Why is My Smart Kid Struggling in School?

If you have a tween in middle school or a teen in high school, you may have been surprised that they didn’t just “breeze through” academics as easily as they did in elementary school. After all, your kid is smart and they didn’t seem to have any learning struggles before now. So what exactly is going on? While every kid is different and needs individual attention to determine why they’re suddenly feeling more challenged at higher grade levels, there are some common causes for this change. 

Here are three reasons that your smart kid might be struggling in school, as well as some tips on how you might be able to help:

They didn’t develop strong executive function skills.

Sometimes referred to as the “management system of the brain,” executive function skills include things like planning, organizing, self-monitoring, time management, adaptable thinking, self-control, and working memory. It’s generally believed that these skills don’t mature until young adulthood (or even later), although we now know that repeated practice of these skills can boost abilities, thanks to neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change through growth and reorganization.

“Elementary school might have been easy for them,” explains cognitive psychologist Dr. Amy Moore. “They didn’t learn how to plan or organize and so now that they’re in middle school or high school, those are executive function skills that they’ve never had to develop. And so we need to help them plan, organize, and study.”

What parents can do: Teach your child to use a planner or calendar to get organized, breaking down larger projects, papers, and test preparation into smaller chunks well in advance. Consider adding a timer to set limits for each step to help kids avoid overwhelm and boredom. Demonstrate how checklists work, including prioritizing tasks by importance and deadlines, which can help with procrastination and decision fatigue. Develop strong, consistent routines for everything from homework and bedtime and spend time helping your child or teen understand the rationale behind why things like grades and getting a good night’s sleep are important.

They’re stressed out.

Kids and teens can experience stress and anxiety at any age. The pressure to perform well academically, athletically, or even musically or in other hobbies can weigh heavily on their mind, especially if parents, teachers, or coaches vocalize high expectations. Other issues that add to stress include overscheduling, changing routines, navigating social situations and relationships, and finding support systems among peers or adults.

 “A lot of times, smart kids are under a lot of stress to achieve and that stress can then lead to emotional dysregulation,” says Dr. Moore. “When our emotions are not regulated, then we are caught in a chronic stress cycle that impacts our ability to learn. So smart kids who look stressed need to learn some emotion-regulation skills—breathing exercises, grounding exercises, mindfulness practices—that can help manage the stress of wanting to achieve.”

What parents can do: Getting your child or teen into therapy can help by providing a neutral, trained professional to help them navigate big emotions and stressors. At home, you can teach simple but effective breathing or grounding exercises or engaging in mindfulness practices together. Mindfulness, which can help kids and teens be aware of their feelings without reacting immediately, can not only help with stress, but also anger and frustration. It’s also important to make decisions through the lens of your family values. If your child seems stressed out and overscheduled, work together to decide which commitments are most important and which ones could be released for the sake of their mental health.

One or more cognitive skills is underperforming.

“One more reason why a smart kid might be struggling in school is because they had an easy time, but now subjects have gotten harder and they might have one cognitive skill needed to learn that’s a little bit weak,” adds Dr. Moore. “So maybe now they’re learning about maps but their visual processing skills aren’t quite strong enough. Or maybe they’re learning to apply knowledge rather than memorize knowledge, and their logic and reasoning skills just aren’t strong enough. And so we need to find some activities or interventions to strengthen those cognitive skills.”

Cognitive skills—the core skills our brain uses to think, read, learn, reason, remember, and pay attention—work together to process incoming information and move it into the bank of knowledge that we use every day at school, work, sports, and life. These skills include logic & reasoning, processing speed, attention, visual processing, auditory processing, and working and long-term memory. Because each of these brain skills plays an important role in grasping, understanding, remembering, and using information, it’s easy to see how even one underperforming skill could impact learning and performance. In fact, more than 80% of learning struggles are caused by one or more weak cognitive skills. 

What parents can do: Schedule a Brain Skills Assessment for your child or teen. It only takes about an hour and the assessment will identify which cognitive skills are already thriving and which skills have improvement. The results often provide an “Aha!” moment for parents who have wondered why their smart child performs so well on certain activities yet struggles on others. Armed with the results, parents can determine which interventions to consider to help target and train cognitive skills in need of a boost.  

Rather than trying to figure it out on your own, start by having an honest conversation with your child or teen. Be sure to spend more time listening than talking and reassure them that you their academic performance isn’t a reflection of their intelligence or worth. Feeling loved and understood can go a long way in helping your child or teen feel supported as you work to help them become the best version of themselves.

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