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3.3 Signs of school and learning problems

For children in care, school attendance may have been a problem. The children also may have missed some school between coming to live with you and when they were able to get into their new school. Since missing only a couple of weeks of school can lead to behavior and performance problems for children, the difficulties of a child in care may be a result of missing school. If so, extra help, patience, and a few weeks to get into the rhythm of school will usually get the child back on track.

When a child in care is having performance or behavior difficulties at school, it’s appropriate to start by assuming the child can improve, with a little firmness and assistance from you. Focus first on the behavior problems.

Talk with teachers to work out a way to get some feedback about the child’s behavior, daily if possible. Calmly but firmly tell the child the behavior isn’t acceptable and there will be consequences at home whenever there are behavior problems at school.

After each technique, write a sentence or two about why you think it is appropriate.

•           Take away a privilege or two for one day or perhaps two whenever you receive negative feedback from school. This might be something like watching TV or being allowed to spend time with friends.

•           Don’t punish the child or become frustrated or angry. There just needs to be a relatively mild, predictable consequence consistently repeated whenever the child misbehaves.

•           Don’t increase the consequences over time. This never helps and will tend to make things worse.

If the behavior of a child at school doesn’t gradually improve over three or four weeks, you need to discuss the problems with teachers and with mental health professionals. Don’t put this off. The sooner you get a handle on the problem, the sooner things will improve. The longer you delay, the harder it will be to ever correct the problem.

With performance problems, talk with teachers to be sure you understand exactly what the child isn’t doing and then consider these techniques. After each technique, write a sentence or two about why it is appropriate.

•           Be sure the child works on homework every evening but not for more than forty-five minutes each evening. Any more won’t help and will likely cause more frustration and performance problems. (For first and second grade children, thirty minutes is enough.) For high school students, a little more time may be necessary. Help the child learn where to study and how to pace himself.

•           Before the child starts homework, have him explain to you exactly what the assignment is and how he will go about getting it done.

•           Check the child’s work two or three times during the study time, offering help and suggestions.

•           If it’s clear the child doesn’t know how to do part of the assignment, calmly explain how but don’t push or get frustrated. The child is already frustrated enough for both of you.

If the child’s performance doesn’t improve noticeably within a month or so, talk with the school’s psychologist or mental health professionals about the problem. The child’s trying harder or your trying harder won’t help until you understand why the child isn’t doing better. This likely isn’t related to real ability. It’s more likely related to a minor learning problem or to other issues neither you nor the child can directly control. Just be clear about the fact it isn’t the child’s fault and pushing, punishing, or blaming the child will make things much worse, very quickly.

If you have followed the suggestions and you still are seeing these signs, professional help is required, including immediate evaluation by a qualified school or child psychologist. The psychologist should then explain to you and the child exactly what the child’s problem is and specifically how you and others can help work through the difficulties.

After each sign, write a sentence or two about what you think may help the child with the problem.


•           Often can’t express his thoughts and ideas.

•           Often doesn’t understand assignments and what people expect.

•           Often doesn’t understand what he reads.

•           Trying harder usually doesn’t lead to his work and skills getting better.

•           Does some assignments very well and others very badly.

•           Often forgets what to do or what people expected.

•           Often doesn’t follow instructions and directions.

•           Gets bad grades.

•           Doesn’t ask for help or let others help.

•           Regularly has excuses for not doing well.

•           Thinks his not doing well is someone else’s fault.

•           Has to have an adult standing over him to be sure his work gets done.

•           Disrupts the class or the activities of others.

•           Doesn’t make much effort to cooperate and get along.

Discussion point:

•           How might differences such as racial, economic, religious, language, developmental, or disabilities contribute to school and learning problems for children in care?

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Please send comments or questions to Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. || and visit