Is Your Child Frustrated With School?

Hard Times in the Orange Juice Factory...and School

back to school

In the flurry of getting-back-to-school activities, it’s easy to lose sight that this is all about kids returning to another 10 months at work.  And though some kids flitter happily around the water cooler, as it were, and some kids like to work, and some also find the work easy... 


Well, how would you feel if when you went to work every day, you felt incompetent at your job, say, sorting oranges in a juice factory?  And there you are on your hands and knees ~ most every day ~ crawling toward that speedy orb only to watch it scoot right underneath a heavy cupboard and you just know you’re going to have to get down on your belly to retrieve that sucker from among the greasy dust bunnies and then, your supervisor comes along and tells you that you’re behind quota again and you’re going to have to stay late to catch up again or there’ll be a demerit on your next performance review, and just then the guy with the forklift comes along and drops off a pallet with another 10 bushels of oranges for you to sort.

No, I wouldn’t like it either.

And how long before we’d start calling in “sick,” punching out early, taking long lunches, burying ourselves in television or video games or surfing the internet at night, drinking a bit too much, eating too little (or too much), complaining about inconsequential things, tossing and turning instead of sleeping, developing stomach problems, headaches, and symptoms of full-blown anxiety and depression?

Now just for a minute, let’s switch up a few words and phrases in that orange juice factory scenario…

How would you feel if when you went to school every day, you felt incompetent at say, math?  And there you are ~ most every day ~ crawling through the long division at a snail’s pace, head full of colourful noisy numbers tromping around through cobwebs, and just when you think you understand which number to carry and which to write down, someone says something that distracts you and the solution skitters away as quickly as a frightened mouse.  And then, your teacher stops by your desk and tells you the others have all finished their work and you’re going to have to stay in for recess and probably finish it for homework and if this keeps up, there’ll be a phone call home…

We don’t have to wait for that phone call to know our kids are struggling. What we see at homework time is probably analogous to what’s happening at school.  Sure, the child may not be arguing, stomping, or crying about his/her math work in front of the teacher, but if we’re seeing avoidance at home, the teacher is seeing it in the classroom. It just plays out differently — chatting with neighbours, sharpening pencils ‘til they’re nubs, going to the bathroom repeatedly, acting out so the focus is off the math and on the hijinks.

No matter how it plays out, including claims of boredom; claims that school is too easy; forgetting to bring schoolwork home; difficulty settling down to homework — avoidance is avoidance and there’s a reason for it.

Our kids don’t want to disappoint, to disillusion, to falter, to fail.  They want us to be proud.  From where I sit, any behaviour that is — on a regular basis — significantly less than a bid for a beaming parental eye is a cry for help. 

So we parents, grandparents, and teachers need to ask, “What might be going on?”

  • Is everything okay at home?  New sibling, death of a loved one or a pet, a move…
  • On the playground? It doesn’t have to be bullying to be a problem.
  • Does the child get enough sleep?  No really.  Eight to ten hours a night.
  • Eat healthily?  
  • Hear well?  See properly? 
  • Get enough exercise?  About an hour a day.
  • Have enough down time? Unstructured, free play, without television or video games.
  • Does the child have difficulty paying attention, sitting still, following instructions? 
  • Are the child’s prerequisite knowledge and skills strong enough to support the work being assigned at the present grade level?
  • …and finally…always the last question: “Is there another reason?”  Might the child process information, sounds, shapes, etc.  in a way that‘s incompatible with the way school lessons are designed?

Some of these questions we parents can answer and resolve ourselves. At least as a first step.

For the rest, we should start with our children.  Ask them what’s going on.  Ask what it feels like to look at a page of reading comprehension questions, for instance.  What is easy and what is difficult.

Then we should speak with the teacher about what’s been observed in the classroom. In the schoolyard.

We might consider an academic assessment to see, for instance, if the child’s difficulties with grade 3 math are a result of not knowing grade 2 math.  The school can do this.  If the waiting list is too long at school, we can consider finding an educational consultant to conduct the assessment.

If after getting the child any subject-specific help needed, s/he continues to struggle at school, we can consult a psychometrist to have a full-blown educational assessment administered.  Again, the school can do this, but the wait list is, again, often long.  And time is precious when a child’s learning opportunities are whizzing by.

As parents, we need to listen to our guts.  We know when something is wrong.

But above all, we need to listen to our kids. They may not be using words, but they are most desperately trying to communicate with us.

You can learn even more ways to get organized and transition from summer to school on our Back-To-School 2014 page.

Diane Duff is a retired principal and former senior English and French teacher who has spent almost 20 years working with children who struggle in school. At Reading & Dyslexia Services, and through the wonder of technology, Diane works with teachers and tutors, homeschooling families, and parents/children around the world.

Diane lives in Toronto with her husband. She is the proud mama of two remarkable women, and five wonderful stepchildren. She is thrilled to be called Gramma/G’Ma/The Great Green Granny by four amazing young souls.

Contact Diane at [email protected], 647-222-3833, or visit