When Your Child is Struggling in School

You just got the phone call or the email.  The teacher says your child is struggling in school.

First, you have my empathy.  I’ve sat on both sides of the desk as teacher and parent. Second, I know it’s hard and I know you are a good parent. You wouldn’t be reading this post if you didn’t already care.

But what do you do now?  I’ve read countless posts in Facebook groups about parents genuinely not knowing how to respond to bad news from a teacher.

Here’s my tips for when your child is struggling in school.

Please note: I used the pronoun “she” for teacher for ease and consistency. I recognize and appreciate the many wonderful teachers who use the pronouns “he” or “they.”

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Listen to the Negative Feedback

I wrote a whole post about how you can support your child’s teacher.  The most important way: communicate with your child’s teacher about your concerns.  Instead of stewing or worrying, get in touch!

But the other side of communication is listening.  Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’re really committed to helping your child succeed in school, but listening to negative feedback is hard for everyone.

No one likes hearing bad news about their child. Whether it is misbehavior or academic struggles, it’s hard to hear. Someone once told me, “Our children are our kryptonite.”

But you really need to listen to the negative feedback.  It’s going to give you important information.

Teachers should be professional and specific with their concerns.

What to Expect from the Teacher

While initially your role should be to listen, the teacher has a role, too.  She should describe the problem in a neutral way with a lot of specific details around when, where, who, and what is involved.  She should also detail all the strategies she has employed to address the problem.

If your child is struggling with behavior expectations, you should definitely hear what strategies the teacher has tried to redirect your child’s behavior. It is reasonable to ask for multiple types of strategies to be used if the first attempts didn’t work.

If your child has academic or learning concerns, you need to ask what support and interventions has the teacher provided for a child who is struggling. You’ll want to hear several different strategies to try to teach the academic concept or support the work habit struggles.

While you need to be involved, when there is a school-based problem, there should be several school-based attempts to solve the problem.

Even if your child is displaying poor behavior, meetings should be solution-oriented.

When the Teacher is Unprofessional

At the same time, it’s really unprofessional for a teacher to just complain to you about your child.

I was fortunate that I didn’t teach with professionals who preferred to complain over solve problems.  Now that I’m a parent, I’ve heard it can happen.

It makes me sad.  It makes me wonder how those teachers would feel if their colleagues discussed their child that way.

Some parents have shared in parenting groups about parent-teacher conferences or IEP meetings where it was very problem-oriented rather than solution-focused.

You don’t have to tolerate unprofessional behavior. You can be kind and assertive.

First, you can say, “I’d prefer this be a solution-oriented meeting.”

Second, you can repeat back what the teacher is saying: “So you’re saying Suzie doesn’t do her work because she just wants to get her own way?”

Third, you can write it down in front of the teacher and say you plan to include the school administration in the conversation via email.  Try not to make this sound like a threat, but more out of concern for the teacher’s difficulties to instruct your child.

Even if the teacher is feeling very frustrated by your child, it is unprofessional and unnecessary for that emotion to spill over into meetings.

Questions to Ask the Teacher

When you speak with the teacher, you’ll want to make sure you have all the details.  Some good questions to ask are:

  • When does this problem occur?
  • What are the academics like at this time?
  • What strategies have you tried to deal with this problem?
  • What additional strategies could be tried?
  • Has the learning specialist, counselor, intervention teacher, student success coach, and/or psychologist observed my child?

Also, ask questions about what the teacher expects from you. You don’t need to agree – just get the information.  Try to listen to these requests with an open-mind.

  • What is the purpose of this meeting?  Are you merely informing me or do you expect an outcome?
  • What are my rights as a parent?
  • What do you believe are my responsibilities?
  • Do you want me to speak with my child’s medical provider?
  • Is there something you want us to practice at home?

Once you have a clear understanding of the teacher’s concern, you can speak with your child.

Make sure to be neutral and discuss the problem with your child.

