Identifying School Struggles
As an inpatient and outpatient child / adolescent psychiatrist, I see children and teens, and, consequently, their families facing a wide range of mental health conditions. In the wake of the extensive remote learning related to the COVID-19 pandemic, these challenges have become increasingly common, and can range from social impairments to academic hardship to overt refusal to attend school.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in six children ages 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year. Nearly half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14. While schools play a critical role in helping to identify concerns in children, schools are often tremendously (and increasingly) overwhelmed and can only do so much. As such, parents and guardians can play an active role in helping to identify their children’s struggles. Unfortunately, most kids won’t directly tell you they are struggling, so here are some signs to look out for:
-Talking about school becomes off limits, particularly about subjects in which your child may be struggling.
-Your child exhibits a major attitude change toward school. Children and teens may complain of being “bored”, which could also mean they do not understand the material.
-Your child exhibits changes in sleeping or eating patterns. Especially, look out for this on school nights.
-Your child spends too much time on homework. A rough estimate is that a child may have about ten minutes per grade level of homework per night. It’s important to be familiar with the teacher’s homework policy.
-Your child’s teacher explicitly expresses concerns. They see the behavior in school, BUT even they miss things, especially if your child tends to hold things in and is not disruptive.
-Your child begins to misbehave at school.
-Your child receives low grades and these are a drastic change from grades they previously earned.
-Your child spends much of the school day at the nurse with vague physical complaints, missing critical class time and socialization. At an extreme, your child may attempt to avoid going to school altogether.
Now that you’ve identified the problem, what can you do? Have an open conversation with your child – let them know what you’ve noticed and give them a chance to respond themselves. Try and stay open and really listen to their concerns without trying to assume your own interpretations like “they are lazy” or “they are overdramatic”. Remember, they may be guarded, so it’s important to gather additional information. Connect with your child’s teachers to get their thoughts. If difficulties are in one specific class, you could try tutoring or extra help from the teacher; if they are more pervasive you may need to be more aggressive in how you address things. Try and determine the nature of the difficulty: is it more social/emotional or cognitive/academic? The school may be able to help distinguish this, and it’s okay to ask for additional help from a pediatrician, therapist or psychiatrist.
At public schools, you may formally request that the school evaluate your child’s needs by submitting a written request. Remember to sign and date the request, have the school sign and date when they receive the request and get a copy upon their acceptance of the letter. They have 30 days to respond and either agree to start an evaluation OR provide parents with a “Prior Written Notice” explaining why they do not think evaluation is warranted. This does not mean families cannot purse additional testing /evaluation on their own, but sometimes this can be costly.
Overt refusal to attend school is not a diagnosis in the psychiatric manual, but can point to a variety of psychological conditions like anxiety, trauma or depression. Approximately 2-5% of school children may experience school refusal. It’s important to remember this is NEVER normal. The failure to attend school has significant short and long-term effects on children’s social, emotional, and educational development. That said, it is a complicated problem and requires a collaborative approach to treat. Parents SHOULD NOT feel they are in this alone! Other members of the team may include a pediatrician, psychiatrist, or therapist. At some extremes, children may even require treatment in an inpatient psychiatric hospital or partial hospitalization program. It’s important to build relationships with the school and possibly others to help develop and plan for getting and keeping a child in school.
Typically, remote learning is not the answer to any school difficulties. Even prior to the pandemic, studies indicated that students who did remote learning were at a disadvantage. In 2015, a study of 158 virtual schools compared with traditional schools indicated virtual students obtained lower results in reading and math. In 2021, an analysis of virtual learning during the pandemic indicated a loss of five to nine months of learning with multiple psycho-social consequences including anxiety, depression, concentration difficulties, social isolation and lower levels of physical activity. In summary, there is little evidence of benefit with complete remote learning. More schools are offering hybrid learning models for students floundering in mainstream programs.
School is central to a child’s development. Parents now should have some tools and resources for identifying signs of struggle in their children. Early intervention is important to foster academic and social development and promote psychological well-being.
NAMI. Mental Health in Schools. https://www.nami.org/Advocacy/Policy-Priorities/Improving-Health/Mental-Health-in-Schools
Linnell-Olsen, Lisa. (2020, May 20). 7 Warning Signs Your Child is Struggling in School. Very Well Family. https://www.verywellfamily.com/warning-signs-your-child-is-struggling-in-school-2601436
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Inpatient Handouts. SPED Request for Families.
Kawsar, MD S., Yilanli, M and Marwaha, R. (2021, June 11). School Refusal. StatPearls (Internet). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534195/
Bissonnette, S and Boyer, C. (2021, July 27). The Effects of Remote Learning on the Progress of Students Before and during the Pandemic. Inciativa Educacao. https://www.iniciativaeducacao.org/en/ed-on/ed-on-articles/the-effects-of-remote-learning-on-the-progress-of-students-before-and-during-the-pandemic