What to Do When Your Teen Is Struggling at School

Make no mistake. Your kids are under more academic demands than you were. For better or for worse, the learning curve is steeper, and they have to study more than we did. Subject matters are more advanced. Projects, reports, and term papers require much more advance planning and steady work over time. If you don't build boundaries with teens early, the situation can get out of control.

I (Dr. Townsend) can remember how jarred I was when my kids started bringing back homework assignments from junior high and high school. We were in a whole new world, and a much harder one. When I saw how far ahead my kids had to be planning their reports, I called my mother and said, "What do you remember about my high school days, like how far in advance did I write reports?" She said, "You wrote them in the car on the way to school."

That is what I remembered too. Most kids can't pull that off today. Ironically, this increase in responsibility comes at a time when an adolescent's internal world is in chaos. Along with this increased responsibility comes an increase in pressure to do well. School matters more in these years. Your kid's grades and education will affect the path of his life. This too is ironic. Just when many teens stop caring about how well they do in school, their academic achievement matters more than ever. These increases in responsibility and pressure often contribute to the problem of academic underachievement in adolescents.

Kids who have poor grades but lack the ability to make good grades are not underachievers. Technically, underachievement means that a student's performance is significantly below her ability. Testing can show this at a very accurate level. Underachieving kids can do better in school, but because they aren't motivated or don't have the necessary internal structure, they don't do better.

Academic underachievement may also be due to learning problems, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and emotional struggles, so have your teen evaluated to rule out these matters. (Motivation or structure issues can also play a part in these problems.)

Handling the Academic Problem

If you've ruled out a physical or emotional condition as the cause for your teen's poor academic performance, you likely need to clarify your expectations and establish some consequences if she doesn't meet those expectations. That's the purpose of boundaries with teens. Here are some guidelines for how you can help your teen reach his academic potential:

1. Determine your teen's motivations.

What matters to him enough to influence him to study hard? Some adolescents just gravitate toward studies and are more focused and diligent. They want to succeed because that is how they are wired. Others see how important these years are to their college or work success. They can tie in the future with the present. These teens don't need a lot of monitoring. They just need for you to provide a warm and study-supportive home.

But some kids don't care at all about these matters and need more help in terms of rewards and consequences. For other teens, progress reports and quarterly grades are too far in the future to really matter to them. They may need daily structures to help them stay on task; you may need to monitor the time spent on homework and the progress made.

Be careful not to require your teen to get certain grades, and then let him sink or swim. He may not have the internal organizational ability to last four or five weeks without someone helping him, and you will be setting him up for failure. Remember, the less ability your teen has inside, the more external structure and help he needs from the outside, until he has internalized that structure for himself.

So set up several kinds of external structures: help your teen stay on task by monitoring the time spent doing homework and how much he is accomplishing in each subject; get him into a study group; hire a tutor. Do what is necessary, given the need and the available resources.

Talk with your child's teachers and ask for their help. Most schools are more than happy to help involved parents. They appreciate your alliance with them. For instance, if your teen has the chronic "I don't know what my homework is" complaint, you and the teacher can work together to help your student improve in this area. You can have your teen write down the homework in every class, every day, in an assignment notebook. Then, at the end of class, have him go to the teacher to review it and initial it so that you know your teen has correctly written down the assignments.

2. Determine standards, rewards, and consequences.

Set out with your teen what his grade requirements and goals are. It helps to have three levels:

  • Not okay: substandard grades, which will involve a consequence
  • Okay: acceptable grades, which will result in neither a consequence nor a reward
  • Excellent: indicating extra performance, which will involve a reward

Then determine specific rewards and consequences for grades, which can range from monetary and privilege rewards to consequences, such as loss of media, decreased social time, and increased chores. Write down what you agree to, and post the list on the refrigerator. You may need to refer to this list often. Besides, when it's in plain view, your teen will be less likely to argue with you about those rewards and consequences.

Also let your teen know that good grades are important. For example, say, "I know you don't enjoy doing homework. It's work, and I didn't like it either. But it is part of your responsibility, and I expect at least okay grades from you. I want you to succeed, and I will provide as much support as I can, but you must do the work."

Most schools give progress reports halfway between either quarter or semester reports. These reports give you objective information and time to help your teen with subjects she may be struggling with.

If grades are a problem with your teen, she likely has an unrealistic view of her success and of what is required. So don't believe her perception that she has done her work or has studied enough. Check it, check it, check it.

3. Establish a daily structure.

If you find your teen doesn't get to homework until late or not at all, set up his after-school day so that he has to get to his assignments early enough. For example, allow him about thirty minutes to chill out when he gets home from school. Then tell him it's time to study. He can't watch television, be on the phone, listen to music, or play video and computer games until he has done the work, including home chores. You want your teen to learn to postpone having fun until after he has earned it. If he fools around and doesn't get to the homework until bedtime, it's straight to bed when he's finished.

You are the guardian of the schedule and of his sleep routine. Weekends should involve some study time too. Teens need weekends to relax and be with friends, but schools often assign homework over the weekend. Remember there are two, not three, weekend nights. Sunday is a technically a school night, so it's not a late night.

You Can Do It!

If your teen needs a lot of structure, you may have to put more personal time into her studying than you thought. This may be difficult if both parents work outside the home, if you are a single parent, or if you have lots of kids. But even so, your teen's needs don't change. She still needs people, support, and structure. Check with other sources, such as the school, a church, or a tutoring service to see if they can provide someone to help your teen stay on task. While a parent is ideal, anyone caring and competent can help.

Finally, your teen's lack of motivation or defiance may be beyond your resources. If that is the case, look into taking her out of the school she is in and putting her in one that is more suitable for kids who need extra structure. I have had friends with bright but unmotivated kids who have done this, and it has worked well. When the grades came back up, the kids could return to their former school. The structure helped, and so did the desire to get back in school with their friends. Military schools can also make a difference with kids who can't be reached any other way.

Don't let your teen put her future at risk simply because she's unmotivated or lacks structure. Help her change things around. Build boundaries with teens, provide what she needs, even if it means going an extra mile or two.


Learn more about how to handle other adolescent hot topics in Boundaries with Teens by Dr. John Townsend.

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