Address the Teacher’s Concern with your Child

After you have the teacher’s perspective, address the concern with your child at home.  Usually, the most effective solutions arise when you make sure you understand your child’s point-of-view. If your child is having difficulty meeting an expectation at school, it’s tempting for parents and teachers to assume a lack of will over a lack of skill.

Usually lack of will isn’t the case: barring children with psychiatric disorders, almost all children would prefer to do well rather than struggle. Let’s be honest with ourselves – it is easier to comply and do well than to resist and struggle. Often the child has lagging learning or behavior skills that are causing the struggle.

To get your child to open up to you, make it clear your child is not in trouble. Express that you want to hear what the child thinks about the situation so you can work together to solve problems. This might take several attempts to get your child talking.

Communicate to your child that you want them to do well in school but everyone needs to work together to figure out what is holding them back.

If this model of parenting or school collaboration interests you, I wholeheartedly recommend you check out Raising Human Beings or Lost at School by Ross Greene. Dr. Greene also has a website with free resources at livesinthebalance.org.

Should I Punish my Child for School Behavior?

You might be wondering if you should punish your child when they misbehave at school or are struggling to complete their work. This is an incredibly individual decision and I won’t shame you for your parenting choices.

As a teacher, I didn’t want my students to have consequences at home for school behavior.  I wanted their parents to understand the situation and have conversation about it.  However, I felt that school behavior should be addressed at school.

Furthermore, I don’t believe a child should be punished or disciplined twice – once at home and once at school.

Personally, my husband and I don’t choose to punish our children for their school behavior at home. We don’t find it effective and there is abundant research on the ineffectiveness of punishment.  Punishment makes people want to avoid the source of the punishment rather than correct the behavior that causes it.

In our family, we set a high expectations for our children. Then when our child has problems with an expectation, we collaborate to find solutions with our children.

chalkboard with 1=1=3 math equatoinn
Rethink punishment for school behavior – solve problems instead.

Don’t Children Learn from Consequences?

I recently read in something like this in a parenting Facebook group: “I give my children consequences (i.e. fancy word for punishment in this case) because in the real world, if they don’t pay their rent on time, there are consequences.”

Fundamentally, for my husband and me, the difference is we don’t want our children to pay their rent out of fear of the consequences; we want them to pay it because it’s the RIGHT thing to do. Plus I think most of us would agree that people who are struggling with paying their rent have other more profound issues that run-of-the-mill entitlement.

We don’t protect our children from natural consequences (i.e. you spent your allowance so there’s no money for toys today or you didn’t clean your room and now you’ve lost a toy), but we tend to avoid punishments.

If I were to say, “No iPad today because you ran out of the kindergarten classroom,” is that really going to help my child learn to deal with whatever caused her to flee the classroom? I only wish it were that easy!

If your child is acting out in math class because the assignments are too hard, would you punish your child?  Would that really solve the problem or “motivate them to do better?”

Chances are that your child has already experience natural consequences at school and it hasn’t solved the problem.  Your child is gossiping and other kids don’t want to be their friend.  You child isn’t turning in the homework, and their grades are suffering.  If these sound like your child, then it demonstrates your child is having trouble with an expectation and natural consequences haven’t had an impact.

Recapping When Your Child is Struggling in School

  • Listen to the teacher’s concerns about your child even though it’s tough.
  • Complaining is unprofessional and you don’t have to sit through it.
  • The teacher should provide detail specific concerns.
  • The teacher should have tried a number of strategies to address those concerns.
  • Avoid the mistake of assuming lack of will over lack of skill.
  • Speak with your child about the concern – there is a very good chance they will have some information that will help remedy the problem.


The bottom line is it is your right to know when your child is struggling in school and for you to expect that there have been several types of school-based interventions.

If your child is having a hard time in school, ultimately the school needs to inform you and they also need to be prepared to collaborate to meet your child’s needs.

It is your responsibility to listen to negative feedback about your children, get the teacher’s perspective on it, and work together for solutions.

I know it’s tough, but you are tougher, and I’m here cheering you on!

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