School Performance Issues
We receive many referrals each year for students whose performance in school is poorer than expected. There are many reasons why children might struggle in school that have nothing to do with intelligence or academic ability. These include behavioural issues, anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation and school refusal.
Some parents and teachers who seek help from our child psychologists say their young students have ‘behavioural issues’, but when we explore what else is going on in those young peoples’ lives we very often find other challenges that show up as a problem with behaviour.
Between 3% – 5% of the population is said to have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurological condition that can make it more difficult for some people to sit still, pay attention and stop themselves from reacting impulsively. Difficulties keeping one’s attention focused on schoolwork and lectures can be misinterpreted as misbehaviour in class. Other children with ADHD find they just learn better when they can move around, something that can be disruptive to other students and problematic for teachers who need to maintain order in their busy classrooms.
Moreover, because people with ADHD typically struggle to maintain their focus and attention, especially when feeling bored or under-stimulated, their work can be quite inconsistent. To parents and teachers who may not realize that a student’s inattention is a genuine struggle for them, it can appear that the student just isn’t motivated, or simply isn’t trying. Very different solution ideas might come to mind depending on whether the explanation for a student’s poor performance is ‘My student just isn’t putting in enough effort’ versus ‘My student struggles to maintain attention and focus when he feels under-stimulated’.
Younger children especially can struggle to soothe themselves and match their level of physical arousal to the needs of the situation. This is referred to as emotional dysregulation. While most children do possess some ability to settle themselves, those skills tend to emerge later, in the early adult years, when the frontal lobes of the brain really come online. The ‘emotional brakes’ are housed in that part of the brain.
Children who are more explosive and defiant might be so not because they are ‘bad’ children, but because they don’t yet have the personal resources to keep themselves calm enough to think clearly when something stresses them out. Most adults can stop themselves from lashing out when something doesn’t go their way because they can anticipate the negative consequences that would come if they didn’t. Young children cannot do this as easily and often need the assistance of trusted adults to help them settle and find better solutions. Psychologists have many behavioural tools they can teach parents to help young children learn to soothe themselves when upset or overwhelmed.
Anxiety has enormous potential to interfere with school performance in many ways, most notably in that students who feel afraid find it challenging to focus on anything other than the thing they are afraid of. In today’s highly competitive environment, many high school students report considerable anxiety, fearing that their performance in grades 11 and 12 will be the biggest factor that determines whether they succeed or fail in life. Teens can put enormous pressure on themselves to do well and often lack the life-experience and ability to view their situation from a more realistic perspective.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety and the tendency to worry excessively (generalized anxiety disorder) are anxiety conditions that can also interfere in a student’s ability to focus in school. People with OCD typically have intrusive and upsetting thoughts called obsessions, that can be scary even when they might also be irrational. Common obsessions include worries that something terrible will happen unless a person does something very specific, like counting to a particular number or checking to make sure there are no germs on the skin. The anxiety they feel often drives them to perform the behavioural ritual. These compulsions are usually intended to reduce their discomfort and prevent the dreaded event from happening. Students who are socially anxious or worry a lot, can find that their fears leave them too distracted to focus on schoolwork.
Depression can really interfere with a student’s ability to pay attention in class and even attend school in the first place. Depression can take many forms. The most common is a persistently low mood that stays down most of the day for a minimum of 14 days. Many people will also report just feeling ‘blah’, like they have lost their motivation or their ability to take pleasure in the activities they would typically enjoy. Persistent irritability can also be present alongside or instead of those two symptoms. Children who are depressed may withdraw from others, struggle to sleep, maintain their level of energy, lose their appetites or simply find that they don’t care anymore. In extreme conditions, depressed kids can find themselves feeling so hopeless that they start thinking about escaping from their pain, sometimes by suicide.
Psychology offers many non-medication tools for the treatment of depression in children, teens and adults. Get in touch with us if you think your child might be depressed.
A small number of students will attempt to resolve their concerns about social issues and anxiety by avoiding school altogether. This can contribute to greater chaos and challenges in the morning hours when families are trying to get children to school and adults to work. We see many younger children who are not attending school regularly and whose family doctors can find no medical evidence for their frequent tummy aches or complaints of feeling sick.
Other children and teens we see can appear to have behavioural issues that really are the product of conflicts and relationship issues. Children who feel bullied or unsafe at school might try to resolve their problems by avoiding school, a solution that can be very effective but can also cause other problems with parents and teachers.
Of course, sometimes school performance issues are the result of academic issues that prevent otherwise well-meaning and hard working kids from performing to the level of their ability. A good psychoeducational assessment will help to identify learning disabilities or other conditions that are making it difficult for a student to perform to the limit of their potential.