How to Help When Your Teen Falls Behind in School

Support your teen's efforts to get his homework done on time.
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In high school, harder concepts are introduced, more work is assigned and the expectations are higher -- and that doesn’t even take into account the stressors of non-academic pursuits, such as sports, clubs, jobs and friends.

With all the pressure piled onto today’s teenagers, it’s no surprise that some start to slip behind on their schoolwork. If you’re not careful, a teen who falls behind may be at risk of getting into a pattern of failed tests, incomplete homework, and dismal report cards.

The good news is, if you intervene early, you’ll be able to help your teen catch back up before his grades slip too far.

Prevent Your Teen from Digging Themselves Too Deep

Whether your teen doesn’t understand geometry or missed a few days of school and is having trouble keeping up in science, falling behind can be really stressful. And many teens cope with that stress by avoiding their work.

Rather than face the pile of homework that keeps adding up or sit down and stare at a book they don’t really understand, they often prefer not to think about it. But the “out of sight, out of mind” approach only makes their problems worse.

If you suspect your teen is falling behind, intervene as early as possible. It’s easier to catch up on missed work and difficult concepts when they are only a little bit behind. If they get too far behind, they are likely to become overwhelmed and it will be much harder to catch up.

Prioritize Your Teen’s Schedule

If your teen is flitting from drama club to football practice to flipping burgers each day, the situation might simply be that they have taken on too much and can’t keep up. If that’s the case, remind your teen what’s important and encourage them to cut back on non-academic pursuits.

Sit down with them and prioritize which activities need to take precedence. Some teens assume their involvement in extra-curricular activities is crucial to college admissions. But, college admissions officers won’t care what activities appear on transcripts if they have failing grades.

Rule Out Underlying Learning Disorders

Your teen’s academic downturn might have a root problem that’s a bit more serious, such as a learning disorder. Between 8 percent and 10 percent of children under 18 in the U.S. have a learning disability, and they’re not always necessarily diagnosed at a young age.

A lot of smart kids manage to perform well in school until high school. When the work gets harder, their learning disabilities become more apparent.

If you suspect your teen may be struggling with a learning issue, talk to school officials. If your teen’s teachers see signs of a problem, your teen may be tested for learning disabilities.

Consider Physical or Mental Health Issues

Your teen could be suffering from dyslexia, which affects language abilities, dysgraphia, which could affect their writing abilities, or dyscalculia, which affects mathematical abilities. Your teen might also be experiencing ADHD, which can cause the teen to have a hard time concentrating or keeping his attention on schoolwork.

However, the root cause might not be specific to school. Instead, it could be myriad other physical or emotional conditions, including sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, eating disorders or substance abuse.

How do you find out if one of these problems is affecting your teen? Talk to them. Of course, they are likely not going to admit to you that they're falling into a pattern of drinking or developed anorexia on first mention, but opening the line of communication is a smart start. You can also talk to your teen’s pediatrician or a licensed mental health professional for advice on how to proceed if it’s a medical issue.

Meet With Your Teen’s Teachers

Your teen’s teachers might have already called you if they noticed a drastic downturn in performance, but if they haven’t, schedule a one-on-one with them as soon as possible. If your teen is doing poorly in more than one subject, see if you can set up a group meeting rather than visiting the teachers individually. In some cases, the teacher might have tried to remedy the problem with your teen already, and is turning to you because that strategy didn’t work.

At the meeting, ask teachers if they’ve noticed any personality changes in your teen. Often, instructors see a part of your child at school that you don’t see at home, particularly as it relates to friends or a potential relationship.

They might have insight as to what is the root problem. Keep in mind that some information the teacher gives you might surprise you, and it might even make you upset.

Teachers may say your child simply isn’t trying or that they're "lazy." Remember that it’s not an attack on your parenting skills or your child’s character, but rather an observation as to what’s going on at school.

Ask for Resources

Your teen’s teachers will likely have support available to your student, both in and out of school. They might hold study hours after school or offer to meet privately with your teen to help them review the material before a test.

Teachers might know about tutoring groups that meet in the school library or have a recommendation for a tutor whose services are provided outside the school. If your teen is having difficulty in one particular subject, rather than overall, a tutor might be the smartest option. Just one session a week can make a big difference in overall understanding of a topic.

Create a Routine

It’s hard to create structure in a teen’s life when they’re acting independently of you by creating their own schedules. But, if they've shown that they need a little more oversight, dictate that they come home immediately after school and start on homework.

Put away the phones and tablets and allow a computer only for research. Turn off the TV and have your teen set up their work in a quiet place that’s easily accessible to you--i.e. not behind a closed bedroom door where you can’t see what happening. Once homework is done, have dinner together as a family and only then can your teen return to their phone, favorite TV shows, video games, and the like.

You should also implement a routine as it pertains to your child’s sleep patterns, as well as a morning routine. A teenager needs eight to 10 hours of sleep each night and failing to get that can lead to academic issues. A morning routine can also help start your teen’s day off properly so they're not feeling rushed or stressed and can better focus once the bell rings.

Consider Offering Rewards

Some families aren’t comfortable rewarding good grades. But, some teens will feel motivated to work a little harder if there’s something special on the line. It might be something as simple as being able to go out a little later than curfew on a weekend or something bigger, like being able to use the car.

Whatever strategy you implement, don’t hesitate to get started on it. Too many parents wait until their child has brought home that first failing report card to seek help.

By that point, a teen could be disengaged from school and lacking the motivation to improve their work. If you act quickly, you can turn around your teen’s academic career so it doesn’t have any long-term impact.