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Adolescents and School Failure: Tips for Parents

Many adolescents experience a time when keeping up with school work is difficult. These periods may last several weeks and may include social problems as well as a slide in academic performance. Research suggests that problems are more likely to occur during a transitional year, such as moving from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school.

Some teens are able to get through this time with minimal assistance from their parents or educators. It may be enough for a mother or father to be available simply to listen and suggest coping strategies, provide a supportive home environment, and encourage the youngster's participation in school activities. However, when the difficulties last longer than a single grading period, or are linked to a long-term pattern of poor school performance or behavior problems, parents and educators need to intervene.

Some risk factors (listed below) may represent persistent problems from the early elementary school years for some kids. Other children may overcome early difficulties but begin to experience related problems during middle school or high school. For others, some of these indicators may become noticeable only in early adolescence. To intervene effectively, parents and educators can be aware of some common indicators of a teen at risk for school failure, including:
  • Absenteeism - the child is absent five or more days per term.
  • Attention problems as a young student - the child has a school history of attention issues or disruptive behavior.
  • Behavior problems - the child may be frequently disciplined or show a sudden change in school behavior, such as withdrawing from class discussions.
  • Lack of confidence - the child believes that success is linked to native intelligence rather than hard work, and believes that his or her own ability is insufficient, and nothing can be done to change the situation.
  • Lack of connection with the school - the child is not involved in sports, music, or other school-related extracurricular activities.
  • Limited goals for the future - the child seems unaware of available career options or how to attain those goals.
  • Multiple retentions in grade - the child has been retained one or more years.
  • Poor grades - the child consistently performs at barely average or below average levels.

When more than one of these attributes characterizes a teen, he/she will likely need assistance from both parents and educators to complete his/her educational experience successfully. Girls, and children from culturally or linguistically diverse groups, may be especially at risk for academic failure if they exhibit these behaviors. Stepping back and letting these children "figure it out" or "take responsibility for their own learning" may lead to a deeper cycle of failure within the school environment.

In a recent survey, when children were asked to evaluate their transitional years, they indicated interest in connecting to their new school and requested more information about extracurricular activities, careers, class schedules, and study skills. Schools that develop programs that ease transitions for children and increase communication between schools may be able to reduce child failure rates.

Parenting style may have an impact on the youngster's school behavior. Many experts distinguish among permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative parenting styles. These parenting styles are associated with different combinations of warmth, support, and limit-setting and supervision for kids.

The permissive style tends to emphasize warmth and neglect limit-setting and supervision; the authoritarian style tends to emphasize the latter and not the former; while the authoritative style is one in which moms and dads offer warmth and support, and limit-setting and supervision. When the authoritative parenting style is used, the teen may be more likely to experience academic success.

It is important to remember that teens need their moms and dads not only to set appropriate expectations and boundaries, but also to advocate for them.

Parents and educators can help adolescents by:
  1. Arranging tutoring or study group support for the adolescent from the school or the community through organizations such as the local YMCA or a local college or university
  2. Attending school functions, such as sports, and plays
  3. Emphasizing the importance of study skills, hard work, and follow-through
  4. Encouraging the adolescent to participate in one or more school activities
  5. Encouraging the adolescent to volunteer in the community or to participate in community groups such as the YMCA, Scouting, 4-H, religious organizations, or other service-oriented groups to provide an out-of-school support system
  6. Helping the adolescent think about career options by arranging for visits to local companies and colleges, picking up information on careers and courses, and encouraging an internship or career-oriented part-time job
  7. Making the time to listen to and try to understand the adolescent's fears or concerns
  8. Meeting as a team, including parents, educators, and school counselor, asking how they can support the adolescent's learning environment, and sharing their expectations for the youngster's future
  9. Providing a supportive home and school environment that clearly values education
  10. Setting appropriate boundaries for behavior that are consistently enforced

Understanding the factors that may put a teen at-risk for academic failure will help moms and dads determine if their adolescent is in need of extra support. Above all, parents need to persevere. The adolescent years do pass, and most teens survive them, in spite of bumps along the way. Being aware of common problems can help moms and dads know when it is important to reach out and ask for help before a difficult time develops into a more serious situation.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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