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Understanding Shut-Down Learners: Seven Strategies to Help Your Academically Discouraged Child Climb from Struggles to Success

School-struggling can be very debilitating for a family. Tensions rise as the patterns of avoidance and non-compliance emerge as the school year progresses. Parents can feel quite hopeless and directionless relative to the mounting school problems.


The Matthews family came in to consult about their child, Elijah, age 14. Speaking eloquently and passionately about their family challenges, Mr. Matthews stated, “Every night it’s the same thing. We live under constant stress around school and homework issues. If it were not for my wife providing Elijah with daily support, he would be sinking like a stone. We’re just depleted and exhausted.”

As a child psychologist, I have seen many children who have shut down because of their unresolved school issues. The signs of a shut-down learner typically start to emerge in the upper elementary Grades, and become much more pronounced by high school. They include:

  • A sense that the child is increasingly disconnected, discouraged and unmotivated.
  • Fundamental skill weaknesses with reading, writing and spelling, leading to diminished self-esteem.
  • Increased avoidance of school tasks such as homework.
  • A dislike of reading.
  • A hatred of writing.
  • Little or no gratification from school.
  • Increasing anger toward school.

Understanding the formula of shut-down learners

Shut-down learners are children who become academically discouraged and disconnected from school over time. A simple formula helps to explain how kids become shut-down learners:

Cracks in the foundation + Time +Lack of Understanding + Strained Family Communication = Shut-Down Learner.

Understanding this formula will help parents be in a better position to take appropriate action.

Cracks in the foundation. Cracks in a child’s learning can usually be identified as early as preschool- and Kindergarten-age. Indicators during this period are easily identified. Does your child have trouble learning letter names and their sounds, for example. By First Grade, is your child taking steps toward blending sounds? In middle to upper elementary school, is writing a laborious, often agonizing process for your son or daughter? If the answer is yes to these questions, it does not necessarily follow that your child will become a shut-down learner. However, like cracks in your house that expand if unaddressed, it is important to act to prevent academic cracks from widening. Otherwise, they will contribute to discouragement over time and a child ultimately shutting down.

Lack of understanding. In my evaluation of shut-down learners, I have found that many receive work on a daily basis that they simply cannot handle, causing them unnecessary frustration. Too often, parents and teachers do not understand the skill deficits that are causing a child difficulty. For example, I recently tested a Fourth Grader who struggled to read certain words presented in a text. Since most Fourth Graders read silently to themselves, her teacher and parents mistakenly believed that the student had a comprehension problem, when she was actually experiencing difficulties with word-reading and decoding. Additionally, many children who struggle in school simply do not have problems deemed to be ‘severe enough’ to warrant special education. For those children, parents will need to seek outside remedial help in the form of tutoring, where available.

Strained family communication. The beginning of homework time often marks an increase in the household temperature, as screaming and arguing become part of the landscape. Strained communication around homework can be overwhelming for families and can contribute to a child becoming a shut-down learner.

Addressing (or preventing) shut-down learners

1. Trust your gut. If you believe your child is experiencing difficulties at school, listen to yourself. Don’t wait, or fall for such oft-used statements as, “You know how boys are” or, “She’ll grow out of it.” Act on your feelings even if your child has been deemed ineligible for school services. Consult a trustworthy, competent person outside of school whom you feel comfortable with to assess your child.

2. Know what you are targeting. If your child’s assessment has identified issues of concern, chances are an area in your child’s reading needs addressing. There are essentially two types of reading problems. In the first, the child has trouble decoding words and reading fluently. In the second, the child can read fluently, but experiences great difficulty understanding what they have read. Get clear on the exact issues that you hope to resolve. Don’t scattershot remediation.

3. Take the heat out of the interaction. Try to step back a little bit and turn down the heat within the house. The daily ritual of yelling, pecking or nagging never leads to positive change. When was the last time your child said, “Thanks for yelling, mom, I see your point. I’ll get down to business”? Right. Never. Why persist? Your kids are probably feeling overwhelmed by homework that they can barely handle. In raising the heat, you’re simply adding stress to their lives. Turn down the temperature. Kids need emotional fuel to tackle their school difficulties, especially those kids who derive little gratification from their efforts. Look for the small things that your child is doing well. Statements like, “Wow, I like the way you took out your work tonight without my asking,” can really mean a lot to a child, especially one who might be a bit discouraged.

4. Find someone to connect with and mentor your child in school. The shut-down learners I know do not feel very good about themselves and they do not see their true strengths. If your child is of junior high school age or older, (those preteen and teenage years when the development of a sense of self is critical), it is particularly important for them to have at least one person in school who really values them and will rally on your child’s behalf - even if they aren’t succeeding academically.

5. Support your child.
Academic discouragement is debilitating to children and families. Connecting with your child’s natural strengths and letting them know that you are both on the same ‘team’ can make an enormous difference in preventing your child from becoming a shut-down learner.

6. Is your child over their head? Too often children are asked to manage work that is too hard for them. If your child has struggled with reading, for example, often the text material is overwhelming. To test out whether the material is too difficult, ask your child to read from a random place in the textbook. Is the reading smooth? Are they making many errors and stumbling over the words or substituting ones that are nonsensical. If so, then the work is probably at the child’s frustration (difficulty level) and is inappropriate. A similar screening can be done with the vocabulary demands of the text. Pick a few of the words your child has to read. Does your child have any idea what the words mean? While occasional frustration level work will not result in your child shutting down, asking the child to manage work that is too difficult will lead to discouragement and a pervasive sense of frustration. Politely speak to your child’s teacher about the issue.

7. Don’t forget the fun. Do something fun and enjoyable with your child. Play a board game or do an arts and crafts project together. Go out for an ice cream treat. Most kids would enjoy doing an activity like that with you. Try not to let school problems set the tone for the entire household and all of your interactions.

Dr. Richard Selznick is a child psychologist and the director of the Cooper Learning Center, Department of Pediatrics. He is the author of The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child. For more information, visit or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can also follow Dr. Selznick on Twitter under “DrSelz” and on Facebook by entering ‘Shut-Down Learner.’ He is available to provide commentary and analysis of child learning and parenting issues upon request.

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