Why Kids Fall Behind At School: 21 Reasons & Expert Advice

What do kids fall behind at school?

The National Center for Education Statistics has been consistently tracking student progress. While about 36% of students were an academic year behind their peers before the pandemic, that percentage has risen to almost 50%.

Understanding the reasons why kids fall behind can help parents and educators implement effective strategies to support children and ensure they reach their full academic potential.

Children fall behind academically for a variety of reasons – from having a learning disorder to mental health challenge or lack of resources and support. External factors like the pandemic delays and learning from home can also have far-reaching implications on student learning.

1. Learning and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Learning disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and dyslexia can make it difficult for children to keep up with their peers academically. These disorders can affect a child's ability to process, understand, and retain information, leading to struggles with reading, writing, math, and other core subjects.

Expert Tip: Early diagnosis and intervention are key to helping children with learning disorders succeed academically. Parents and teachers should be aware of the signs of these disorders and seek professional help if they suspect a child may be struggling.

2. Mental Health Issues

Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and social anxiety can also impact a child's academic performance. These conditions can make it difficult for children to concentrate, stay motivated, and engage in the learning process. They can also lead to absenteeism, disengagement, and other behaviors that can further exacerbate academic struggles.

With mental health issues on the rise, they are quickly becoming a leading reason why kids fall behind. Between 2016 and 2020, a study conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) found a 29% increase in the number of children ages 3-17 years diagnosed with anxiety, and a 27% increase with depression. And that was before the pandemic.

Expert Tip: It's important to create a supportive and understanding environment for children struggling with mental health issues. Encourage open communication, provide emotional support, and seek professional help when necessary.

3. Health and Physical Problems

Health and physical problems, including chronic illnesses and sleep disorders, can affect a child's ability to perform academically. Children who are frequently ill may miss a lot of school, making it hard for them to keep up with their peers. Sleep disorders can also affect a child's ability to concentrate and learn effectively, and visual, auditory, or motor issues can contribute to learning struggles as well.

Expert Tip: Regular medical check-ups and a healthy lifestyle can help prevent and manage health problems that may affect a child's academic performance. If your child is frequently ill or has trouble sleeping, it's important to seek medical advice.

4. Stress and Trauma

Children who have experienced stress or trauma at home or in their community may struggle academically. This can include a wide range of situations, from family financial problems and domestic violence to divorce or the death of a loved one, violence in their neighborhood, or exposure to a natural disaster. These experiences can cause emotional distress that interferes with a child's ability to focus on schoolwork.

Expert Tip: Providing a safe, supportive environment at home and at school can help children cope with stress and trauma. Trauma-informed counseling can also be beneficial.

5. Boredom and Lack of Challenge

Children who are not challenged enough by the work they are given in class may become bored and disengaged, leading to a decline in academic performance. This can be particularly true for gifted or high-achieving children who may not feel stimulated by the standard curriculum.

Expert Tip: Parents and teachers can help by providing additional challenges and opportunities for learning outside of the standard curriculum. This can include advanced classes, enrichment programs, and independent study projects. If a caregiver suspects their child may be gifted or high-achieving and has not been formally identified by the school system, they can request their child be evaluated.

6. Pandemic-Related Learning Gaps

The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant learning gaps for many students. School closures and the shift to remote learning have disrupted traditional learning environments, making it difficult for many students to keep up with their studies.

Expert Tip: Schools and caregivers can help address these gaps by providing additional support and resources to students who have fallen behind. This can include tutoring, summer school, and other learning recovery strategies.

7. Lack of Interest and Motivation

Some children may fall behind academically simply because they lack interest in the material or lack motivation to do well in school. This can be due to a variety of factors, including a mismatch between the child's interests and the school curriculum, a lack of engagement with the material, or a lack of perceived relevance to the child's life and future goals.

Expert Tip: Parents and teachers can help foster interest and motivation by connecting schoolwork to the child's interests and goals, providing positive reinforcement for academic effort and achievement, and creating a supportive and engaging learning environment.

8. Poor Organization and Study Habits

Children who struggle with organization and study habits may find it difficult to keep up with their academic workload. This can lead to missed assignments, poor test preparation, and overall lower academic performance. Time management issues can also contribute to these struggles, as children may find it difficult to balance schoolwork with other responsibilities and activities.

Expert Tip: Parents and teachers can help children develop better organization and study habits by providing structure, teaching time management skills, and offering strategies for effective studying. Poor organization and time management skills are also common symptoms of learning and neurodevelopmental disorders. If parents or caregivers notice a consistent pattern of these symptoms, their child will likely benefit from further evaluation.

9. Home Environment and Parental Support

The home environment and level of parental support can significantly impact a child's academic performance. Children who lack a quiet, safe space to study, or who do not have access to necessary resources such as books, computers, or the internet, may struggle academically. Similarly, lack of parental support or involvement in a child's education can also hinder academic progress.

Expert Tip: Parents can support their child's education by providing a conducive environment for studying, getting involved in their child's education, and advocating for their child's needs at school. If it is difficult to provide a quiet space or access the internet at home, caregivers may want to consider a local library for study time.

10. Bullying, Peer Pressure, and Social Issues

Social issues like bullying, peer pressure, and cultural or societal expectations can significantly impact a child's academic performance. Similarly, financial issues can lead to stress and anxiety, making it difficult for children to focus on their studies.

Expert Tip: Encouraging open communication with your child about their social experiences and challenges can help identify issues early. Schools should also have robust anti-bullying policies and support systems in place. For financial stressors, schools and communities often have resources available to help families, such as free or reduced-cost lunch programs and school supply drives. Caregivers can speak with the school social worker or administration to learn more about these resources.

