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How to Support Young Kids Who Are Struggling in School

Boosting self-esteem and frustration-tolerance will help them stay positive

Rae Jacobson

Even at an early age, the fallout from learning difficulties – frustration, embarrassment, a sense of being different than their peers – can damage kids’ confidence. As a parent, it’s hard to watch your child struggle, and knowing how to help isn’t always easy. But there are things parents can do. If your child is having trouble in school, supporting their self-esteem and bolstering their ability to face setbacks can help them feel more confident and in control, even when things get tough.

What to do when kids are struggling

Whether or not your child needs help from specialists or accommodations in school to learn successfully, there’s a lot you can do keep their struggles from taking a big emotional toll, explains Daryaneh Badaly, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Watch for changes in behavior

Kids, especially young children, often lack the words or ability to communicate big, complicated feelings like anxiety or embarrassment. Instead, these feelings surface as behaviors. For example, a child who’s feeling anxious about school might start having tantrums when it’s time to leave in the morning or be disruptive during class.

Tuning into your child’s behaviors can help you spot emotions they may not know how to express. If you notice a change in your child’s behavior around school, it may be a sign that they’re struggling with difficulties they lack the tools to talk about.

So what can parents do to help?

Build frustration tolerance

Kids, even those with no learning issues at all, benefit from learning how to deal with frustration and regulate their emotions. Managing frustration without blowing up, or giving up, is an essential skill for kids (and grownups), and it helps kids feel more prepared and less upset when things are difficult for them.

“Difficulty is part of learning,” Dr. Badaly notes. “Your child will be frustrated, but you can help your child feel like the frustration was worth it.” Help kids build their resilience by doing small bursts of difficult work, such as five minutes of practice on writing their letters, followed by praise for their hard work and even points towards earning a small reward.

While kids are learning to work through frustration, parents might also help reframe frustrating activities. Dr. Badaly also suggests making difficult activities as fun as possible for kids — for example, letting your child choose the book you’ll read together or turning the counting practice into a song and dance (literally). “When kids feel engaged they’re more likely to keep going when things get tough.”

Validate feelings

Of course we all want to help kids feel competent and positive when it comes to schoolwork, but cheerleading isn’t always the best kind of support. Saying, “You can do it!” when a child is feeling frustrated and upset can leave them feeling misunderstood and may have the opposite effect: “NO, I CAN’T!”

Instead, validate your child’s feelings and try to empathize with what they’re going through. “Validate the fact that it IS super frustrating!” says Dr. Badaly. For example, you might say: “It does sound really hard. I can see why you’re feeling so frustrated. I get frustrated when things are hard, too!” Such conversations might also open the door to telling and showing your child how you might handle something really frustrating – modeling skills for them.

Normalize struggles

Kids, even very young ones, often feel embarrassed, confused and upset when they’re unable to do something that seems easy for their peers. Kids may fear they’re the only one who can’t do it! Or they might worry they’re going to get in trouble. “Let your child know that everyone — other kids, grownups, even their teachers and parents — have things that are hard for them,” Dr. Badaly says. “Knowing they’re not the only one struggling can be a big help.”

Focus on effort, not outcome

Trying, even when things are hard or the outcome is uncertain, is one of the most powerful skills kids can learn. Praising your child’s efforts instead of focusing on results will help them feel more comfortable trying things, even if they know they might not get them right immediately. Let them know that you’re proud of them even if the results aren’t perfect, and when they do succeed, continue to focus on effort. For example, “You really stuck with your letters!” instead of “Those letters look perfect!”

Listen to (but don’t fixate on) teacher feedback

Teachers are often the first to notice a child is struggling. Having regular conversations with your child’s teacher, and paying attention to any concerns they share, can help you get a better sense of your child’s trouble spots. But when you get a less-than-stellar report about your child’s learning or behavior, try to use the feedback as a guide for how to help and support your child, rather than worry-fuel.

Manage your own anxiety

Being anxious is okay — passing that anxiety on to your kid isn’t. Check in with yourself, and consider how your own feelings, worries and experiences might impact how you respond to your child’s school struggles. Focus on finding healthy ways to manage your anxiety, such as talking to a therapist or a friend. If you are concerned about your child, try to stay away from internet rabbit-holes and reach out to learning professionals or your child’s teachers instead. Be careful not to talk about your concerns within earshot of your child.

Above all, the goal should be to help your child feel as comfortable, competent and happy as possible when it comes to learning. Fostering a love of learning early on can help kids with learning issues feel more confident when and if challenges do arise.