Many things can stand between a student and the ability to learn well. Physical causes are usually obvious, but emotional and social issues can be just as great barriers and are often harder to diagnose.
As educators and parents, we all need to remember that we are working with a "whole" child. That means we need to teach not only the mind but also the social and emotional side of students. This can be a moving target. Which child do we have on our hands today? The kind gentle child, the raving banshee, or the quiet sullen sibling? Swings in mood are hardly unknown among healthy teens and preteens, but there is usually a degree of consistency. When the consistency is lacking, or the moods are extreme, it's time for a closer look.
Many factors can upset the emotional equilibrium, as pointed out in an Oct. 11 New York Times Magazine article, "Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?" by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. (Excellent read, by the way.) When children are concerned about mom and dad's relationship, a dying relative or pet, or have a sense of being bullied, it's going to be very hard for them to stay focused on schoolwork. And don't underestimate the impact if they sense a lack of friendships or feel they are outsiders. Research has shown that a lack of good friendships is one of the biggest causes for emotional distress in young people today.
What are some of the signs your son or daughter may have an emotional problem rather than a learning disability? Lack of interest in things that used to interest them, trouble focusing, an abrupt change in friends, trouble sleeping or being restless, appearing more angry or frustrated, coming home late without calling, a blatant disregard for house rules, isolating themselves, and of course greater alcohol and drug involvement.
When there is an emotional or social problem affecting school, all the learning aides and tutors won't help because it is not an educational issue. So what do you do? A good first step is contacting a school counselor, letting them know what you think, and seeing if they concur, based on their observations. An alternative is to contact a licensed therapist, seeking one who specializes in children and adolescents and the family. Cognitive therapy can help children and adolescents understand what they are thinking or feeling and how to change it.
Finding the right therapeutic match isn't always easy. Personal referrals are a good start, but what works for one teen doesn't necessarily work for another, so don't hesitate to interview several until you find someone who's a good match. Give it some time. It can take a few weeks to establish a relationship, especially if the student isn't excited about going to a psychologist. With that said, the therapist should not make an endless project out of the patient.
Once the emotional and social issues are addressed, your student's education will get back on track. Children are pretty resilient, but they do best with your support, guidance and love.