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Many Kids Are Struggling in School. What Can Parents Do?

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Many Kids Are Struggling in School. What Can Parents Do?

The effects of pandemic school disruptions continue to plague children. But there is a path to resolving this.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Evena Joseph was unaware of just how much her 10-year-old son was struggling in school. She found out only with help from someone who knows the Boston school system better than she does. Her son, J. Ryan Mathurin, was not always comfortable pronouncing words in English. But Ms. Joseph, a Haitian immigrant raising him by herself, did not know how far behind he was in reading—in the 30th percentile—until a hospital where her son was receiving treatment connected her with a bilingual advocate.

“I’m sad and disappointed,” Ms. Joseph said through an interpreter. “It’s only because I was assigned an educational advocate that I know this about my son.”

It is widely known from test scores that the pandemic set back students across the country. But many parents do not realize that includes their own child.

Schools have long faced criticism for failing to inform parents about their kids’ academic progress. But after the COVID-19 school closures, the stakes for children have in many ways never been greater. Opportunities to catch up are plentiful in some places, thanks to federal COVID aid, but they will not last forever. It will take better communication with parents to help students get the support they need, experts say.

“Parents can’t solve a problem that they don’t know they have,” said Cindi Williams, co-founder of Learning Heroes, a nonprofit dedicated to improving communication between public schools and parents about student academic progress.

A 2022 survey of 1,400 public school parents around the country by Learning Heroes showed that 92 percent believed their children were performing at grade level. But in a federal survey, school officials said half of all U.S. students started this school year behind grade level in at least one subject.

The struggles that ultimately brought J. Ryan to the hospital for mental health treatment began in third grade when he returned to in-person school after nearly a year of studying online. J. Ryan was getting frustrated, disrupting lessons and leaving the classroom. His teacher called frequently, sometimes every day.

J. Ryan displayed these behaviors during English language arts and other classes, including Mandarin and gym, according to his education plan shared with The Associated Press. He happily participated in math class, where he felt more confident.

Pursuing a Cause

Ms. Joseph changed her work schedule at a casino to the night shift so she could talk with teachers during the day. The calls continued in fourth grade. But she said teachers never mentioned his problems reading. Last spring, she sought treatment for what was becoming obvious: Her son was depressed. She was teamed up at the hospital with the parent advocate, who speaks English and Haitian Creole.

The advocate, Fabienne Eliacin, pushed to get J. Ryan’s scores from the tests given each fall to monitor student learning. She explained to Ms. Joseph what scoring in the 30th percentile meant. It is not good, Ms. Eliacin told her. He can do better.

To Ms. Joseph, it suddenly made sense why J. Ryan was acting out in English class. But why, she wondered, were his teachers only focused on her son’s behavior if his trouble reading was causing his distress? “They don’t really care how much they learn, as long as they stay quiet,” Ms. Joseph concluded.

Before this year, it was up to Boston schools to share midyear evaluations with parents, but it is unclear how many were doing it. In the fall, Boston rolled out a communications campaign to help teachers explain testing results to parents as often as three times a year.

There are many reasons teachers might not talk to parents about a student’s academic progress, especially when the news is bad, research shows.

“Historically, teachers did not get a lot of training to talk to parents,” said Tyler Smith, a school psychology professor at the University of Missouri. School leadership and support for teachers also make a difference, he said.

This is consistent with findings from national teacher surveys conducted by Learning Heroes. At times, Ms. Williams said, teachers also “make assumptions” that some low-income parents do not care or should not be burdened or that parents will not believe them.

Without these conversations, parents have had to rely on report cards. But report cards can be subjective, reflecting how much effort students show in class and whether they turn in homework.

The progress report for Tamela Ensrud’s second-grade son in Nashville showed mostly As and a B in English, but she noticed her son was having trouble with reading. She asked to discuss her son’s reading test scores at a fall parent-teacher conference but was only shown samples of her son’s work and told, “Your son is doing well.”

Her son’s afterschool program, run by a nonprofit, tested his literacy and math skills this fall and found he was reading below grade level. He qualified for their reading intervention program.

“I don’t think the full story is being told,” Ms. Ensrud said.

She looked at the scores online and found them impossible to interpret.

Many districts have poured their federal pandemic recovery money into summer school offerings, tutoring programs and other interventions to help students regain ground lost during the pandemic. But the uptake has not been what educators hoped. If more parents knew their children were behind academically, they might seek help.

Once Ms. Joseph and her advocate learned J. Ryan was so far behind in reading, they asked his school for small-group tutoring, an intervention believed by experts to be one of the most effective strategies for struggling students.

But they were told the school did not offer it. They moved him in November to another school that said it could provide this form of help. J. Ryan says he likes the new school since they are learning more advanced long division. “I like challenging math,” he said. But he does not understand the texts he reads much better.

Ms. Joseph is not getting phone calls from the teacher complaining about his behavior, which she attributes to her son getting adequate treatment for his depression. But she has not received a report card this year, or the test scores the district says it is now sending to families.

“I’m still concerned about his reading,” she said.

Practical Tips

These accounts paint a vivid picture: Parenting in today’s world is hard. The unique challenges we all face in life, including economic status, language barriers, where we live and other factors, present obstacles for mothers and fathers to stay informed and make a difference in their child’s educational success. Here are some practical ways to begin turning the tide.

Reach out to your child’s teachers: Take the initiative to communicate with teachers to better understand your child’s progress and what may be causing their struggles. Do not wait for the school to contact you if you suspect there is an issue. Be warm and friendly, yet persistent.

