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Reading into a kid’s behavior can be a tough job.  And it can be even harder to know definitively how to respond to a kid’s behavior.  There are days when you may think that everything is fine for your kid, but it’s actually not.  And there are moments when you may think your kid is suffering, but they’re actually fine.  So what are the signs that your student is struggling?

When children are very small (babies and toddlers), it’s easier to recognize their cries as a plea for help. Babies cry to let people know what they need. And many people are aware that toddlers aren’t fully in control of their lives. Toddlers require adults to manage situations so they can learn emotional regulation.

It can be more challenging to know what kids need as they get older. Stereotypes about the stages of child development don’t help with this. Many people seem to think kids progress from lovable babies to cute elementary kids to stubborn teenagers.  Older kids are generally thought of to be more difficult than smaller children.

Another common assumption is that kids gain skills like communication, organization, and social behavior through observation. To some degree there might be some truth in this idea; kids learn from what is modeled by others. Other kids will need additional support to learn life skills.

Repercussions for Struggling Students

Many kids do turn out fine, despite inaccurate assumptions.  However, it’s important to help the kids that need extra support. Their self-esteem and sense of worth are dependent on intervention. Without intervention they will continue to struggle.  Some kids will bounce back later. Other kids turn to substance abuse, school drop-out, college drop-out, or incarceration due to the challenges they face. 

Regardless of what each individual faces, it can be difficult to rebuild one’s self esteem.  Almost all struggling students are left with an emotional trauma from being misunderstood and failing repeatedly. 

Knowing When to Intervene

The first step to getting students the right help is knowing when to intervene.  Every child will have their own set of struggles.  Struggling through something can be good and should ideally motivate students.  And, contrary to current practices, eliminating struggle from a child’s life is detrimental to their development as an independent thinker and person.

The right kind of struggle can potentially develop resilience, determination, and grit in students by pushing them outside their comfort zone. But when kids struggle to the point feeling overwhelmed, it can have adverse effects on their development.  They are prone to giving up learning to avoid difficult tasks.  Intervention becomes a necessity when students become overwhelmed with the learning. 

Productive versus Destructive Struggle

The challenges students face can be categorized into two different types of struggle: productive struggle and destructive struggle.  It’s when students exist in the zone of destructive struggle that adults should intervene and offer students more support.  But how do you differentiate between productive and destructive struggle? 

Productive struggle is when students are given the space to grapple with a concept and independently develop a solution.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel with productive struggle.  Students actually become more excited about learning by solving their own problems.  Productive struggle builds off of what kids already know how to do.

Destructive struggle is when students are left to fix problems that are too challenging for them to solve.  Students cannot see how their persistence will end positively.  The desired expectations or learning goals seem impossible to meet.  This leads to students feeling as if their efforts are in vain resulting in them giving up due to pent-up frustration.

I like the motto, “kids succeed if they can.”  When students have the right skills they will succeed.  There is also the implicit idea that kids want to be successful.  A subtler also implication exists with this statement; when kids aren’t doing the right thing, they must not have the right skills.

It is the responsibility of us as adults to help the kids acquire the right skills.  By learning when to intervene and teach skillsets, our teenagers and young-adults could be more well-adjusted individuals.

Signs of Struggling Students

There are many different reasons why a student might be left in the destructive struggle zone (learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, disorders, executive function issues).  And there are so many parallels between all of these reasons.  Listed below are common indicators a student is struggling:

  • Difficulty concentrating
    • Students who need frequent reminders to focus may be experiencing poor working memory–holding, processing, and building on new information.

  • Emotionality
    • Kids with learning disorders may feel shame or embarrassment for their deficits. They struggle with low self-esteem. They typically have school-related anxiety because they don’t understand why they can’t keep up with their peers.

  • Not living up to their potential
    • Kids with learning disorders often fail to live up to their potential. Their work does not reflect how bright they really are. This can be described as the discrepancy between ability and aptitude. (Ability is what kids are able to do, while aptitude is what kids should be able to do.) It’s clear that a student’s aptitude is much greater than what they demonstrate in their schoolwork.  Also, just because a kid’s aptitude is much higher than their current efforts, this doesn’t mean they are capable of achieving more. 

