Help for struggling students

Dear Dr. Linda,

My daughter Zoe is in 6th grade and is really struggling. She has had a hard time since kindergarten, but this year things are worse. The school has been very helpful—she has been classified and is receiving help in the classroom, but she’s still struggling in every subject and homework takes hours. We shared Zoe’s test results with my sister-in-law, who told us she’s at a third-grade level in both reading and math. We looked into private schools and there’s no way we can afford that. I’ve even thought of homeschooling, but I have no idea how or what to teach her. Where do we go from here? Thanks, Carolyn 

Dear Carolyn,

If your daughter is reading at a third-grade level, it’s not surprising that she’s having trouble with 6th-grade social studies, science, and English. Likewise with math. Middle school math—dealing with fractions, decimals, percentages, and beginning algebra— would be daunting. We can’t run until we walk. In other words, doing well in school is hard if we haven’t mastered the basics. And that’s the number one problem of struggling students. The question is what interfered with her learning in the first place? Most likely it was Covid, and for students who were struggling before Covid, it’s even worse.

Go back to the school counselor or psychologist and review Zoe’s scores. Looking at a single score doesn’t really tell us anything. Is her reading score based on a timed test? Maybe she actually reads above that level but reads slowly. Is it based on poorly developed decoding skills, a limited vocabulary, or poor reading comprehension? We can’t comprehend text if we don’t understand the words or even know what they are.

Also, it might not be that Zoe just missed developing some fundamental skills. She may have a problem with attention or high anxiety that prevents her from progressing. Far too often, children are given extra support, as in Zoe’s case, but it doesn’t help because the child is just plain lost, overwhelmed, or anxious—she’s not engaged in the learning process.

The bottom line is this: When we’re learning something new, especially skills like reading and doing basic math calculations, we have to practice. Some need more practice than others to move learning into long-term memory in the brain. Zoe probably needs more practice, but if the material is too difficult for her, she has a learning disability, or she’s embarrassed because she’s 12 and can’t do the work that her friends are doing, she’s unlikely to practice in a way that will benefit her unless she’s engaged.

There is help for struggling students, but you first have to learn exactly why your daughter is struggling. It may take having her tested outside the school for issues unrelated to academics, but until you understand the nature of Zoe’s problems, you can’t set a course for addressing them that has a chance of succeeding.

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