Early Warning Signs for School Failure

Kids in CircleHow is your child coping at school? Is he struggling to grasp new concepts and cope with the workload? Three areas of human develop influence a child’s ability to learn. Physical, emotional and cognitive areas are separate and different in many ways, yet similar and connected in others. Your child may present with a problem in one area, but its cause may lie in another.

Healthy body, healthy mind

Your child’s physical health can have an influence on how he or she performs at school. A child who is not getting important vitamins and minerals in her diet may be listless and tired. General practitioner Dr Linda Baigent says that the human body needs a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats as well as vitamins and minerals to develop and function properly. “Many vitamin deficiencies result in poor functioning of our nervous system and ability to concentrate,” explains Dr Baigent.

Children should get their vitamins from a balanced diet. A good breakfast and a mid-morning snack at school are essential to fuel your child’s brain for learning. Pack a healthy lunch for your child to enjoy at break and include a bottle of water. Dehydration can cause headaches and may influence concentration.

Even a healthy diet won’t mask the affects of fatigue. A child who is tired and listless will struggle to cope with classroom demands. “Children require more sleep than adults and a good night’s sleep is extremely important,” says Dr Baigent. Nine to ten hours is vital for primary school learners.

If your child is going to bed early but still seems tired, she may be a restless sleeper. Monitor her sleep patterns for a few nights. “Restless sleepers may be suffering from allergies and post nasal drip, an iron deficiency or ear problems,” advises Dr Baigent. “This warrants a trip to the family doctor.”

Don’t forget those eyes and ears are important tools for learning. Many schools now require routine eye and hearing tests for Grade 1s but it is important for parents, regardless of your child’s age or grade, to continue with them if there are any concerns. “If any child is having speech difficulties or frequent ear infection, regular hearing checks are especially important,” adds Dr Baigent.

Coping emotionally

Your child’s emotional development relates to his feelings, how he handles situations and processes his emotional reaction to them. Emotional intelligence or EQ is a person’s ability to measure, identify and control his emotions. When your child reaches a maturity level where he is able to control his emotions, he is likely to be able to handle times of stress or disappointment better, show empathy to his peers in difficult times and feel more confident about himself and his abilities.

Educational psychologist Annemi Scheepers says problems at home can be challenging for your child to handle and may filter across, affecting performance at school. Sibling rivalry, fighting between parents, divorce, the death of a close relative or an emotionally unavailable parent (though physical or mental illness) are just some of the problems which may occur in the home environment and affect your child in the classroom.

Within the school environment, an emotional problem may be a school yard bully, lack of social skills (no friends) or teacher/child conflict. Annemi also notes that a physical illness which has not yet been diagnosed may also affect a child emotionally. She may be feeling too tired or physically ill to cope with learning. This can create anxiety and distress for a young child who may find it difficult to convey how she is feeling. A visit to an educational psychologist is necessary if your child seems distant, unusually tearful, angry or anxious or develops a sudden change in behaviour.

Tools for learning

Cognitive development refers to your child’s ability to learn, reason and solve problems. Cognitive skills like concentration, perception, memory and logical thinking are mental skills which are used to acquire knowledge. “These can be described as a child’s tools for learning,” explains Susan du Plessis, director of Edublox Reading and Learning Clinic. “When a child struggles to acquire knowledge in certain areas, it usually indicates a cognitive skill deficit.”

If you know what to look for, cognitive problems are easy to spot. Does your child reverse letters like b and d or numbers 65 for 56? Does he have trouble with sequencing and put letters in the incorrect order, like act instead of cat? Speak to your child’s teacher. Does she struggle to copy correctly from the board? Is she able to think logically to solve problems, like story sums?

In order to learn, children need to retain information. “Learners who have deficits in long-term memory may study for tests, but not be able to recall the information they studied when taking the tests,” explains Susan. “A child with a poor auditory short-term memory may struggle to learn, utilise and understand reading using the phonics method.”

If you suspect a cognitive deficiency, Susan suggests that you get appropriate help for your child as soon as possible. “The gap between children with and without cognitive deficits gets wider and wider and may get more difficult, and later impossible to close,” she says. Susan offers the following advice:

  • Have your child assessed, but budget wisely. The assessment is the first step but your budget should go towards helping your child.
  • Go to your first appointment with a critical mind and ask questions. Ask: What method will be used to help my child? What is the theory behind the method? Can you show proof of success? Will my child be safe? Will my child enjoy it? If he hates going, he won’t learn anything.
  • Get your full money’s worth. While tutoring your child, the teacher or therapist should not answer calls or leave the room to check on dinner.
  • Assess the help. You should see visible results and ultimately an improvement in schoolwork. If this isn’t evident, the method may not be working for your child.
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