Baltimore’s Child

Baltimore’s Child.

Plan for Success

Help Your Bright Underachiever Shine Again

By Amy Landsman

It can be so frustrating. Your child who once dashed home with a parade of As on his report card is now pulling Ds, or worse. |
He comes up with innumerable excuses, too. He blames it on everything from the teachers to sunspots. You talk it over, you restrict television and computer time, promises are made, tears shed. But, still, nothing changes.
What happened?
One Baltimore County mom, who asked to be anonymous, says that’s what happened with her 14-year-old son. He made it through sixth and seventh grades okay, but then eighth grade was horrible.
“His grades took a nosedive,” she laments. “He just couldn’t keep his grades up.”
Actually, it’s not unusual for some students who did well in elementary school to suddenly fall to pieces in middle or high school.
According to Dr. Joyce Cooper-Kahn, a Severna Park psychologist, in elementary school, teachers provide a lot of structure, and many parents also pitch in with supervising, monitoring, and helping their kids with homework and projects.
But once students get to middle school, “there’s a lot more of, ‘Okay, it’s time to start doing it on your own,’” explains Cooper-Kahn, who is the author of Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning (Woodbine, 2008).
“[As the student,] not only are you doing it on your own,” Cooper-Kahn continues, “but you’re juggling different teachers, different classes, and going from one place to the next. You’ve got to get your stuff there. You’ve got to keep track of it. You’ve got to keep track of different ways of doing things from one class to the next. That’s where kids start having trouble.”
“I’ve seen so many bright kids hit middle school and start to struggle,” says Dr. Robyn Waxman, a Towson psychologist who specializes in child and adolescent issues.
She adds that, in some cases, there’s a delay in a child’s organizational and time management skills—something that becomes apparent when students are faced with the increased demands of upper level education.
“They might not necessarily need help in math or reading or history,” she says. “What they need is help in organizing a really dense topic, such as history.
“It’s easy to look at a child and say, ‘He just doesn’t care; he’s not motivated. After all, he could do it in third grade, and now that he’s in eighth grade, he can’t anymore,’” Waxman continues.
But, as frustrating as it is for parents, it’s equally frustrating for the child.
“[That student] is just as likely to look at himself and say, ‘I guess it’s me—I’m just lazy,’” says Waxman.
“We tried sticky notes. We tried a homework folder. We met with the teachers, and I said, ‘There’s only so much I can do,’” says the Baltimore County mom, adding that even the threat of being removed from the school’s Gifted and Talented academic track didn’t seem to motivate her son.

What’s Going On?
Before assuming, however, that your child is having time-management issues or is simply poorly organized, you have to figure out if something else is causing his or her grades to drop. Is there an undiagnosed learning disability? Are the student’s basic skills weak? Is he or she suffering from anxiety or depression? Is there a stressful family situation that is having an impact?
“If he or she has lost interest in everything, that’s one indicator that it [school performance] might have to do with mood,” notes Waxman.
A psychoeducational assessment to identify their intellectual abilities and educational achievement levels by a psychologist, privately or through the school, will help pinpoint what’s causing the problem. Support and treatment for a teen with depression will be very different from working with a student who has weak basic skills, so it’s crucial to identify the underlying cause.
If the problem seems to be organizational, that suggests what’s called an executive function delay. This does not mean your child isn’t bright. What it does mean is that the part of the brain responsible for organization and advance planning hasn’t yet developed.
Executive function is “directly related to development in the brain,” explains Waxman. “It just might be that the students’ brains are maturing.”
For example, Waxman describes what it takes to complete a long-term report. Having honed in on a specific topic, the student has to break down the steps to completion—figuring out how to research the topic, then doing the research, synthesizing the information, and finally writing the paper, all the while managing his or her time.
“We don’t expect that from elementary-school kids, so they don’t have the same problems…this is where the bright kids tend to stumble,” says Waxman.
“It’s not a skills deficit, it is a more overarching problem, which has to do with how you manage and organize yourself in the service of a goal,” notes Cooper-Kahn.

Steps to Take
Whatever the underlying problem the student is experiencing, having it surface as he or she is entering the teen years can certainly make sparks fly when parents repeatedly lecture about writing down homework assignments or making sure said homework is actually turned in and not lying in the bottom of a backpack.
If the problem is rooted in executive function skills, and if it is financially possible, a tutor or academic coach may have more luck than Mom or Dad. Or, the parent whom the student has less conflict with can take the lead in helping out at homework time. Even an older high schooler can come by a couple times a week to help a younger kid organize his or her backpack.
Cooper-Kahn believes that students can be taught how to manage these executive demands, but cautions parents to be patient.
“Just like someone who, say, has a learning disability in reading, it’s going to take a much more deliberate intervention, and it’s going to take some acceptance while the child is learning…the child needs support for longer than one would wish,” says Cooper-Kahn. “So, the question becomes: How long do you provide support? And the answer is: until the child can do it on his or her own.”
Parents and students alike always hope for a great start for the new school year. But, if your child did poorly last year, the new year may turn out to be a repeat of the last one. That’s why it’s important to find out what is causing the problem and then take the steps to help your student achieve. BC

Help Your Student Complete Homework Tasks
Dr. Joyce Cooper-Kahn, a Severna Park psychologist, says to first find out where your child is having the most trouble with assignments. Did he or she even write it down? Does your child have trouble sticking with a plan to complete an assignment?
Think through how you would handle the task, and then teach that process to your child. Walk through it with him or her.
Break down projects step-by-step and coach your child through the process. Help him or her decide when to tackle each step of a long-term project. And make sure he or she writes the plan down. Also, factor in a little wiggle room to avoid last-minute crises, such as the library being out of the key book your child needs.
Your level of involvement will depend on how well your child can accomplish the homework task on his or her own. Some students will continue to need a parent’s involvement for a long time. If this is the case in your family, you may want to talk to your child’s school’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team about starting a 504 Plan, which would put accommodations in place to support the student until he or she can manage on his or her own.

© Baltimore’s Child Inc. September 2011

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