Your First Two Big Steps if Your Child is Failing in School

You just learned your child is in danger of failing academically. What should you do next? Here are your first two Big Steps:

1. Be sure your child is reading fast enough to learn. Slow reading makes it hard for her to understand what she’s reading and complete schoolwork. Use our free Reading Speed Test.

2. Investigate Other Factors

  • Identify roadblocks by talking with your older child or observing your younger child’s behavior.
  • Talk and brainstorm with your child’s teacher.
  • Have an optometrist check your child’s vision. Schools and pediatricians generally aren’t thorough enough.
  • Look closely at your child’s study habits.
  • Make sure your child’s support network includes people besides you who offer help and encouragement.

Each year, the reading demands in your child’s classroom increase significantly. Both the reading level and amount of reading increase, and the concepts in each subject become more complex. On top of everything, homework volume grows markedly. For kids who are struggling to keep up, this ever-swelling burden can cause their confidence and mood to fall—fast. I recommend these two steps first, to avoid a downward spiral.

Big Step 1: Check Your Child’s Oral Reading Speed

Reading speed? Yes, reading speed and specifically oral reading speed. You need to check oral reading speed because you can’t get into a kid’s head and evaluate any errors she might be making in her silent reading. For many kids, it’s not that they can’t read at grade level, but that they read far too slowly for their grade level. Slow reading is a burden in two significant ways:

a. First, a slow reading pace, or word-per-minute (WPM) rate, makes it harder for your child to comprehend what she’s reading. She may be able to read the material, but the slow speed at which her brain absorbs the information makes it difficult for her to track with the author. The information is coming in too slowly for her to keep it in her head so she can make the associations and inferences needed to comprehend.

Quick Story: I recently checked a 6th-grade boy’s WPM rate. He read at 53 WPM. Research says he needs to be reading at least at 128 WPM. It wasn’t a surprise to me that he was struggling in school. He was working very hard, but his hard work wasn’t enough. He needed to improve his reading speed if he was going to succeed in school.


    Student Fluency Norms Based on Words Correct Per Minute





































     Adapted from: (1) J.E. Hasbrouck and G. Tindal, Curriculum-based oral fluency forms for students in grades 2 through 5, 1992; (2) K.B. Howe and M.M. Shinn, Standard reading assessment pages for use in general outcome measurements, 2001; (3) Edformations, Eden Prarie, MN; A manual describing development and technical features


    b. Secondly, there is a lot of material to read in the upper grades. A slow reading pace causes your child to take far too long, with too much effort to complete her reading assignments—let alone answer the questions or write a response. Many kids cannot complete all the reading in the class time allotted, so they fall behind and never catch up with their classmates. This is also why your child is still failing or barely keeping up despite burning the midnight oil on homework every night.

    Is your child reading fast enough for her grade? You can check your child’s reading speed. This simple, useful Reading Speed Test we developed takes just minutes to do. It lets you use your child’s school material to see if her WPM rate is at grade level. NOTE: The recommended numbers in the chart above are only at the 40th percentile. If your child is at or only slightly above the benchmark speed, you still net to help her improve, especially if she hopes to attend college. If your child needs help, read my post, “‘Building Brains. Better.’ What Does That Mean?”  or use one of our ePackages  to help you coach her.

      Certainly, there are other factors to consider, but a slow, not-at-grade-level rate is a good first place to look as this is one of the most common academic reasons kids struggle in school.

      Big Step 2: Investigate Other Factors

      If your child’s oral reading rate is appropriate for her grade level, then it’s vital to figure out what other roadblocks might be causing her to struggle. Here are some ideas to get you started:

      a. Talk to your child. What does she see as the roadblocks? Older kids often know where the barrier is. They’re deeply embarrassed by their struggle, and they haven’t shared it with you because of their shame. So be gentle but persistent when you start this conversation with your child. We all struggle with learning in one way or another. Share your own struggles and see if they’re willing to open up about hers.

      Quick Story: When I talk to my students, I share that my weak auditory memory makes it harder for me to learn, so I take notes to help me remember what I’ve heard.

