5 Things Not to Say to a Child Struggling at School
Parents, don't make these mistakes...
If and when a child begins to struggle in school, it can become a huge burden and emotional roller coaster for us as parents.
We begin to obsessively worry about their academic future, their emotional well-being, and could end up spending all our waking hours talking to anyone with some advice to give.
Having a child who struggles to complete to school work (or has behavioural challenges at school or is going through a rough patch socially) is heartbreaking for a parent.
We often seek out ways to ‘fix’ our child’s problems and do everything in our power to reduce their challenges.
But this is hard. Harder than it sounds. Because, at the end of the day, we can not fix our child’s problems, we can not change who they are, we can, MAYBE, help them, and sometimes all we can do is just love them.
Often, in our efforts to help our child, and minimize our own frustration, we resort to 5 phrases that, it turns out, are not only unhelpful but often detrimental.
Read on to learn what those 5 phrases are and what you should be saying instead.
Don’t Say: “Your sister always completed all her homework.”
Comparisons to others, especially siblings are not constructive. It all likelihood, if your struggling child has a non-struggling sibling, they are well aware of this fact.
Certainly, they hear the whispers of concern to grandparents, watch enviously as praise is showered upon the sibling and jealously wish they to could do better.
Perhaps, unconsciously, we’re tempted to make comparisons to validate our own parenting.
Say Instead: “How can I help?”
We know this, we believe this, we’re sure of this. Sometimes it’s just a bit hard to accept.
So, next time you’re tempted to compare a struggling child to his successful sibling, perhaps ask instead “I see the way I’m used to helping with homework doesn’t work well for you.
What do you think might work better?” Remember, your struggling child is well aware of their sibling’s strengths so there never really is a need to remind them!
Don’t say: “Work harder!”
Perhaps the two most unhelpful words of support. What does work harder even mean?
Do we want our struggling child to stay up too late working? Perhaps we think they should avoid downtime until they complete their work.
Maybe we’re thinking that if we mandate two hours of study time they’ll do better on exams. In truth, and according to research, none of that will help.
Working ‘harder’ will not improve your child’s academic success (and certainly not their emotional state!)
Say Instead: “Work smarter!”
The new phrase popping up in start-ups, education and scientific research, work smarter is, it turns out, is a much more helpful phrase to use with your struggling child.
Work ‘smarter’ refers to the idea of working in a more thoughtful and productive way rather than just working more.
For example, while we may be tempted to keep our struggling student up late to complete their homework, research shows that more sleep helps people produce better work.
Another way our struggling student might work smarter is to complete work in a room void of technological or human distractions.
Don’t say: “If your grades do not improve I’m going to take away…..”
It turns out, that penalising your child by taking away the one place they may be successful, feel good about, or use as an outlet is not a good strategy to support their academic struggles.
Many students who struggle in school find relief on the soccer fields, taekwondo classes, ballet or drama.
These outlets are often necessary activities for your child who spends hours a day feeling overwhelmed, burdened and inadequate.
While we’re often tempted to believe that if we remove ‘distractions’ or activities that ‘take up time from school work’ our child’s success will improve, it will not.
Allowing all kids, and especially those who struggle all day at school, a non-academic outlet is an important part of their personal and emotional development.
Say instead: “You must complete your work before you go”
It must be a measured and realistic amount of work, but if so, using the activity as an incentive to complete work is fin.
Do not use uncontrollable outcomes as incentives (i.e. grades) but you can use productivity as a motivator.
For example, you can mandate that your child reads for 30 minutes a day to have the privilege of attending their drama group, but you can not require an A on a test.
Final outcomes such as grades, writing skills, etc. are often out of the child’s control and tend to create more unnecessary stress for both of you.
So, focus on your child’s controllable productivity and keep those extra-curricular activities going!
Don’t say: “Don’t be lazy”
Lazy is an easy word to place on a child who resists completing homework, studying for tests, and in general, does not prioritize schoolwork.
But, we must ask ourselves, why would our child be unwilling to work?
Rather than stamp them with a ‘lazy’ tattoo, it is much more helpful for us, as the adult, perhaps along with a teacher, to analyse why the student is avoiding their school work.
After all, if your dinner flopped each time you cooked, would you be ‘lazy’ if you didn’t try to cook again after a few failures?
Similarly, when a student fails or doesn’t meet the expectations of the adults around them, it’s not surprising that they begin to avoid work and are unwilling to confront their challenges.
Labelling your struggling child ‘lazy’ will not motivate them. It will not support them. It will not make them feel any better.
Say instead: “Why are you avoiding/unwilling to complete your work”?
By noting a concrete observation and then requiring the child to analyse it, it shifts the responsibility back on to the child-exactly where it should be. It isn’t your job to make your child complete homework.
Rather, it is your job, as a parent, to support your child to learn how to complete their work.
When we ask our children probing questions, rather than attack their behaviour we have a much greater chance of supporting them, and, most important, letting them know that they are loved and cared for.
Don’t say: “It’s not that hard, just do it.”
Denying the reality of your struggling child certainly isn’t going to help him feel supported or motivated.
While reading for 20 minutes a night might not seem hard to you, it might be very difficult for her.
You may not find the math equations hard, he does.
Perhaps, unconsciously, we use this denial language as a method to encourage our child and help them feel that the work is manageable-surely that should be a motivator.
But in truth, telling them it’s not hard when it is for them, is only discouraging.
Instead try: Validate their challenges.
Be upfront. Be honest. Accept reality. Tell them that it pains you to see them struggle. Tell them you want to help them in the best way possible. Tell them you want to do anything you can to see them succeed.
Validating a child’s academic struggle will not only help defuse an already difficult situation but, more importantly, will allow the child to know that no matter what, they are loved and supported by their parent.
Validation and recognition of a child’s struggles will certainly lead an openness that will ultimately allow you to provide the much-needed support for their academic needs.