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Why Can't My Child Get Good Grades?

"Why can't my child get good grades?  I know he's smart enough.  His teacher says he's not paying attention in class or he doesn't follow directions."  "I know he can do better in school.  What should I do?"  As a child clinical psychologist I've often heard these questions asked by many frustrated parents.  The typical story go something like this: "She did fine in kindergarten, first and second grade, but after the third grade school became so much harder." Or "He could earn Cs in elementary school, but after entering middle school all of his grades dropped to Ds and Fs."

Many children demonstrate learning difficulties at certain points in elementary and middle school.  These children are generally intelligent enough to learn, but find other things interfering with their ability to meet their true potential.  For example, some children may have attentional problems, others may have a visual or auditory processing problem and some students suffer from learning disabilities.  As a child psychologist who specializes in psychological testing and educational consultations, I am often contacted by parents requesting testing to determine whether their child has ADD/ADHD.  These questions are often raised by teachers when a child does not appear to be paying attention or is very disruptive in the classroom.  These children sometimes present with symptoms of ADD/ADHD, but oftentimes other issues that mimic attentional problems interfere with their academic progress. 

In addition, some teachers cite problems with following directions or comprehending written and oral information presented in class.  These behaviors suggest the possibility of problems with a child's ability to fully process visual or verbal information.  That is, they may easily hear or see the information, but their brain does not fully take in and integrate what is being taught.  As a result, these children are often confused and frustrated, and this frustration is carried home and manifested in battles about completing homework or school projects.  

Furthermore, I quite often receive referrals for children who are struggling in one or more subjects academically, but excel in other areas both in and outside of school.  For example, one child might do well and earn As in language arts, but struggle and earn Ds and Fs in math.  This latter situation suggests what is known as a specific learning disability in mathematics.

As a parent it is often difficult to determine exactly which of these problems is affecting your child, or what to do to help him/her.  Some parents contact the school principal asking for assistance for their child, and are often turned away or their concerns are minimized.  Other times the school may agree to evaluate a child for additional services.  Then the school psychologist determines that the child does not qualify for special education services, so the child continues to struggle and earn poor grades.  I often hear about this frustrating cycle from parents who have attempted to gain special education services for their child for years, and then finally contact me for assistance.

What is a parent to do?  There are many federal and state laws that govern educational services for children in kindergarten through high school.  However, few parents are informed about the process of obtaining special education services and specific accommodations for their child at school.  As a child psychologist and educational consultant, I have had the opportunity of assisting many parents through this process.  In fact, during my initial consultations many parents are so angry and frustrated that they are prepared to hire attorneys "to fight the school district."  In the end they are surprised and often relieved that appropriate services can be obtained for their child in a cooperative format without threats of litigation.  

Some of the services that can be very helpful for children who are struggling in school include Specialized Academic Instruction or SAI (a pull-out program with a Special Education Teacher), speech therapy, occupational therapy, special day classes, one-to-one aides, and 504 accommodation plans, where the school contracts with the parents to make needed modifications to increase success.  In my practice as a child psychologist I have seen many children who initially struggled and earned poor grades eventually succeed and enjoy school with the support of these additional services.

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