How to Help Your Struggling Student

Educators urge parents to resist entering into the high level of emotion and stress their struggling student is experiencing. Instead, get specific details from your student, talk with the teacher and develop a plan to help.

What to do when your child says  “I can’t do this!”

By Judy Molland

For the third time that month, 9-year-old Matt was in tears over his math homework. His mother, Janet Cook, was trying to guide her son through his assignment on decimals, but after five minutes he threw down his paper, and stormed away sobbing.

Janet was practically in tears herself, upset to see her son struggling, but also frustrated that she had put time into helping him on several different occasions and it clearly wasn’t working.

It’s almost inevitable that at some point during the school year, your child will throw up her hands in frustration and declare, “I can’t do this!” Often it’s a matter of calming her down and slowly, patiently helping her through her difficulty. But what if this kind of frustration happens repeatedly? What if your child is feeling incompetent and falling behind?

What’s a Parent to Do?

“The temptation is to enter into the level of high emotion and stress that your child is at, but you need to avoid that,” says Polly Skinner, head of school at the K to 8 Villa Academy in Seattle. “And definitely don’t get into a power struggle with your child, because no one is going to win that one!”

Skinner reminds parents to remember that they are the adults and the role models, and that however much trouble their child is having, the homework is still the child’s responsibility. It’s never a good idea for a parent to actually do the child’s homework for him in the hopes that eventually the child will understand the subject matter.

Still, while she urges parents to avoid getting overemotional, Skinner says they do need to acknowledge that their child is having a hard time. The heat of the moment isn’t the best time to deal with the issue, she adds, since nothing productive will happen when a child is upset and frustrated. Instead, she urges parents of struggling students to:

• Become a detective.

At a calmer time, Skinner suggests that you move into problem-solving mode and establish a plan. Your first step is to find out what’s really been going on to lead up to this.

“Perhaps your child has moved to a new subject that she’s never tackled before,” explains Stacey DeBroff, author of The Mom Book Goes to School. “All of a sudden, your eighth-grader has been introduced to algebraic functions, or your kindergartner is being asked to write each letter of the alphabet 14 times.”

Ask your child to tell you a little bit about what he or she finds hard in a particular assignment or whether the teacher has gone over it in class, DeBroff suggests. The goal is to find out whether the teacher has done a cursory introduction to the topic, but not enough for your child to be comfortable working on it on her own. It might also be that the material has been covered, but in spite of this, your child has yet to grasp it.

• Partner with your child’s teacher.

Set up a time to talk with your child’s teacher and include a brief description of your concerns so that the teacher can be prepared when you meet. “You want to know if you’re seeing one thing at home, and she’s seeing a different thing at school,” DeBroff says, adding that specific details are most effective.

“For example, you can say, ‘My child is having a tremendously difficult time with reading, and let me give you specific details of where he is struggling.’ Or perhaps, ‘Trying to start the Aztec Indian research project was so hard for him. Have you observed this in school?’”

• Find out what the teacher’s expectations are.

 “She might say, ‘I know that the homework was really challenging, and I’m not surprised your child got frustrated, because they’re learning how to do research for the first time,’” says Barbara Moore, a fifth-grade teacher in Brooklyn. Or it could be that the teacher has no idea why this was a problem, since the homework was supposed to take 20 minutes. “In that case,” says Moore, “the fact that your child is spending an hour, and then walking away in frustration, signals that there’s an issue here.”

• Develop a plan of action.

Once you and the teacher agree that there’s clearly a problem, the third step is for the two of you to come up with a plan of action for school and home.

“Perhaps your child is in the top reading group in the class when she might be more comfortable in the middle reading group,” says Christine Brown, a third-grade teacher in Agoura, Calif. “Or maybe she’s been moved to accelerate in math, but it’s too tough for her, and she’s not getting enough time to go in depth.”

If you decide that your child needs extra assistance, find out if the school has resources to help. Many schools have after-school tutoring programs.

Other options include getting help from a study buddy, an older student or, if the situation is right, an older sibling. A further possibility is to contact your local high school to see if there are students who need community service for their service learning requirements and would have the expertise to work with your child. There may also be community resources available through the public library system. And, of course, there are private tutoring services available.

• Discover your child’s learning style.

If your child is struggling, try to figure out how he or she learns best. An excellent tool for discovering learning preferences is the Vark Inventory, created by veteran teacher Neil Fleming and available at This free online questionnaire includes 13 simple questions that your child can easily fill out. The results provide the student with a profile of his learning preferences (for example, visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic, multimodal). Based on your child’s responses, he receives a personalized set of strategies for studying, including tips on the best ways to take in information, to study information, and to study for an exam.

“Getting your child involved in this means he can take ownership and make it work for himself,” notes Skinner.

Of course, if you see that these interventions are not working after a set period of time, perhaps a month, then you should consult your school’s counselor and request that your child be tested for a potential learning problem, Skinner suggests.

What to Avoid

Through all of this, DeBroff advises parents to avoid making generalizations about their child’s abilities – statements such as, “Well, you’ve just always struggled in math.” Similarly, don’t seek to empathize with your child by saying, “That’s OK, I was always hopeless at math, too.”

No one wants kids who hit the wall and declare, “I can’t do this,” to muddle in their own frustration for too long. By working with your child’s teacher, you can turn a tough academic subject into a positive experience for your child.

Judy Molland is the education editor for United Parenting Publications. Resources:

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•   Back To The Books

Other Resources


Finding Help When Your Child Is Struggling in School, by Lawrence J. Greene, Golden Books, 1998.
The Mom Book Goes to School, by Stacey DeBroff, Free Press Trade, 2005. The author also has a Web site,

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Mom – Offers useful tips on education and related parenting issues.