11. Inconsistent School Attendance

Regular school attendance is crucial for academic success. Children who frequently miss school, whether due to health issues, family responsibilities, or other reasons, may find it difficult to keep up with their peers and may miss out on key learning opportunities.

Expert Tip: Parents can help by prioritizing regular school attendance and communicating with teachers or school administrators about any challenges that may be preventing consistent attendance. Schools can also provide support through attendance recovery programs and other interventions.

12. Language Barriers and ESL Challenges

Children who are learning English as a second language (ESL),who come from non-English speaking homes, or who struggle with a Language Disorder may face additional challenges in school. Language barriers can make it difficult for these children to understand instructions, participate in class discussions, and complete assignments, leading to lower academic performance.

Expert Tip: Schools can support ESL students and students with Language Disorders by providing language support services, including intensive language intervention, ESL classes, and bilingual education programs. Parents can also help by encouraging their children to practice English at home and seeking out additional language learning resources.

13. Teacher-Student Relationship Problems

The relationship between a teacher and student can significantly impact the student's academic performance. If a child feels misunderstood, ignored, or unfairly treated by a teacher, they may become disengaged from learning and perform poorly in that teacher's class.

Expert Tip: Parents can help by maintaining open lines of communication with teachers and advocating for their child's needs. Teachers can work to build positive relationships with all students, using strategies like positive reinforcement, fair treatment, and getting to know each student as an individual.

14. Overcrowded Classrooms

Overcrowded classrooms can make it difficult for teachers to give each student the attention they need to succeed academically. In such environments, some students may fall behind because they aren't receiving enough individualized instruction or feedback.

Expert Tip: Parents can advocate for smaller class sizes or additional classroom resources. Teachers can also employ strategies to manage large classes effectively, such as using cooperative learning strategies or technology to individualize instruction.

15. Frequent Relocation

Children who frequently move or change schools may struggle academically. Each move can disrupt a child's learning, cause them to miss school, and make it difficult for them to form stable relationships with teachers and peers.

Expert Tip: Parents can help by providing as much stability as possible during moves, keeping communication open with new teachers, and helping their child adjust to new school environments. Schools can also provide support through transition programs and other resources.

16. Ineffective Teaching Methods

Teaching methods that do not align with a child's learning style can lead to academic struggles. For instance, a child who learns best through hands-on activities may struggle in a classroom where instruction is primarily lecture-based.

Expert Tip: Parents can advocate for their child's learning needs, teach their children self-advocacy skills, and seek out additional resources or tutoring that align with their child's learning style. Teachers can strive to incorporate a variety of teaching methods to accommodate different learning styles.

17. Low Self-Esteem or Lack of Confidence

Children who lack confidence or have low self-esteem may be less likely to participate in class, ask questions when they're confused, or seek help when they need it, all of which can lead to lower academic performance.

Expert Tip: Parents and teachers can help build a child's confidence by providing positive feedback, encouraging effort, and celebrating successes. It's also important to foster a supportive and non-judgmental learning environment. Self-esteem and confidence issues are often associated with mental health or learning challenges. If there is a consistent pattern of these issues, caregivers may want to consider further evaluation by a mental health professional.

18. External Pressures

External pressures, such as extracurricular activities or jobs, can take time and energy away from academic pursuits, leading to lower academic performance. These pressures can also cause stress and anxiety, which can further impact a child's ability to focus on schoolwork.

Expert Tip: Parents can help by ensuring their child has a balanced schedule that includes time for schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and relaxation. It's also important to teach children effective time management skills.

19. Lack of Foundational Skills

If a child does not master foundational skills in early grades, they may struggle with more complex material in later grades. For example, a child who struggles with basic math skills may find it difficult to understand algebra or geometry.

Expert Tip: Parents and teachers can help by ensuring children master foundational skills before moving on to more complex material. This may involve additional practice, tutoring, or remedial classes.

20. Fear of Asking Questions or Admitting Confusion

Children who are afraid to ask questions or admit when they're confused may fall behind academically. This fear can prevent them from seeking the help they need to understand the material, leading to gaps in their knowledge and understanding.

Expert Tip: Parents and teachers can foster a learning environment where questions are encouraged and confusion is seen as a natural part of the learning process. It's also important to reassure children that everyone struggles with new concepts at times.

21. Overemphasis on testing and grades

An overemphasis on testing and grades can lead to performance anxiety and stress, which can negatively impact a child's academic performance. The pressure to achieve high grades and test scores can overshadow the importance of learning and understanding the material, leading to a focus on rote memorization rather than critical thinking and comprehension.

Expert Tip: Parents and educators can help alleviate this pressure by emphasizing the importance of learning and understanding over grades and test scores. Encourage children to view mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures. Schools can also consider implementing assessment methods that promote comprehensive learning and understanding, rather than just rote memorization.

Empowering Strategies for Academic Recovery and Success

Every child and teen is different and parents play a critical role in helping to support their child's academic progress. If you are concerned about your child's academic progress, it helps to get an expert opinion.

“Psychological testing can be extremely helpful in identifying a child's strengths and challenges as well as their individual learning style. Evaluations and testing can target the reasons behind behavioral and academic challenges, and provide direction for behavioral management and home and school.”

Julie D'Orsi, HYM Lead Psychometrist.

As mandated by federal law, parents have the right to request their child's school conduct an evaluation for their child. Additionally, if you don't agree with the results of the school's evaluation, you have the right to obtain what is known as an Independent Educational Evaluation, or an IEE (§300.502) from a private practice such as Healthy Young Minds.

“Every child or teen has their own individual strengths and areas for growth,” concludes D'Orsi. “Understanding why your child might be falling behind can help define the right path to get them back on track.”

Written by Dr. Cari Whitlock

Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Healthy Young Minds

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