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The Early Signs Your Child Needs Extra Help – Don’t Wait for the First Report Card

It’s the end of September and your child brings home a math test with a failing grade. When you ask him what happened, he simply says, “I just don’t get it.” Your child is working on a paragraph assignment and stops after every sentence to ask you “if it sounds good.” Your kid brings home a novel and you see her reading the assigned chapters, but when you ask her about the plot and characters, she isn’t able to tell you about what she read.

Parents are usually concerned when they observe situations like these, but they are often unsure if their observations are of normal “kid” behaviour or if they are indicative of more significant issues. The result? Parents take a wait-and-see approach and the problems only escalate, turning into significant academic gaps.

How can parents really learn to recognize the early warning signs? How can parents avoid an unpleasant surprise on the first report card? The key? Recognizing the different ways the early signs of academic struggle manifest. Early signs of academic struggle present differently depending on your child’s age, learning style and meta-cognitive awareness (ability to self-evaluate the effectiveness of learning skills and strategies). Below is a list of three common presentations of early signs of academic struggle, how to identify them, and how to intervene:

1.    The child who is unaware that he/she is struggling will often present as confident but they are unaware that their assignments and homework are missing key elements.  In younger children, this type of academic discrepancy is often first recognized when a child completes an assignment that veers entirely from the instructions or intended purpose (think – the child is asked to write a paragraph about the protagonist’s character traits but instead, provides a plot summary). In older children, this type of academic trouble presents in an inability to read inferentially and this learning gap, if left unaddressed, occurs across subject areas. This child might, for instance, be able to summarize the details of the important events in the War of 1812 but be unable to explain how each individual event had an impact on the progression of the war. The fix? First, look at your kid’s homework and any feedback from the teacher. Are there any clues that key elements are missing? Ask your kids simple, age appropriate questions like, can you predict what might happen next in this story or what is the relationship between decimals and making change at the grocery store. If you are not satisfied with the answers you get, set up a meeting to chat with your child’s teacher!

2.    The child who seeks out seemingly constant reassurance from parents/teachers/the dog/anyone who will listen, that their work is good/that they are on the right track, is not only a child who struggles with confidence and risk-taking, but also potentially a child who needs closer attention. If you have a child who asks you, vaguely, if every sentence of his paragraph is “good,” the best way to check if your child lacks confidence or if this behaviour is an indication of a larger academic issue is to turn the question back to them by saying, “I’m not sure. Do you think this sentence is good/the solution to this proof is correct? Why?” Spot the issue early: while a student who lacks confidence will have the ability to self-assess when you ask these questions, a student who is struggling might actually need the external feedback to ensure the accuracy or correctness of their work. These students are struggling with the big picture and get lost in the small details or steps without feedback, which is a recipe for a whole host of future academic problems as school subjects become more advanced. If your child fits the latter profile, be sure to check in with the teacher early in the year and seek out extra support for your child.

3.    If your child is a class clown and a homework time prankster, you might want to do a little investigating. While some kids might have a natural affinity for stand-up and need for attention from their peers, many ‘funny kids’ use humour to cover up their lack of understanding or inability to complete an assigned task. This is particularly true of high school aged kids. So if you have a budding Amy Schumer, Chris Rock or Ellen DeGeneres living at your house, take some time to look at their work. Does it demonstrate understanding and application of the concepts taught? Do they make jokes or excuses about it being incomplete/not good/unavailable for you to see? If you suspect your child is using humour to cover up a problem, please get in touch with the teacher to see if there is a similar pattern emerging at school.

If you notice any of these signs, what should you do? In the world of education, communication is paramount, even before the first report card or before parent-teacher conferences. If you have concerns about your child’s performance and haven’t heard from the teacher, make an appointment to share your concerns.

Whether your child’s school is able to provide extra support and resources, you decide to work with your child on you own, or elect to hire additional tutoring support, the best thing you can do for your child is to recognize the early signs of struggle and open the dialogue. Speaking regularly with you child and communicating with the school can prevent problems from escalating and ensure optimal success for your child.

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