Is your child earning bad grades?

Is the child:

  • Having trouble in school?
  • Receiving poor grades?
  • Refusing to follow teacher directions?
  • Falling asleep in class?
  • Struggling to cope with challenges at home (divorce, family strife)?
  • Getting frustrated with homework?
  • Not on grade-level and not seeming to care?
  • Struggling to complete work in several subjects?
  • Often in trouble with the teacher?


Academic achievement is an important component of a child’s life. While you go to work each day, your child goes to school. Your work, whether in the home or in the office, becomes a part of your sense of self and your ability to contribute to the world.

Your child has the “job” of listening to the teacher, following classroom rules, and completing schoolwork. School participation also involves learning to be a part of a social community of peers, with exposure to sports, art, music, and other extracurricular activities.

Feedback comes in the form of grades. Just as you would know if you were not making the cut at work, your child will know whether he or she is not making the cut at school. It can be hard for a child to maintain interest and motivation in school if he or she is constantly failing. At these times, some children cope by disengaging.

A number of reasons could explain why school could be challenging for a child, and these reasons will be discussed below. As a parent, you will want to ensure that your child’s school experience is as positive as possible, and that your child’s family and community life is positive as well.


Clinically, several reasons are possible for explaining poor achievement or low motivation. These may include disinterest in school, attention and focus challenges, emotional struggles, social difficulties and bullying, low ability, environmental variables like family stress or poverty, or learning concerns like dyslexia.

One author of this article completed a dissertation on the relationship of child self-perceptions of performance in school with teacher report, grades, and test scores. That study found, as you might suspect, that children know when they are performing poorly in school and that their academic self-efficacy (whether they feel that they can do well in the classroom) has a significant impact on their performance.

If a child does poorly in school, he or she may develop low self-esteem and demonstrate poor motivation.

Learning disabilities like Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia indicate a difference in the auditory and/or spatial processing in the brain that impacts the ability to read, write, or complete math.

The way that someone with one of these disabilities sees, hears, and remembers information is different. Often, phonological processing, which refers to processing sounds that go together to form language, is impaired. This impairment can be very frustrating for a school-aged child.

Attention, focus, and distractibility can also make it very hard for a child to do well in school. Sometimes, motivation drops when it is very hard to do well in school.

Social isolation: is another variable that could impact motivation. Children may struggle when they feel picked on or left out. Children need to feel comfortable and to feel a part of the learning community.

If a child is spending his or her time worrying about what insult she will hear next or if she feels alone, with no one to have lunch with or talk to on the playground, these experiences will likely impact performance at school.

Environmental Factors: are important to consider when child is doing poorly in school, refusing work, or challenging the teacher. Just as your work may suffer after the death of a loved one or a change in family structure (like marriage, divorce, or a new baby), your child may have a very hard time feeling motivated and engaged at school when dealing with such issues.

Teachers must know the demographics of their community, understand the family structure of their students, and be sensitive to what children may be going through.

A child who is suffering from depression or anxiety is likely to have school struggles. Families who are in poverty, suffering through traumatic circumstances, or in the midst of big changes are not often able to provide their children enough stability. Sometimes, these situations are far beyond their own control. In these situations, having nurturing role models at school, extra support, and second chances to have success can help a child build a positive self-esteem.


If you are wondering about your child’s school performance, first consider whether there are factors in your child’s life outside of school that may have an impact.

Recent changes at home: Consider any significant recent changes. Talk to your child in a calm and accepting way; work to understand how emotions and environmental variables may be having an impact.

Depression or emotional distress: If you suspect depression, find a therapist to work with your child. Make yourself available for love, comfort, and support (even if your child does not indicate that he or she wants it)

Physical problems: Make sure your child has a current physical; be sure there isn’t a medical cause for your child’s challenges. Children who have frequent illnesses, allergies, and poor eating or sleeping habits are likely to have concomitant learning challenges. In that case, teachers may notice that your child is lethargic, seems tired, or falls asleep in class.

Learning problems: If none these factors seem to be the root of your child’s learning challenges, it is well advised to talk with his or her teacher and school team about your concerns. Ask whether learning problems are evident in your child’s thinking and reasoning abilities, reading, writing, or math skills. If so, your school can evaluate these areas to determine if your child has a learning disability.

If you don’t get the support you want from your child’s school, consider seeking a private evaluation to see how your child is doing cognitively and academically, with a focus on social-emotional development.

Positive behavior: If your child does not have any disabilities that are impacting learning, supportive strategies can be employed at home. For example, you may work to develop age-appropriate and meaningful rewards.

