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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

School Problems

At one time or another, many adolescents will have school problems, often associated with the challenges involved in making transitions in school (for example, from elementary to middle school, then into high school, and, for some, into college).

In elementary school, children typically stay for the whole day with one teacher, in a small classroom, in a relatively small school. Then middle-school students find themselves in a larger school building, move from room to room for different classes, and spend time with several different teachers each day. Schoolwork becomes more difficult and the amount of homework increases while after-school activities place more demands on their time. Since this requires a great deal of concentration, organization and discipline, it is common for grades to drop during middle school until students develop these important skills.

The academic pressures increase further during high school, as adolescents face more difficult material and more homework. This must be balanced against more opportunities for extracurricular activities. In moving toward adulthood, most high-school students then start to worry about their personal futures and making the right career choices. They may feel a great deal of pressure to do well in their classes. In addition, some students take advanced placement or college-level classes in an effort to be more competitive on college applications.

Some teens may not be able to handle the academic, social and emotional challenges involved during these adolescent years. Such difficulties may show up in a variety of ways, such as poor grades, behavior problems, skipping classes or not wanting to go to school. Certain school problems get better after a short time, for example, after a student adjusts to a new school or recovers from a stressful situation. At other times, school problems do not go away and may be a sign of a learning disability or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although learning disabilities and ADHD are usually detected earlier in childhood, in some cases, they do not appear until the teen years. School problems in adolescents also may be a sign of depression, substance abuse or social problems.

If you suspect that your adolescent is having a problem in school (for example, your adolescent is bringing home poor grades):

  • Talk first with your adolescent about it. Ask for details about the school day, including how he feels, especially focusing on possible problem areas. What does he think is causing this problem? What are possible solutions? Some problems can be solved easily (for example, by helping your teen develop better study habits), while others are more complex.
  • Talk with your adolescent's teachers and/or guidance counselor. Besides being able to tell you more about your teen's performance in school, they may have important insight into the cause of any problems. Teachers and/or guidance counselors often can offer suggestions for ways to deal with school problems. Sometimes they may recommend a formal evaluation to determine the source of school problems and appropriate treatment.
  • Talk with your adolescent's pediatrician. He or she also may have suggestions for addressing your child's problems or may refer your child to another specialist for further evaluation.

Having school problems during adolescence can make an already stressful time of life even more difficult to handle. When discussing these problems with your teen, be understanding, nonjudgmental, gentle and supportive. Try not to sound disappointed or angry. Always point out your child's many strengths and special talents to him and encourage activities that use and further develop these skills. Success in one area can help overcome weaknesses in other areas.

Last updated March 11, 2008




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