      Perhaps your child hasn’t memorized her multiplication facts, or she finds it hard to take notes in class. Maybe she has to reread passages often before she can comprehend them or finds that little noises in the classroom interfere with her concentration. There are numerous ways kids can struggle in school. These are just some common examples.

      Younger children do not have the awareness or language skills to describe the struggles they are experiencing, so look for signs like these. Your child:

      • takes a long time to finish homework. For kids in first through third grades, a rule of thumb is about ten minutes of homework per grade level. So, a second grader should spend around twenty minutes each evening on her homework. Your child’s teacher should have a homework policy with a recommended period like this if your child is routinely exceeding it, she is struggling to keep up with her peers.
      • begins to misbehave. You’ll want to look at what’s going on in your child’s social world—her friendships and peer group—but also consider her academic world. She may be acting out so she can get the focus off her poor academic performance.
      • brings home schoolwork that isn’t completed or has lots of error. Some kids will try to hide this work deep in their backpacks so their parents won’t find it.

      b. Talk to your child’s teacher. What does she see as the main obstacle to your child’s learning? Is it possible to perform testing to pinpoint the cognitive areas that are weak and blocking your child’s success? Such testing may show your child has a weak working memory (the ability to hold onto and retrieve the information she just heard for a few seconds) or slow processing (thinking) speed. These are the two most common cognitive areas that cause kids to struggle in school. Has your child been struggling for a while, or is this a recent issue? Is the teacher concerned? What is she doing to help your child? What does she recommend you do at home?

      c. Check your child’s vision with an optometrist—not through your pediatrician or school. The vision screening from your doctor’s office or school can miss significant vision issues like tracking (effortlessly and efficiently moving one’s eyes from left to right to read, write, and to similar tasks). Strong tracking skills are critical to school success, and a lot of people don’t understand this, so they don’t check this area. To be sure your child is getting a thorough vision check, ask your optometrist if he offers a developmental eye exam. Such an exam not only checks your child’s visual acuity (whether she has 20/20 vision), but it will assess a range of visual skills like tracking.

       WowzaBrain Image: Developmental eye exams test for these abilities and more.

      d. Take a close look at your child’s study habits. Some kids have not learned how to study. They don’t understand that attending to a social networking site, while listening to music, while also trying to complete their homework, is a recipe for failure. The brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Moving or “shifting” one’s attention from the screen to homework to a song’s lyrics and back to homework is highly inefficient, as I explain in another post. Your child is asking too much of her brain. The brain cannot focus deeply with so many demands for its attention. Under these conditions, she can easily take twice as long to complete her homework and her “multitasking” will impair its quality.

      e. Finally, look at your child’s support network. Does she have a group of adults and peers who can offer her practical and emotional support? Does she understand we all need help from time to time, and school is not a place to “go it alone?” Does she know how to ask for help? Is there another teacher besides her classroom teacher she can seek help from? Does she have a close friend at school or church who can encourage her? Help your child think about the other people in her live who are available to her. Who can she trust to spur her on and offer thoughtful suggestions?

      Quick Story: One of my students sought out her volleyball coach. She shared her school struggles with her. This coach became an invaluable ally who regularly checked in with her and encouraged her to push through her heavier assignments.

      Seeing and being willing to address your child’s learning struggle was your real first step. You’ve done that. Good! But don’t stop there. Help your child move forward. You’re her biggest fan, and she’s depending on you to help her through this challenging spot. Don’t count on the school to make sure your child gets the education she deserves. That’s your job.

      Do you want to learn more about improving your child's cognitive skills and academic performance? Join our mailing list (below), and we'll notify you of new blog posts and announcements. We never try to sell you stuff through our emails. 

      Have other questions? Ask me below.

      Bridget Mosley, MEd, is a WowzaBrain cofounder and a Cognitive Learning Specialist with more than 30 years’ experience as an educator, reading clinic director, and parent workshop speaker. She is a die-hard fan of parents who believe they can help their kids overcome learning challenges.

      Sourcesource, source.



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