How to Help Your Son When He Struggles Academically: Part I

When a boy struggles academically, we are tempted to focus exclusively on getting the grades up. More fundamental questions demand our attention, however, including what ought to be the first question we ask ourselves: Why?

Step one in helping your son improve performance is to understand why he is struggling. We propose four general reasons for academic underperformance:

Family Difficulty, Learning Disability, Other Medical Issue or Situation beyond One’s Control

Though there can be some really difficult situations that inevitably impact one’s academic performance, it is almost always possible to implement strategies that make the situation better. At The Heights, for example, teachers and administrators are always willing and eager to work with parents on these situations, whatever they are. Reasonable people understand, for example, that someone with a severe concussion cannot be expected to keep up with his schoolwork until his brain heals. Accommodations should be made for events such as death or illness in the family.

Effective accommodations are also possible for learning differences, though these are always handled on a case-by-case basis at The Heights. The goal is to cultivate the capacity for unassisted independent study where this is possible. Where aids are necessary, they are given, but boys ought to understand that these temporary measures are precisely that — temporary. That said, differences in learning styles and abilities are an undeniable fact of education. Where these differences are rooted in the intellect rather than the will, reasonable accommodations can be put in place.

Parents should feel very comfortable reaching out to their son’s teachers, advisor, or school head. Our mission at The Heights relies on parents as “primary educators,” so we are eager to engage in these conversations. Sometimes parents make the mistake of not wanting to “bother” the school with a particular difficulty, but in schools that are properly oriented, teachers should welcome this inside knowledge. Of course, once this information is entrusted, teachers must exercise appropriate discretion.

In my experience at The Heights, in almost every instance when a parent contacts a mentor, teacher or school head with a particular difficulty, the outcome for the student is positive; sometimes working together results in an unexpected solution that greatly helps the situation to improve.

Academic Schedule Is Too Difficult

There are various possible reasons why a student’s academic courses may be too difficult for him. The student may have chosen one or more elective classes that are objectively too difficult. Or the student may attempt to advance to a higher level math class or other class before he is ready. Some upper school students take more classes than they need to, forgoing the normal study hall for an additional academic class. In some cases a normal course load is too demanding for a particular student. If a student needs to spend over four hours on focused academic work just to keep up then his schedule is clearly too difficult.

Students in high school, much like professional men, ought to live a proper balance between life inside and outside the school. The seeds of workaholism are planted in youth, and though we celebrate the diligent lifelong learner, we caution against an excessive approach to work and academics at the expense of family and all leisure. In particular, the modern day obsession with APs can be damaging, shifting a student’s attention from what they ought to know as free men to what they need to know to get a score of 5. Ultimately, the hunt for AP credit is not all that it’s cracked up to be according to Cal Newport.

Over and above the volume of homework, there are other indicators of an excessively difficult academic schedule. Indeed some students deal with too much work and stress in more complicated ways. They might, for example, mentally block out one or more of the classes and accept poor performance in them. They may give up on their academic work in one, several, or all their classes. All too often we see the zero-sum-game approach to academics: work on your lowest grade at the expense of your better grades. Once the low grade comes up, shift to the formerly high grade that has dropped. Neither in school nor in life is this a healthy approach, however. Men shouldn’t make it a habit to consistently neglect either their profession or their family life.

Fortunately, the first step towards a solution is simple: talk to your school head or academic dean about making a schedule change. Sometimes a student does not realize that the best course of action is to take an easier schedule. Parents working with their school head and mentor may need to study the situation and make the best decision and then consider the right way to help the student understand what has been decided. Ideally, however, the boy is made to feel that he is in the driver’s seat. Young men need opportunities to discover the “power of no.”

Hard Worker but Disorganized

Parents should take care to properly discern the root of their son’s troubles. Often times lack of organization or laziness are the source of trouble. We begin with the former.

Often boys who are hard workers are also disorganized. In most cases, the last thing a parent should do in this situation it to try to find out what his or her son’s assignments are so as to manage the process for him. Even if a parent could find out each assignment and ensure his or her son does everything he should, this would not help the student with his organizational problem. There is a much simpler solution:  insist that your son effectively use a written assignment notebook or planner.

Once your son has started using it, ask your son to see it. Does it have the assignments for every class clearly written down? If there is any doubt, have your son call a friend to ask about assignments or email his teacher (“My son’s assignment book indicates that the next assignment in your class is a paper due next Thursday. Is that correct?”).

Encourage your son to approach his teachers and ask them for hints about how to improve. If your son takes the initiative to approach a teacher to explain what he is currently doing in the class and then humbly asks if the teacher has any suggestions for improvement or better studying strategies, it is likely that he will be facing a very impressed teacher who will do his best to help. Here, however, we caution students against excessive meetings with little follow through. Once the guidance is provided, execute. In this regard, it really helps to write down specific goals and strategies in the assignment notebook.

It is also very helpful to take out the assignment notebook before studying, look it over and use it to help form a concrete study plan for the time that will be spent studying. If, for example, a sophomore is planning on studying for 90 minutes and excellent study plan could be something like the following:

  1. Read and take margin notes on the Odyssey for 25 minutes.
  2. Review Latin vocabulary flash cards for 10 minutes.
  3. Do Chemistry homework problems until finished.
  4. Read history text until time is up.

A student can easily fall into a difficult situation: the danger of the overwhelming pile of books and the corresponding lack of focus when attempting to study. It is easy for a student to spend 90 minutes “reading” but really be mostly thinking about something else. When talking to boys about study habits, I am often met by knowing smiles when I describe how someone’s eyes can be going over words on a textbook page while he thinks about something else, so much so that one realizes half of a page has been “read” without any idea of what it says. The simple practice of breaking down a block of time into specific parts and crossing off completed tasks can help tremendously to avoid the malaise of empty time passing.

The Student Who Does Not Work Hard and Shows No Real Initiative to Take Responsibility for Doing His Work Well

This is a more difficult case than simple disorganization. Nonetheless, the same caution about parents trying to take on the role of executive administrative assistant for their son still applies. Trying to fix this problem by finding out what the assignments are and trying to do them with your son is usually a critical mistake. Not only is this approach not practical (the only way it could really work would be for a parent to follow his son around all day), it also undermines what really needs to happen, specifically that the student shoulders responsibility for his own work. So what is the solution? How does a parent respond to the son who claims, “I finished all my homework in study hall,” when it is obvious from his grades that something is not right?

In part II of this article next week, we’ll present a six-step program toward a successful solution.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.