1. Pre-teens
  2. School & education
  3. School issues

School problems: children 9-15 years

9-15 years

Celebrating your child’s school highs is important – but so is being aware of the signs your child might be having problems. When you pick up on school problems early, your child has a much better chance of getting back on track. Here’s what to look for.

School problems: what to expect

Ups and downs at school are part of life for many young people. A good relationship with your child’s school and teachers can help you head off problems. If school problems do come up, it’s important that you quickly recognise and address them.

School problems can show up as poor academic performance, lack of motivation for school, loss of interest in school work, or poor relationships with peers or teachers.

School difficulties range from minor to severe, might be very short-lived or last for longer. Even short-term school problems can have a negative impact on how young people feel about school – and themselves.

Children do better and stay longer at school when their parents and families are involved. A strong relationship with your child’s school and its staff is important, even if your child isn’t struggling.

Common signs of school problems

Sometimes, school problems will be easy to spot, and your child will want to talk to you about them.

But sometimes your child might hide school problems from you or from teachers and friends. For example, she might copy homework, pretend to be sick during important tests, or not bring reports home. This can make it very difficult for you to pick up on a problem. Sometimes even teachers might not spot the clues – especially if your child is absent a lot.

So if you’re worried that your child is having school problems, there are some signs you can look out for. You might notice that your child:

  • makes excuses not to go to school or even skips school without your knowledge
  • doesn’t want to talk about school, or seems critical or uncomfortable when talking about school
  • doesn’t seem engaged with school – for example, he might not be interested in extracurricular activities or might have very few friends
  • seems low on confidence or self-esteem – for example, he might say he’s ‘dumb’ or not as smart as his friends
  • is getting detentions, or teachers are contacting you about attention or behaviour problems
  • refuses to do homework, rarely talks about homework, or seems bored with or unchallenged by schoolwork – he might say he’s not learning anything new
  • is getting lower marks than usual.

If you think you’ve spotted some signs of school problems, but your child doesn’t want to talk about them, it might be a difficult conversation. You could start by talking about what you think your child might be feeling. For example, ‘You look sad. I wonder if you’re feeling worried about school?’ 

There are lots of things you can do to help your child with school problems. You can also get help from your child’s teacher, the principal or assistant principal, the school welfare coordinator or other specialist teaching staff. You could also talk to your GP, who might refer you to other health professionals, like psychologists, speech therapists or occupational therapists.

Picking up school problems early on: why it’s important

If school problems aren’t picked up and addressed early, they can be bad for children in the long term.

To start with, school problems might contribute to poor self-esteem. In the longer term, they can affect your child’s mental health.

School problems can also lead to an increased risk of dropping out. Children who have academic problems might be more likely to avoid school in the short term and to leave school early in the long term. These children might also be less likely to do further education or training in the future.

Another consequence of school problems is that children can get tagged with unhelpful labels like ‘uninterested’, ‘easily distracted’, ‘lazy’ or ‘doesn’t try hard enough’. Young people often start to believe these labels and think that they’re ‘troublemakers’ or ‘misfits’. All these labels suggest that children are to blame for school problems. But school problems are often a sign that children aren’t getting enough support.

Finally, when children fit in at school and feel like they belong, it’s good for their wellbeing. But children who have problems at school can experience a reduced sense of belonging and wellbeing.

Causes of school problems

Some of the more common causes of school problems are underlying learning difficulties or learning disabilities – like dyslexia – or behavioural or emotional issues. But there are many other reasons why a young person might not be achieving academically.

Personal factors might include:

  • chronic illness
  • mental health issues like depression or anxiety
  • experiences of trauma
  • difficulties with self-esteem, communication skills or social skills
  • difficulties with listening, concentrating or sitting still.

School factors might include:

  • disliking, or not feeling connected to, the school culture or environment
  • disliking school subjects, not liking the choice of subjects, or not feeling challenged by the work
  • poor school or academic support, especially in relation to heavy workloads
  • not getting along with teachers or other students at school
  • skipping school
  • having trouble with managing time for things like extracurricular activities
  • being bullied.

Children with additional needs

Some children and teenagers with attention problems, high levels of anxiety, or impulsive or aggressive behaviour are at greater risk of problems at school. This is because they might find it harder to adapt to the demands of the classroom setting, or they might find it hard to concentrate during tasks and teacher instructions.

There’s also a strong link between physical health and academic performance. Some children who have additional needs resulting from chronic illness, intellectual disability, or behaviour or developmental difficulties might be more at risk of developing academic problems or difficulties with relationships at school. 

Children who miss a lot of school because of a temporary or chronic condition might find it difficult to catch up when they return to school. This can also make them feel anxious and stressed, which adds to the problem.

Academic performance might be influenced by reduced self-esteem or changes in peer relationships that are linked to children’s additional needs.

Getting help for children with additional needs
Although not every child with additional needs will have academic problems, establishing a strong relationship with your child’s school early and regularly monitoring your child’s progress throughout schooling can help you pick up on early signs of problems.

If problems do come up, you can get help from school staff as well as from your GP and other health professionals.

It’s important to be aware of your child’s rights in relation to education. For more information, read our article on education rights for children with disabilities.

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Last updated or reviewed
13-12-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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