Could do better - but how?

So your child is underperforming at school. Is the classwork too difficult, or is he or she just plain lazy? Sue Palmer advises parents on how best to respond
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The school report is bad. It appears your child has spent the last year going slowly - or perhaps not so slowly - downhill. Lack of effort, no interest, poor results. You've gone through the appropriate motions - anger, disappointment, maybe even sympathy - but now the time's come to do something about it. So what exactly can you do?

The first step is to work out what's gone wrong. There are innumerable reasons for children underperforming - from emotional disturbance and learning difficulties such as dyslexia to lack of motivation because they're brighter than the rest of their classmates - and parents are often better placed than teachers to work out what's at the root of the problem.

Many learning difficulties first rear their head at the age of seven or eight. Bright children with a good language background can often bluff their way through school until then, compensating for problems in various inexplicable ways, but as the pace begins to hot up they come unstuck. Often they don't even realise they've been "bluffing". They assume everyone else's brain works the same way as theirs and are astonished to discover they've coped so far in spite of considerable odds.

Some learning difficulties have an obvious physical basis. Children's work sometimes goes downhill because short-sightedness means they can't see what's written on the board. Not knowing about myopia, they can't understand why the work seems to be getting harder. In the same way, hearing loss can go undetected for years: children who don't know what it's like to hear clearly don't know what they're missing.

Another key stage for the discovery of problems is the transition between primary and secondary school. Children that successfully covered up difficulties in the more relaxed atmosphere of primary school find their strategies don't work in the secondary environment. This happens less nowadays, with regular testing and improved monitoring of special educational needs. If at any time you are concerned about your child's progress, you can contact the school and ask to have progress monitored. A parental "expression of concern" is enough to place your child on the assessment ladder. And if there is a learning difficulty, the sooner you start climbing that ladder, the sooner your child will get special provision.

Parents and teachers are often amazed to find emotional disturbance at the roof of a child's poor performance. Children, like adults, can be remarkably adept at hiding their feelings. They may seem fine at home, but let it all pour out at school - sometimes as a result of incidents that seem relatively unimportant in adult eyes.

I once taught a little boy who turned from a paragon into an unbearable little monster for several weeks, then back to paragon again. It turned out this lapse had exactly coincided with his mother having her leg in plaster, something that didn't appear to worry him at all at home. If there have been any traumas (or even if, as far as you're concerned, there haven't), it's worth asking your child about it.

Another possible explanation for poor performance is a personality clash between child and teacher. In this case, it's not advisable to take your child's word for it (I mean, he or she would say that, wouldn't they?) You could ask parents of other children whether their offspring have noticed any antipathy: girls particularly often pick up this kind of thing. If so, your main problem may be re-motivating your child before the next term starts. Another all-too-common reason for under-performance is that a child has been bullied, in which case, a visit to the school is essential.

Going round the educational, clinical and psychological houses in this way is time-consuming, but worthwhile (if a child has been having difficulties (and most under-achievement at school is because of some emotional or educational problem), the whole family will feel better for identifying the problem. You'll also have a much better chance of finding a suitable approach to mention it.

Sometimes the remedy is just a good break. If your child is unhappy, time and attention may be more use than extra lessons. You could perhaps provide just a short refresher course before the start of the new term, to get him or her off to a good start.

But for children who've fallen significantly behind, a holiday programme of work may be necessary. If you can afford to pay someone else to do this, it will be worth the outlay. As one who has acted as a holiday tutor for other people's children and attempted to do the same thing for my own, I have no hesitation in saying that other people do it better. Often, especially for bright children resting on their laurels, a summer school or weekend course provides the best kick-start.

But if you do decide to supervise holiday work yourself, summon up all your patience, promise you won't lose your temper, and work out the best approach to helping with your child's particular problem. Your child's teacher (or the teacher for the next academic year) may have suggestions, and a few hours browsing in the library and local bookshops will familiarise you with the sort of material available.

Involve the child at all stages: negotiate hours to be worked, targets to be reached, and rewards or sanctions to be appointed - and then stick to them. It is absolutely beastly to be stuck in the house practising the times tables when the sun is shining outside for the first time in months, but one of the main lessons you're teaching here is self-discipline, so you're honour-bound to display it.

Finally, what about the other children, the ones who don't have a good reason for bringing home the school report from hell, the children who've been underachieving merely because they don't like work? Whipping them soundly and sending them to bed isn't very effective. Rekindling their motivation is a better bet. For younger children an interesting holiday project might convince them that learning can be fun. Older ones may respond better to work on a home computer or a study skills course. The main challenge with any child unfortunate enough to be underachieving is convincing them that the further they fall behind in the education stakes, the harder it can be to recoup. A few hours a week now can save a lot of heartache in the future.


Looking for help

Talking over the problem is the best way to start solving it. This also gives you a chance to work through your own anxieties about your child's progress.

Start at the school. If parents' evening is a long way off, ask for an interview with the teacher (or head of year in secondary school).

The British Dyslexia Association helpline (tel: 01189 668271) can provide an information pack and details of local support groups.

For help for an able child suffering from boredom, try the National Association of Gifted Children (tel: 01604 792300).

The Advisory Centre for Education, an independent body, offers general educational advice on bullying, special needs provision and the like on its helpline (tel: 0171 354 8321) from 2pm to 5pm.

Finding a tutor

Teaching your own child the 3Rs is like teaching your spouse to drive - all sorts of emotional undercurrents get in the way - so a tutor is usually worth the investment.

The best choice is a teacher your child already knows and likes. Retired or part-time teachers often do private tutoring, and it's worth asking full-time teachers if they're interested, too.

Seek recommendations from other parents and local groups such as the British Dyslexia Association. The phone numbers of local BDA support groups are available on its helpline (tel: 01189 668271).

For details of tutors in your area who are professionally registered, send brief details of what you require, your phone number and a stamped, addressed envelope to the Association of Tutors, Sunnycroft, 63 King Edward Road, Northampton, NN1 5LY.

You may be lucky through the local library and "Educational" small ads of local papers.

Holiday courses

Courses in study skills and approaches to learning can provide new motivation.

Learning Performance Seminars (tel: 01737 554933) courses develop learning techniques, stress reduction and motivation (four-day study skills workshops for 15- to 19-year-olds; junior programme for 12- to 14-year-olds) available in London, and other major cities.

Interactive Learning Groups offers courses in "accelerated learning" for all age-groups in London (tel: 0171 372 1113).

The Potential Trust has a small brochure listing summer schools and courses for more able children. For more information, call 01844 341666 or send a stamped, addressed envelope to the Trust at Shepherd's Close, Kingston Stert, Chinnor, Oxon OX9 4NL.

DIY starting point

Bookshops like WH Smith stock structured courses for aspects of the 3Rs. Look also for taps (eg. for the times table) video, computer software and CD-Roms. For older children, try Get Better Grades: Cool Study Skills for Red Hot Results (Piccadilly Press).

When trying to motivate a child who so far hasn't found learning fun, building up a file or scrapbook on a subject of interest gives opportunities for reading, writing, learning reference skills and organising presentation of work, and may be more satisfying for both of you than working through English workbooks.

Dorling Kindersley, Kingfisher and Usborne non-fiction books are good starting points. DK also does activity packs and project boxes through its Family Library representatives (tel: 01403 833200).