Out of Focus: When Back to School Isn’t Going Well

School is in full swing, and I hope it’s going well for everyone. But I see enough kids to know that sometimes, it doesn’t. A lot of kids struggle in school, and their parents often find themselves wondering what they can do to help. It’s not at all uncommon for parents to bring a child into the pediatrician’s office after the first report card because “he can’t focus and needs to be on medication.” But there are countless causes for poor school performance, and fixing the right problem is the key to success.

Don’t wait for the report card.

When the first indication of a problem is a report card (which is often the case), it suggests that a parent could have been more proactive in asking about their child’s performance. Teachers have a whole classroom of kids to worry about, and they get busy. Often, they don’t go out of their way to contact parents about their child’s performance unless he’s really struggling. They also don’t know how much to expect from a particular student until they get to know him.

Fortunately, parents have more opportunities today than ever before to stay informed about their children’s academic progress. Many schools publish grades online, and a quick email to your child’s teacher could let you know how things are going. Waiting several weeks for grades to come out can make it a lot harder to pull a bad average up. And even if your child is doing well, it’s important to stay on top of how things are going.

Your involvement in your child’s education shouldn’t stop at the car line. Get to know the teacher and the other parents. Attend class events. If your schedule allows, ask if you can stop by and read a couple books to the class. And if you have a lot of time to spare, consider volunteering as a class parent; it’s a lot of work, but a great way to stay connected. This type of involvement shows your child that you value his education and makes it far more likely that you’ll be aware of his academic and social progress.

Have realistic expectations.

Look–not every guitar player is a rock star, and not every kid with a soccer ball will make it to the World Cup. We all have different abilities. It’s unrealistic to expect every child to make straight A’s. Or even A’s and B’s. Statistically speaking, somebody’s gotta be below average. And that’s not to say that children who struggle in school won’t be successful in life or have lucrative careers; there are a lot of great jobs out there that don’t require a 4.0 average or a graduate degree.

I’m not saying that grades aren’t important, or that you shouldn’t push your child to do her best; I just want to emphasize how crucial it is to figure out exactly what “her best” is. If she’s capable of making straight A’s but isn’t trying hard enough, push her to do better. But if she’s working her butt off to make C’s, reward her efforts. She earned it.

When I talk to families about school performance, I ask about grades, but I follow that question with another very simple one: “Is there anything that would help you to do better?” It’s amazing how much insight kids can have into what would improve their performance. If your child is struggling, ask her what would help. It may be something you can do or something you can discuss with the school. Or maybe there’s nothing. But it doesn’t take long to ask.

Find the problem to fix.

Often, parents and teachers (and sadly, doctors) assume that the solution to bad grades is medication. I frequently get comments from parents like “he isn’t paying attention in class and needs medicine.” What’s missing from this logic is a diagnosis–why isn’t he paying attention? Just like fever, “not focusing” is a symptom that could be a manifestation of a wide variety of problems:

  • I can’t focus because I didn’t get enough sleep last night.
  • I can’t focus because I’m scared that people will laugh at me if I say the wrong answer.
  • I can’t focus because I’m worried that my grades won’t be good enough.
  • I can’t focus because I’m thinking about mom and dad fighting last night.
  • I can’t focus because I’m not being challenged.
  • I can’t focus because I just don’t understand the material.
  • I can’t focus because we don’t have food at home, and I’m hungry.
  • I can’t focus because the kid sitting behind me keeps whispering that I’m fat.
  • I can’t focus because I don’t learn well in this environment.
  • I can’t focus because I can’t see the board (or hear the teacher).
  • I can’t focus because I have a seizure every few minutes.
  • I can’t focus because I want to go get high with my friends.
  • I don’t focus because I don’t think school is important.
  • I don’t focus because I just don’t care.
  • And finally, I can’t focus because I’m easily distracted.

I’m not making these up; I’ve seen all of them and more. Hopefully, you can see that poor school performance doesn’t necessarily equate to ADHD. Far too often, children get diagnosed with ADHD without considering or addressing these other issues. For kids whose primary problem is something besides ADHD, these medications might help a little, but they won’t solve the problem.

It’s also important to remember that medications for ADHD do not make grades or behavior better. The medications that we use for ADHD can be very effective, but the goal of using them is to allow a child to focus on the material (not to learn it for him), and to help him think before making bad decisions (not to make good decisions for him). Successful management of ADHD requires a lot of difficult and effective parenting, a school that fosters an effective learning environment, and a lot of personal effort on the part of the child. There’s no medicine to replace parenting or studying.

Let me be clear: I’m not downplaying ADHD. It’s a very real problem, with implications reaching far beyond the classroom. People with ADHD are more likely to get speeding tickets, abuse drugs, get pregnant (when they weren’t planning to), lose a job, suffer accidental injuries, get divorced, and go to jail. Identifying and treating ADHD is really, really important. It’s just that not everyone who struggles in school has it.

The first step in fixing a problem is to determine what the problem is–and “not focusing” isn’t good enough. To make this even more complicated, the majority of children who struggle in school will have more than one contributing cause. The biggest issues should be addressed first, but it’s important to keep looking for other potential problems; they may more obvious after the primary issue fades away.

Get your child the help she needs.

Once the actual problem has been identified, it becomes possible to find a solution. These solutions are even more numerous than the problems they address. Depending on your situation, this could involve seeking counseling for anxiety, talking to school administrators about bullying, improving sleep habits, or discussing with your pediatrician about whether a medical condition could be contributing. You may need to request an evaluation from the school to rule out learning disabilities or other learning problems. Maybe it would help to find a tutor or spend more time working on homework. Perhaps your child needs glasses. It might help to request special accommodations like more time for tests, shorter homework assignments, or a different seat in the classroom. Whatever your child’s problem is, you can bet that there’s a list of solutions totally unique to her. And maybe–just maybe, she needs medication.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful, and I wish your children the best this school year. I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences–leave them below or on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading and sharing!



As always, your comments are welcomed (even if you happen to disagree). I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Please try to keep it civil--I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “Out of Focus: When Back to School Isn’t Going Well

  1. This is a good article and I hope that parents will take it to heart. I had absence seizures as a child and while I had a diagnosis and was on medication. School was still really hard. The meds made me groggy and slow. Plus sometimes they didn’t work and the dose had to be adjusted a lot. My teachers didn’t understand and sent me for all kinds of tests for learning disorders. I was tested for Asperger, ADHD, dyslexia, speech problems, etc. I eventually switched schools because of bullying only to find the other school wasn’t much better. Finally in jr. high I was switch to a medication with fewer side effects and was able to have a little more normal experience. I stopped taking it in college because I wasn’t having anymore seizures.

    I think school might have been easier if teachers had tried to understand the diagnosis I had instead of trying to find the one they expected.

  2. Hi Chad,
    Thanks for this. My child was struggling in school and frustrated and angry at home. In 4th grade I finally had him see a pediatric optometrist who found convergence insufficiency and after 12 vision therapy visits he had improved about 80%, and after 24 VT visits had improved 100% with all symptoms gone, behavior and school issues solved. The optometrists are not doing themselves a favor here because their studies on this stuff is pretty rinky-dink. I was a very skeptical family physician, but I know now that this vision issue was the problem. His distance vision BTW is 20/30, so his pediatrician thought that vision wasn’t the problem. Not so. Thanks!

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