What Causes Good Students to Fall Behind & Play Catch-Up

What Causes Good Students to Fall Behind & Play Catch-Up


This post was originally published September 24, 2015. I have updated it extensively and republished it on May 16, 2016.


Well, here we are at the end of another school year for your kids, and — of course — for your family.

Aren’t beginnings fun?

When the school year starts, our kids are often full of anticipation, good intentions, plans, and positive energy.

And that might be exactly what your kids and you were feeling last fall. You may have been glad that your kids were in school and not around the house all day. And you might have been both hopeful that things would go well, or concerned or fearful that they wouldn’t.

So, how did things go?

See, many kids start school with the best of intentions and start out strong only to fall behind and have to play catch-up the rest of the year, often with a big marathon push at the end of the semester… basically, right around now.

…sound familiar?

The result is a lot of hard make-up work for mediocre grades. And usually, this is an exhausting process not only for the student, but for parents as well.

What Causes This to Happen…?

I know it might seem as though the next school year is far into the future…

Here's what causes your son or daughter to fall behind and have to play catch-up in school.Click To Tweet

…but here are a few causes to think about if your child or teen has the habit of starting strong, followed by falling behind, followed by panic and catch-up.

(a) Some kids simply lack the organizational skills to stay on top of their work. Early in the school year, there isn’t that much to organize so they can do pretty well. As the year progresses, the workload can get increasingly complex and become overwhelming.

(b) Some kids have difficulty staying motivated, and this is separate from having poor intentions. Your kid could want to do well and want to please their parents, but the work simply isn’t very compelling for them and it’s hard to get themselves to actually sit down and do something they’re not interested in… it just may not be immediately rewarding for them.

(c) Some kids have difficulty with focus and can become easily distracted. Even when they are sitting at their desk with their assignment, they can find themselves distracted by virtually anything around them.

(d) Some kids — and adults as well — tend to be pressure prompted. That is, until there is a deadline and they feel the pressure to get something done, it will be put off. If there are one or two tasks to do, this can be just fine. But if there are a lot of complex assignments that have the same deadline, this will predictably have a bad outcome.

(e) Other kids have become so familiar with poor results, that they fulfill the prophecy of doing poorly. These kids have injured self-esteem and see themselves as less smart, not as good as others, or not as worthy as others. And so they avoid tasks that will reinforce these feelings — namely school work.

(f) Some youth have learning differences that may make learning or communicating what they’ve learned difficult under certain circumstances.

If your child or teen has this pattern of starting strong, getting behind, and playing catch-up, take a look at which of the above causes might relate to their situation.

There could easily be more than one cause. For instance, your youth might have poor organizational skills and related to that, have injured self-esteem and no longer believe they can do well, even if they try.

How to Avoid Panic & Catch-Up

The best strategy is to sit down with your youth and talk about this together.

Have the discussion in an objective way so that it isn’t about whether your kid is going to be good or bad, or that any of the above issues make them bad. They are simply issues to be addressed.

Next, work together to build a strategy to address the issues that predictably cause problems.

For instance:

  • What resources do they need?
  • What kind of help do they need?
  • Who is the best resource to provide that help?
  • What signals need to be in place to alert your youth and you to problems?
  • How much and what kind of monitoring should the parents do?

Here are a number of ideas and resources that are often used successfully:

  1. Student meets with the teacher on a weekly basis to review work and progress
  2. Student gets subject tutoring or organizational support from an independent source
  3. Student does work with another student who has an easier time being successful
  4. Student gets work or test taking accommodations to address learning differences or ADHD
  5. Student and their parents get counseling
  6. Student and parents decide on the best work environment
  7. Student and parents decide the best work / study schedule
  8. Student and parents do weekly progress review using school’s online system
  9. Student and parents find organizational systems and apps to support improved organization and prioritization
  10. Focus on and celebrate successes
  11. Learn from and improve systems when there are failures, while staying away from recrimination

Remember, as your child or teen’s parent your goal is to help them succeed, not to make them succeed.

Your goal should be to help your child or teen succeed, not to make them succeed.Click To Tweet

Assume that they want to succeed and let your role be to support them. When there is failure let that be a learning experience on the way to success.

At all costs, avoid the dreaded Control Battle — here’s how…

DO NOT threaten, punish, yell, accuse, or take their failure personally.

Even if they have lied or misrepresented their assignments, don’t overreact.

Overreacting can reinforce their avoidant and dishonest behavior, and groove a Control Battle.

Once again, have a discussion.

Ask them to name the inappropriate behavior and the correct behavior. When they get it right, and they usually do, acknowledge them for that.

See if they can communicate what went wrong and how they will avoid that error the next time. If they have been lying and misrepresenting what has been going on, stay positive but make sure they understand that their privileges are linked to healthy behavior.

If they need to lose their privileges until they demonstrate that they’re on the right path, so be it.

DO NOT let this be that you are taking something away from them. Let it be that they are simply not earning something that you are perfectly happy for them to have, as long as they earn it.

So keep this simple for yourself:

  • Stay positive and let them know you believe in them.
  • Get the right structures and resources in place.
  • And let privileges be things that are earned, not entitlements that are taken away.

Remember you’re the good guy and you’re on their side.

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How do you tell whether what’s taking place in your family is a healthy power struggle or an unhealthy Control Battle?

Is It A Control Battle?
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