Strive to find common ground and develop a relationship with the educators your son and daughter spends the most time with. Their teachers may be able to identify specific areas where your child is having difficulty and offer suggestions for how they can improve and how you can be involved in the process. Also, be diligent in attending parent-teacher conferences and take advantage of any apps, websites or other tools your school provides.

Develop a routine: Establish a regular routine in your household for your child to do their homework and study. While needs can arise in your schedule that may force you to deviate, strive to preserve this time slot every day as much as possible. Make it clear that schoolwork is a priority. Also, explain and remind your child why it is important. This structure can help your child forge good study and time management habits that will serve them into adulthood.

Provide support: This can include helping with homework, providing extra tutoring or resources outside of what the school offers and simply being available to answer questions and provide encouragement. Do not just leave your child alone during study time. While you do not want to be involved too much—you should not be doing their work for them—it should be clear that you are deeply invested in their success. If you are weaker in a subject, take time to study it or consider looking to a friend or family member for advice.

Teach a love of learning: Yes, it is important to succeed in every class in school and achieve a broad foundation of knowledge. But it is also vital to inspire your child to identify and pursue specific interests and passions. Provide opportunities for them to explore different subjects and find what they truly enjoy. Make it clear that they are not just learning to get a good grade—learning has benefits that transcend any report card. Set a good example for them by regularly learning and gaining knowledge yourself. Read books, watch edifying television programs, listen to educational podcasts and more. Then discuss what you are learning as a family.

Address health issues: Depending on the nature of your child’s school struggles, there may be underlying issues that need to be addressed. This can include learning disabilities or various health challenges. Talk to your child’s doctor if you think this could be the case for your child.

A Perfect Resource

As you apply the above tips, you will notice small victories in your child’s schooling over time. Yet the list above is incomplete and will not produce lasting change without addressing something much more foundational. Is there a single resource that can guide parents to raise their children successfully—not just academically, but more importantly, in life in general?

The countless parenting books and websites espousing philosophies and tips from every perspective can quickly feel overwhelming. Some of this advice is good, and some of it is misguided. What would be ideal is a book from an expert that could be relied on in its entirety because it contains no errors or missteps. While a natural reaction would be that such a book does not exist, it does.

This book is the Bible. Its author—God—is the foremost expert on raising children. He is the Being who created mankind and set the pattern for rearing children when He commanded the first married couple to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). And you can find this book in virtually any language, as well as in audio format.

Instructions on childrearing are throughout the Bible, which is written “here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:10). Studying it from cover to cover reveals this.

Yet for the benefit of those seeking to learn about parenting and hoping to avoid years of intense research or having to learn via the “school of hard knocks,” an extraordinary book based on clear biblical verses and principles has been written. It is a thorough guide to understanding what God has to say about childrearing.

Written by Real Truth Editor-in-Chief David C. Pack, this book is Train Your Children God’s Way. Thousands have benefited from the instructions contained within its pages.

In the book, Mr. Pack, a father and grandfather himself, writes: “It has been said that children represent a parent’s greatest stewardship. We could ask: What else even comes close?

“Think of all that is at stake in how parents rear just one child. This little human being can either be armed with how to succeed in life, or literally programmed to fail—left defenseless against the many problems that life will throw at him! Further, the child’s children—the parents’ own grandchildren—will be directly affected by the principles of childrearing (good or bad), which could then in turn continue to be at least partially employed, potentially for generations to come. Then there is the effect the child will have on all the other people with whom he comes in contact throughout the balance of his life. And what about the very real peace and happiness—or lack thereof!—that the child brings to his parents as another direct result of how well they did their job? All these things are measured in very real terms, and carry implications almost too numerous and far-reaching to comprehend.

“Your task is to recognize what all of this means to you as a parent, which must translate into action—what you must do!”

“To produce a happy, moral, emotionally mature and productive adult—including a strong relationship with the true God—parents must swim against a swirling ocean of powerful currents represented by the trends, pulls and overwhelming pressures of the modern age.”

“Vast numbers of parents, forced to rely on themselves or on the misguided opinions of so-called experts, have no way of knowing what to do when it comes to properly rearing children. They need help, not recognizing the problems that they are facing are spiritual, not physical. They need to turn to the only source of true spiritual understanding—the Bible—God’s Word!

“Most do not know that childrearing is a biblical doctrine—and that the Bible has much to say about it. They do not recognize that it is a teaching from God, like baptism, conversion, salvation, tithing, the Sabbath, God’s annual Holy Days, faith, grace, law and sin—and every other teaching in His Word.”

This only begins to scratch the surface of the useful information in this book.

Make the Commitment

Your children need guidance. They were made to receive instruction. Lessons can come from many sources, including their teachers at school. But you, their parent, must take the lead. God expects a child’s father and mother to be their primary educators. Ephesians instructs, “provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (6:4).

If you are a parent, decide today to do all you can to train your children. Recognize that despite life’s challenges and the complex nature of the education system in today’s society, it is possible to raise a balanced, well-rounded young person. The process will not be easy and will not happen overnight. It will take a long-term commitment and much hard work.

You must put solid, proven methods into action. Any parent must implement techniques revealed by the ultimate Parent, God the Father, as the most effective.

While raising a balanced and capable child in our modern age can feel nearly impossible—it can be done. Begin reading Mr. Pack’s free book Train Your Children God’s Way today to learn much more about the biblical doctrine of childrearing.

By doing so, you can prove the following verse to be true: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).

This article contains information from The Associated Press.

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