?!
So then, why might your child/student be struggling at school?
The answer is…its complicated. It could be a number of factors; and I’d be putting your child or student at an extreme disadvantage if I narrowed it all down to just, “they’re just not a smart kid”. Here is my attempt to explain some possible reasons or scenarios.
1. The student is experiencing LITERACY difficulties.
This includes difficulties learning to read and write, as well as the underlying foundation phonological awareness skills. These phonological awareness skills (including the ability to break down words into smaller chunks, such as individual sounds) can often be missed, and so even students in later academic years can be tested to find that they are missing some of these foundation skills.
2. The student is having difficulty with the LANGUAGE ASPECT of academics. There is so much that goes into academics – and this increases as the school grades are higher. What first started as a simple maths equation of 1+1=…? has now become a vocabulary-rich, inference-needing, if-then problem solving mess that needs to be tackled first, before then coming across the straight forward mathematical problem.
If you want to ride the roller coaster, you must be 1.5 metres tall. Darren is 161 centimetres, Robert is 148 centimetres and Mark is 135 centimetres tall. Who can go on the ride? How much more do the others need to grow before the fair returns to town next year?
What does ‘if….then…’ mean? How do I convert metres to centimetres? What even is the word centimetres? How do I remember all of these points when coming up with a solution? These are just a few of the questions that your student may face when tackling this ‘simple’ maths equation.
Then there’s also the language that they are expected to use to provide their answers. Students who have difficulties putting their thoughts into words can come at an extreme disadvantage, as they then tend to simplify or shorten their often brilliantly complex thoughts, into the smaller range of words that they can articulate.
3. The student is having difficult with the MEMORY aspect of academics.
Memory plays a vital role in a student’s learning, and again this increases as the school grades are higher. Hence he/she may have fantastic language skills to understand/decode the problem solving question above, however they struggle to keep all of this wordy information in their working memory, to allow them to even have time to think of 1) what information was important in that paragraph, and 2) what is the answer. Some students are fantastic at hiding their memory difficulties, by engaging in compensatory strategies that they may not even realise they are using – but unfortunately, some of these compensatory strategies may not be enough as they progress through school.
4. The student is having difficulties with the MOTOR requirements of classroom learning.
It may hurt them to hold their pencil, or to keep it steady as they write. The student may have poor core strength, making it difficult to stay seated for long periods of time (and hence concentrate in table top work). The student may have poor upper body strength – again impacting their ability to hold themselves/their arms up to complete the work. In fact, weaknesses in any or all of these areas may be taking up the majority of their memory and concentration, that they simply cannot focus on the actual work that they’ve been asked to do.
5. The student is having difficulties with the VISUAL requirements of classroom learning.
Now this may refer to your typical vision difficulties (think long- and short- sightedness), but there is another area known as visual processing, and visual tracking. And both of these skills are required to help students make sense of what is on their page, find the important information, UNDERSTAND that information, and then write their responses in a neat (and usually straight) fashion.
6. The student is having difficulty ATTENDING in the class. Now we bring to light other environmental factors.
Is the student in one of those amazing classrooms, that the teacher has spent hours decorating to stimulate the kids? Sometimes, these amazing decorations end up serving as distractions for those who have difficulty keeping on task. OR, is the student sitting next to a best friend (who has a lot to chat about!)? Or just someone who is particularly vocal/fidgety? Maybe they’re the ‘mover and shaker’ who needs to keep moving in order to concentrate, but the teacher is insisting that they stay still. These factors can also have quite significant impacts on a student’s academic success.
7. The student is having difficulties MAKING FRIENDS (and keeping them).
This may come as a curveball, but as I said before, a large part of school is that social component, and our own natural desire to fit in, feel included, and have a supportive network of friends. When this isn’t there (or the student feels that it isn’t there – there can be a difference), sometimes academic achievements can become less of a priority, which means less attention and effort, and ultimately, less than their best in their work.
8. The student is not COPING EMOTIONALLY with an outside factor.
This may be something that happened in the playground, or something that happened at home – but when emotions are difficult for a child to ‘keep in check’, they can significantly cloud their concentration, and ability to attend to academics – no matter how important they may be. This can be tricky to identify, particularly if the difficulties are at home, but a good place to start is by taking some extra time to watch and observe the student in a range of different scenarios – lunch breaks, free time, group activities, and general classroom work times.
9. The student doesn’t know how to ASK FOR HELP.
These are the students who may appear to be completing their work, however when you go to check on their progress, they have done something completely different, or procrastinated with just a few words. The reason why may be because of any of all of the above factors, but they don’t have the skills or confidence to speak up and ask a teacher for their help.
10. The student does not have the EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING skills to make a plan on how to execute the task at hand.
Think of the seemingly simple task of ‘write about what you did on the weekend’. A variety of factors need to be considered:
1. What is a good story starter?
2. Where do I start writing on the page?
3. What did I actually do on the weekend?
4. What is important to share? Do I talk about the noodles I ate Friday night? The rock that I nearly tripped on when walking to my friend’s house? Or just that I went to the farm with Sophie?
5. What do my readers know? Do I need to explain who Sophie is? Do I need to explain where the farm is?
6. How much do I need to write?
7. How do I end my story?
Without that ability to PLAN what the student is going to write, it is likely that the story will end up quite short/irrelevant/lacking ‘flow’, despite all of the ideas he or she may have.
Given the range of reasons as to why a student may be struggling, it is understandable that the path you travel to help your student or child can vary significantly. So your best efforts might be to first try to identify some possible reasons as to why your student may be struggling, and then speak to the experts to find out who might be able to help with that difficulty best.
All the best,
Ashton Horsley is a Speech Pathologist and owner of Stepping Stones Therapy Services – a private practice that offers a range of therapy services to the Paediatric population in the South West of Australia.
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