Your teen is failing school. Now what?


The failure may be most classes, or one class or maybe several classes. You feel hopeless and your son or daughter is constantly in an argument with you about school.

She hates school! She is caught up in the drama of the environment and she wants to be out of it all.

Your son doesn’t see the point of his classes. He is wondering why he needs to memorize facts or do a project he isn’t interested in doing only to get that passing grade. All he really wants to do is to move on to the career he really loves doing.

What can you do as a parent in such situations?

American high schools on the whole are not designed for the changing world. The “No Child Left Behind” Act has left behind thousands of students and teachers in the wake of the high demands on students and schools to close the achievement gap. The Act focused on all students being college bound and it has lowered funding to the vocational and trade programs in the high school. The structure and expectations in the high school of 2016 is still relatively the same as the high school of the early 1900’s. There are some excellent TED Talks and books on the topic of the purpose of school today. Links to those resources are at the end of the post.

Still, knowing the history and status of education doesn’t solve the problem of your teen’s failing grades or the big lump in the bottom of your stomach each time you go to look at those grades online. I know that feeling very well. My 15 year old son is one of those students who is less than comfortable in school. The process I describe below is one that we have used with teachers and school administrators to better help him navigate the system.

You first need to put on your detective hat. I am a fan of Sherlock and I know the modern day Sherlock doesn’t wear a hat, but bear with the analogy:


Step 1: Open your heart.

In addition to being the grade detective, take a deep breath, calm your thoughts and racing heart, and open your heart to your child.


Step 2: Listen to your teen.

Dive under the excuse, ask questions and find out more from their perspective. Refrain from lecturing. Ask questions:

Who is in the class with you?

Where do you sit in the class?

When do you have the class?

What do you have before?

How do you start and end the class?

What do you find most difficult about the class?

What are you doing during the class?

The questions are endless. I suggest not asking “why” questions since that type of question puts most people on the defense.

Take some notes on what your teen is saying about classes and school.


Step 3: Meet with the teacher or teachers.

You might have to go back to step 1 before meeting with your teen’s teacher(s). When doing step 1, this time open your heart to the teacher. Remember your son’s or daughter’s teacher is in this job because they see value in working with teens, and almost all are true professionals who are dedicated to their work.

Again, ask some deeper questions and be prepared to listen. Listening can be hard because you are emotionally invested in your child; however, it’s important to clear your mind and hear what he or she has to say. Don’t talk about what your teen told you or dwell on the contradictions, just listen and ask questions.

What is my child doing during the class?

Where does he/ she sit in the room?

Who is around my child and how do they interact?

What lessons, concepts or skills does my teen struggle with in the class?

How do you know if my child is struggling?

Where can we go to get extra support?

Again the questions you can ask are endless to find the clues you are searching for your teen.


Step 4: Meet as a team with the teacher, parent and student.

Ask if the teacher would be willing to meet with your teen and yourself to develop some solutions to help your son or daughter be successful in the course. If so, arrange the meeting. If the teacher is not willing to meet for some reason contact the school administrator for a meeting. Teachers and administrators are trained professionals that in most cases really want to help your teen to excel. Be sure to go to the meeting with an open mind. This is a solution-oriented activity, not a place for assigning blame.


Step 5: Consider other factors.

There are many other factors that can affect learning for your teen. Ask the teachers and administrators about how to determine the needs of your young person in the following areas:

Learning style and strengths

The school/ classroom environment

Friend and peers

Learning disabilities, if any

Motivators for your son or daughter (consider the internal motivators)


Step 6: Know you have choices.

Parents have many choices as to how to educate their son or daughter. An education can be designed using the right tools to meet your son or daughter’s needs.

Our son mentioned above has ADHD and I have used this process to design an education that meets his needs and interests. He has supports in place and I contact the school administration and teachers when we need to help him get organized and focused. The process of creating an educational design that meets your child’s need is something that you can do as a parent. Soon you can be unleashing the brilliance of your teen with the right knowledge, skills and supports in place. Failure is far from the only option.



Seth Godin – “Stop Stealing Dreams” TED Talk and free eBook

Will Richardson – “Why School?” TED Talk and book

Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us


2 thoughts on “Your teen is failing school. Now what?

  1. This is a fantastic post Kathy. Can so relate to this process with my teens. Favorite parts are opening the heart (step 1) and knowing you have choices (step 6). Super empowering for both kid and parent (and probably teacher too). Thanks!

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