  • Hiding out
    • Kids who have learning disorders are aware that they have more difficulties than their peers. When students come across as excessively shy–not contributing during group projects, sitting in the back row, doing everything in their power to avoid being called on–they may be trying to hide a learning issue.

  • Missing homework
    • Students with learning disorders often struggle to get their homework turned in on time–or at all. This could be due to embarrassment of handing in incomplete/incorrect homework, forgetting the due dates, or losing their homework.

  • Executive function difficulties
    • Executive function skills include self-awareness, self-control, working memory, emotional regulation, self-motivation, planning, and problem solving. Kids with learning disorders will have a challenging time grasping any number of these skills.

  • Avoidance
    • Kids with learning disorders may try everything in their power to avoid school situations that trigger their anxiety or stress. They may opt for easier tasks or classes rather than choosing the ones that will challenge them.

  • Poor social skills
    • Learning disorders don’t just affect a child’s academic performance in the classroom. Kids with learning disorders often times have poor social skills. This can include behaviors that make them appear immature or awkward, not knowing how to respond in situations, unsureness of how to express themselves, missing verbal and nonverbal social cues, and sharing information in socially inappropriate ways. Some of their other behaviors may include standing too close to other people and being oblivious to people’s reactions.

  • Social isolation
    • Social isolation is often another indicator of a potential disorder. There are a couple possible reasons for a child’s isolation. Their peers may be bullying them or they may not know how to interact with other kids.

  • Physically awkward or uncoordinated
    • Learning disorders have the potential to affect a child’s coordination and motor skills. Kids with learning disabilities will sometimes appear physically awkward or clumsy.

  • Overly dependent on parents
    • A kid that is not learning independence should raise some red flags. Kids may be reliant on their parents for a number of reasons: they may not be able to advocate for themselves; their parents may provide security; or they may not know what to do without their parents telling them. While kids need some guidance from adults, they also should be developing some independence as they grow.

  • Messy handwriting
    • Sloppy handwriting can be a byproduct of a learning disorder in kids.

  • Doesn’t make connections
    • Learning disorders affect can affect a kid’s ability to make connections. Kids may remember information, but may forget why it’s important. They may also pay attention to details but miss the bigger picture.

  • Thinks in literal, concrete terms
    • Kids with learning disorders may think slightly differently than their other peers. Their thinking may be more literal. This more concrete thinking can apply to social situations and also academics. Kids that think in literal terms will miss subtle cues in language or they will have trouble in their classes with figurative language.

  • Changes the subject abruptly in conversations
    • Kids with learning disorders may have difficulty having and maintaining conversations with other people. It can be hard for them to stay on the same subject or follow the story-line in a conversation. When a conversation is already going they may change the subject abruptly.
Signs Your Student is Struggling
Signs Your Student is Struggling

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If any of these seem to be issues your student is having, the next question is how to handle the issues.  Talking to kids can be a great first step. You can ask them if they are having trouble in school or in life.  While they may not be able to name the issues, your kid is the best resource for what their problems are.

Talking to the student’s teachers, administrators, or parents (if you’re a teacher) can be another great step.  They will probably have some good insights as to what the student is like as a person.

Pediatricians can be another good resource; your child’s pediatrician might have some ideas of what your child’s challenges are (especially if it’s related to mental health).  Pediatricians are also able to give doctor’s notes and evaluations that you can hand to administrators at the school.

Regardless of the steps you take, be proactive about handling the situation.  As frustrating as it is for you to deal with the behavior issues, just remember, your student is frustrated too. They want to relish in the feeling of success.  Our roles as educators and parents become easier when we solve with the underlying issues within students, not just the surface-level behaviors. 


Childmind.org–Tips for Recognizing Learning Disorders in the Classroom


How to Know if Your Child Needs Help: Signs Your Student is Struggling

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7 thoughts on “How to Know if Your Child Needs Help: Signs Your Student is Struggling

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