Meet with the teacher for your elementary school-aged child and determine what rewards and motivators are present in school. Set up a simple reward system at home with privileges or treats earned with effort, such as listening to the teacher and completing assignments. This system should not be grade-based but effort-based.

Motivation: Although reward systems are generally helpful, it is important to remember what is at the heart of motivation: autonomy (choice). That is, although we can garner compliance through the use of reward systems, it is important to work hard to find intrinsic motivators that already exist within your child.

Entire books are dedicated to the subject of motivation, but we will skip to the punchline here. The way to create conditions that motivate our kids is to ensure the child has: autonomy, competence, and positive relationships.

  • Autonomy: Maybe your child does not want to do it your way. Allow your child to choose the times of day to study, the topics to research, and the approach to assignments
  • Competence: Individuals maintain motivation when they feel that they can do the task
  • Relationships: Individuals feel more motivated when they feel good about their relationship with the people involved in the activity. Your relationship with your child is the foundation that will guide him or her through these challenges at school. Make time each day to talk and do something fun that your child enjoys, regardless of what happened at school.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Learning problems: difficulty with study skills, cognitive ability, reading, writing, or math
  • Basic reading skills: problems in decoding, accuracy, or fluency
  • Reading comprehension: problems in understanding written language
  • Writing: spelling, grammar, or organization
  • Math problems: math facts, calculation, or problem solving
  • Executive functions (Organizing): problems getting started, planning out assignments, and keeping track of progress
  • Family Problems: problems within the family system, such as divorce, illness, or poverty that impact a child’s ability to engage in learning
  • Behavior Problems (Behaving): problems with compliance, not listening, or following directions
  • Emotions/Mood (Feeling): emotional challenges can have a huge impact on academic performance
  • Attention (Focusing): problems shifting or sustaining attention


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Developmental Delay: problems with motor, learning, and/or speech may impact learning and achievement
  • ADHD: problems related to attention and executive functioning may impact learning and achievement
  • Intellectual Disability (ID): problems with low intelligence will impact grades. Having a Full Scale IQ (FSIQ) score below 70 and adaptive behavior functioning scores below 70 generally indicates intellectual disability. School will be challenging; motivation and achievement may be low
  • Specific Learning Disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities – can be diagnosed clinically as well): problems with reading, writing, or math (also called Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, or Dyscalculia) are likely to impact learning and achievement*
  • Depression: problems with sadness and overall enjoyment in life may cause lower achievement or motivation. Family system challenges can also influence mood and engagement

*Note just because a child is identified or diagnosed with a learning disability does not necessarily mean that he or she qualifies for services under an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Please see ‘Educationally Identified Disabilities’ for more information about qualification criteria.


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in mental health context. Have a comprehensive evaluation to determine your child’s profile and consider learning, attention, ability, and emotional symptoms
  • School Psychologist: to consider symptoms in a learning context or evaluate for school services. *Note just because the child is struggling or has a disability, does not mean the child necessarily qualifies for services on an Individualized Education Program (IEP). See ‘Educationally Identified Disabilities’ for more information on eligibility criteria
  • Occupational Therapist: to look at fine motor needs if there are any
  • Speech Language Pathologist: to look at issues with receptive or expressive language

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • Beery VMI sequence: a test of visual motor integration (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • CELF-5: a test of language skills (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • WISC-V: a test of intelligence (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • DAS-2: a test of cognitive ability (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • WIAT-III or WJ-IV: a test of academic skills and achievement (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • Emotional rating scales and projective measures: tests of emotions and mood (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • TOVA, Conners-3: tests of attention (Clinical or School Evaluation)


[1] Anderman, Eric M. & Anderman, Lynley Hicks (2009). Classroom motivation.


[2] Eide, Brock & Eide, Fernette (2006). The mislabeled child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success.


[3] Deci, Edward L. (1995) Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation.


Perseverance book for kids:

Esham, Barbara (2014) Keep Your Eye on the Prize (Adventures of Everyday Geniuses).


Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.


Kobi, Yamada & Besom, Mae (2013). What do you do with an idea?                   


Zentic, Tamara (2015). Grit & bear it activity guide: Activities to engage, encourage, and inspire perseverance.


Deak, JoAnn & Ackerley, Sarah (2010). Your fantastic elastic brain stretch it, shape it.


Hamm, Mia (2006). Winners never quit!


McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.


McCumbee, S. (2014). The garden in my mind activity book.


Image Credit:
Disappointed Girl Holding Result…
Image ID: # 30414070 (iStock)
By: Neustockimages
Previously licensed on: October 21, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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