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Unmotivated Son Is Failing in School

LD and ADD/ADHD Expert Advice from Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D.

Q: We want to move our 10-year-old son from the local public school to a Catholic school. He is currently in the fifth grade but his grades for the entire year has been D's/F's. We planned to have him repeat the fifth grade there. He was tested at the Catholic school and they said he tested on the fourth-grade level and that is where they would place him. How devastating would that be to a 10-year-old to be placed two years behind where he should be? My husband is totally against it.

My son has been struggling in school since third grade. His grades have been very poor since then. We have had him tutored by Huntington Learning Center for over one year now. I have also tutored him and now he is seeing a counselor. Everyone agrees that he is just not motivated, but how can we fix that? He has also been tested by the public school system and is considered in the average range (no LD problems identified). What can we do to help our son?

A: There has to be a reason a 10-year-old child is not motivated. Until you find out why, you'll be putting him in program after program without a plan. I think that demoting him to the fourth grade would be a disaster. You need to find out why he's doing what he's doing before you make any decisions. Here are some possibilities:

  • It could be an underlying learning disability that wasn't picked up by the school evaluation.
  • It could also be that he's had such a poor track record in school that he doesn't see any hope of success. As a result, he could be depressed as a result of this self-perception. He may be saying, "Why should I work harder? It's not going to make any difference." Or, "Even if I work my tail off, I'll only get C's or D's or worse. What's the use?"
Does your child get joy out of life outside the school? If he's constantly miserable or moody or angry and frustrated both in school and at home, an underlying depression could be the cause of his difficulty. If he does poorly in school, but seems happy and has a passion for something outside school that he does well, his poor attitude may be caused his inability to be successful in school. He may be unmotivated and even oppositional in school because of a learning disability. He may also have such poor academic skills that he just can't keep up. In this case, I'd get him quickly into a school or program for kids with very weak academic preparation or for kids with LD and give him a heavy dose of specialized intervention. You can think about enrolling him in a parochial or public school later, after a foundation of skills and self-esteem has been built.

You need to have him evaluated soon by a professional who specializes in the assessment of childhood learning disabilities and emotional difficulties. This could be a clinical neuropsychologist or a team made up of a psychologist and a psychiatrist. They will help you determine what's at the root of your son's difficulties and work with you to put a plan in place. Don't leave this to chance.

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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.


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