DEAR DOCTOR K:
My middle-schooler spends a lot of time studying. But his grades have dropped, and I see him getting more and more frustrated. What could be going on, and what can I do?
Many children have problems with schoolwork or homework at one time or another. These problems usually do not last long. But if your son is still getting poor grades (C or below) despite working hard, it could be a sign that your son has a learning disability or some other problem that needs help.
A child may have a problem that needs attention if he or she:
- Is easily distracted, loses his focus when doing homework and has difficulty completing it.
- Works hard in all subjects, but is much better in some than in others.
- “Forgets” to bring homework home.
- Doesn’t seem to care about schoolwork.
- Complains of being bored all day at school.
A learning disability is a problem with reading, writing, math or memory skills in a child who has the intelligence, opportunity and motivation necessary to learn.
There are many causes of school problems. Vision or hearing problems, for example, may make it hard for a child to read, to hear the teacher or to do schoolwork. I remember one patient whose 10-year-old was doing poorly. It turned out that he had a serious loss of hearing in one ear that had never been diagnosed. That, plus the fact that he was shy and always sat in the back of the classroom, made it hard for him to hear the teacher.
Another cause of poor grades that has nothing to do with mental capacity is spending too much time on extracurricular activities. This can leave a child too tired to do homework properly.
Yet another cause is boredom, in someone with extraordinary intelligence. We recently celebrated yet another example of the genius of Albert Einstein (the discovery of the gravitation waves that he predicted). It’s worth remembering that pretty much every class in grade school and high school bored him, and his grades were lackluster.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can lead to poor grades. ADHD makes it difficult to learn in school or to finish homework. Treatment can improve this considerably.
If your child is having problems in school, work with his teachers and his pediatrician. Ask the school to evaluate your child. By law, public schools must provide free evaluation and treatment for children suspected to have problems that may interfere with learning. Schools must also put together an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP outlines a plan for addressing these problems.
Ask your son’s pediatrician if he might benefit from seeing a hearing, vision or other type of specialist. The pediatrician may recommend someone who specializes in identifying learning disabilities. Also ask about specialized learning, therapy or medication that could help.
Learning problems can be improved in most kids. Unless their trouble is that they are bored geniuses — in which case, we can learn from them!