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Turn Your Child’s Performance Around: How to Help When Your Child is Struggling in School

School can be challenging. Not only are there social and extra-curricular pressures that can make school hard, schoolwork itself can be the most difficult. In this situation, a good parent can turn their child’s performance around, helping them to regain confidence and pick up their grades. Handling the situation poorly can lead to the child rebelling and falling even further behind. How does a parent help a child that is struggling at school?

Recognize that not all students are the same

One of the great characteristics of the human race is our diversity. Different people have different talents and abilities. But what this also means is that not every child has the ability to be at the top of the class. A child who performs poorly in school might still be working hard. They just may not have the required ability to really achieve top grades in a subject.

Because of this, it is important to recognize a child’s effort, even if the outcome is not what parents may have been hoping for. On the one hand, if a child’s efforts are recognized despite a lack of success, then the child is likely to continue to work hard and try to succeed. On the other hand, if hard work leads to limited success, and this limited success leads to no rewards, or even punishment, then there is no incentive to continue to work hard.

Reward children appropriately

Rewards should not be all or none. One way to reward a child would be to say that they will be given a video game system if they get all A’s at the end of the year. Without the A’s, they do not. But what if the child truly believes that getting all A’s is beyond them? Then the reward will provide little incentive, as it would seem to be unattainable.

A better way is to say that a certain amount of money will be put toward the reward, based on how they perform at school. An A may be worth $50, and a B worth $25. Or, to really reward extra effort, the scale could be $50 for an A, and $10 for a B. If certain subjects such as mathematics are perceived as being more important for a future career, greater rewards could be given for those subjects than other subjects. The important point is that there is an incentive to work hard even if the child thinks that this hard work will not necessarily result in an A.

Emphasize the role of repetition

One insight that research into the brain has given us is that learning is based on two different processes. One type of learning is responsible for memorizing facts such as the capital of France being Paris. This learning process can occur very quickly, even after a single experience. Because it occurs very quickly, knowledge like this can be picked up easily at any age. This is also the knowledge that is so easy to search for on the Internet these days.

However, there is another learning process that occurs in the brain, especially over childhood. This is a gradual process that prunes the neural connections in response to experience. It leads to a child’s ability to understand the world around them. Unlike the process responsible for memory, it takes much longer to occur, and depends on many examples or experiences.

This tells us that repetition of experiences can be crucial in childhood. If something is not understood, a child should not give up trying to understand it. Instead, more and more examples should be undertaken so that it can eventually be learned. Rather than concentrating on what a child is good at, it can be more important to concentrate on what he or she is not good at. Through increased experience and repetition, a child can become better at something that they are initially struggling with.

Show how school learning is relevant to later life

Another way that parents can help and encourage their children to work hard at school is to emphasize the relevance of school learning for later life. One way is to highlight the benefits of a college education for a future career, and how school performance determines college options. But more than this, it helps if a child’s learning at school is more directly related to skills and abilities that they will need in later life.

For instance, children will often complain that they will not need to use Pythagoras’ Theorem or the Quadratic Equation later in life. Ironically, they are often right in this claim. Parents themselves typically rarely use these formulas. It can then be difficult to convince children that it is important to learn formulas like these. What parents need to do is emphasize that a mathematics education is not important because of the specific formulas that are being taught; rather, these formulas are being taught so that children can use formulas in general. Many examples of the use of formulas in adulthood can then be given, whether it is a formula to calculate the passage of air over a wing, a formula to calculate the value of a stock based on its dividends or a formula to calculate the expected sales of a new product. The essential point is that school is important not just for learning specific facts and formulas, but also for general abilities. These general abilities are often what will determine success in later life.

Most importantly

Parents need to emphasize to children that working hard and practicing can be of benefit, no matter what their talent or ability level. Brain science now tells us that talents and abilities do not represent fixed characteristics of the brain, but rather set the range of success, given practice or experience. Working hard can be beneficial, irrespective of a child’s innate level of intelligence.

Dr. Dennis Garlick is the author of the groundbreaking new book on intelligence, Intelligence and the Brain: Solving the Mystery of Why People Differ in IQ and How a Child Can Be a Genius. This revolutionary book uses the recent advances in the brain sciences to show how educational experiences contribute to the development of human intelligence and future success. Dr. Garlick received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Sydney in 2003, and is currently a researcher in the Psychology Department at the University of California. He can be reached at


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