How to Help When Your Teen Falls Behind in School

Support your teen's efforts to get his homework done on time.
Bruce Laurance / The Image Bank / Getty Images

In high school, harder concepts are introduced, more work is assigned and the expectations are higher than ever—and that doesn’t even take into account the stress 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 get in trouble with their schoolwork. Teens who fall behind may fall into a pattern of poor test grades, incomplete homework, and failing grades.

While you can't force your teen to do their work, you can offer a little extra support to help them. With your help, they should be able to catch up on homework before they fall behind too much.

Step In Early

It's important to help your teen before they dig themselves in too deep. Whether your teen doesn’t understand their math homework or they lost an important project in science, falling behind can be really stressful. And many teens cope with that stress by avoiding the truth.

Rather than face that pile of homework that keeps adding up or stare at a book they don’t 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, consider it a sign that they need some extra support. The sooner you step in, the better. It’s easier to catch up on missed work and difficult concepts when they are only a little bit behind. Once they get too far behind, they are likely to become overwhelmed and it will be much harder to dig out of the hole.

Prioritize Your Teen’s Schedule

If your teen is flitting from drama club to football practice to flipping burgers each day, they may be overscheduled. If that’s the case, they may need to cut back on non-academic pursuits.

Sit down together and prioritize. 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.

You may need to establish a clear rule that helps your teen decide whether they can continue activities outside of school. For example, you might say, "If your progress report shows ant failing grades you'll need to quit your job," or "If you're missing more than two homework grades, you'll need to quit the drama club."

Rule Out Underlying Learning Disorders

Sometimes learning disorders go undiagnosed until high school. When the work gets harder, 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 Mental Health Issues

Many teens struggle to stay caught up on their schoolwork because they're battling mental illness. It's hard to do homework when you're feeling depressed or anxious. Sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, eating disorders or substance abuse are just a few of the common mental health issues teens face.

If you suspect your teen has a mental health issue, schedule an appointment with the doctor. Discuss any changes you're seeing in your teen's mood, behavior, and academic performance and the physician can help determine how to proceed.

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 changes in your teen's mood or behavior. 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 dating relationship.

They might have insight as to 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 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 the overall understanding of a topic.

Create a Routine

It can be hard to create a structure for your teen's life if they are already fairly independent. But setting aside a clear homework time could help them develop better self-discipline.

Establish clear study time rules too, such as no cellphones. Turn off the TV and have your teen set up a work in a quiet place that’s easily accessible to you rather than behind a closed bedroom door where you can’t see what happens.

Implement a routine as it pertains to your child’s sleep patterns, as well as a morning routine. Teens need 8 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 are not feeling rushed or stressed and can better focus once the bell rings.

Offer Incentives

Some families aren’t comfortable rewarding good grades. But some teens 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.

Talk to your teen about what they would like to earn. Then, discuss how you'll know when they are on track. Getting all of their homework done on time for a week might lead to an extra privilege. Or, getting caught up on the work they were behind on might lead to more fun activities on the weekend.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.