Every parent wants the best for their child, so to discover they are struggling academically can be devastating. Absolutely Education finds out what can happen to the pupil who is bottom of the class, and how they can be helped to succeed

No one can argue against success and competition is often healthy. Our schools have a duty to foster endeavour and the will to be the best, but there are children who struggle to achieve in an environment where reliance (or over-reliance) is placed on exams, testing and frequent benchmarking. The problem is, in any competitive environment someone has to come last and no one wants it to be their child.

Early warning signs

For Jane, the realisation that her son William was going to struggle academically came quickly. “We were told within the first six weeks of reception class that he was behind.” This was difficult to hear, and she says she left her first parents evening wondering why the teacher could not find one positive thing to say about the happy and cheerful child he was there to teach. 

There had been early warning signs. William was late to speak, so Jane and her husband knew they had to watch that. But he was a happy and engaged child and, as a late summer baby, he had an age advantage. They had reassured themselves that he was a late starter and things would even themselves out by the time he started school. They didn’t and, as time rolled on, Jane and her husband realised the problem was real. William was at the very bottom of his class.

The situation was made harder because Jane works in children’s publishing and, with expert knowledge, she also has a passionate commitment to doing everything a parent can do to instil a love of reading and learning. William also has a younger sister who aced every development milestone he had struggled to attain. William was aware that he wasn’t keeping up. Jane says a particularly difficult moment came when his younger sister overtook him in reading – made obvious by the colour-coded home reading books issued to pupils as another marker of achievement.

The danger of disengagement

One danger in situations where children are not keeping up with peers is disengagement. It is harder for them to even have a go when they expect to fall short, yet again. Emily-Jane Swanson, who works with Tavistock Tutors, says that she sometimes encounters this – perhaps entering a family home where there is already a question mark around a child’s progress (“is it extra help they need or is there a SEN issue?”). 

“What I do see, after a decade working in education, is that the targets are being set younger and younger,” she says. “There is a more prescriptive way of learning in the classroom, with more exams and tests, and this does impact some children.” Swanson says even young children are keenly aware of where they are at. “Children are so much more sensitive than many adults realise.”  

Certainly, repeated failure to match the class standard took its toll on William. Jane recalls him coming home from another frustrating day at school and, when she tried to engage him in a chat about his day, he responded by telling her everything was all right, concluding: “I just want to go out and get a job and be a carpenter or a tree surgeon.” So, by age nine, William had effectively decided that he was done with school and now needed to focus on his future earning power.

Make reasonable adjustments

Cath Lowther, a practising educational psychologist and spokesperson for the Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP), says that this disengagement is not uncommon. “Children switch off quite quickly and it’s easy to put off children at a young age”. Lowther, who works with Local Education Authorities, says that there are usually clear signs that a child is not succeeding. In some cases, they express frustration or show challenging behaviour, or they may become very quiet and simply shut down. “There are also happy children who try their very hardest,” she adds. “They may even love school, but they are just not achieving.”

This was the case for William, who tried his best and was not disruptive in any way. Jane says that his teachers’ only criticism was that he frequently seemed tired and sometimes yawned in class. “They asked me if he had enough sleep – I explained that he had plenty of sleep, going to bed at 7pm of his own accord, and that he was exhausted at the end of every day because he was trying three times as hard to keep up.”

Lowther says that she always works from the perspective of the child. “I look at the learning difficulties they may be facing and try to find out what they respond to – what helps them to achieve.” She will also look at what reasonable adjustments would help; so rather than considering what is wrong with the child, the emphasis is on what needs to be done to better meet the child’s needs. She adds that most children are very pleased to sit down with her and talk about what would make school better for them.

The value of a tutor

Emily-Jane Swanson has a similar experience tutoring children and says that the value of one-to-one time can be in building up self-esteem, as much as helping them to achieve. “As a tutor, I’m not their relative, I’m not their teacher, I’m their special person – on their side.”

There are proven tools educational psychologists use that can help to re-engage children. Lowther says that as well as adapting learning settings to make things easier – for instance, environment, delivery methods – there are approaches to help a child skill up. “We can help them to improve attention control and also to focus on what they  can do.”

Swanson says that a key thing as a tutor is getting children to take ownership because usually they know the subjects or areas where they are struggling. “If children set their own goals, rather than having them imposed, then they can work towards them more easily. Sometimes this means chipping away at the goal in smaller increments or even redefining what is an achievement.” 

Reward other types of intelligence

Swanson does think that children who don’t fit into the traditional academic or sporty pigeonholes but have other gifts get a particularly raw deal. “It can be very hard on children who are emotionally intelligent. On paper, they are nowhere and yet they excel. Society is just not as rewarding of their talents.” 

For children who are square pegs in round holes when it comes to academic endeavours, there is still space to nurture the skills that may be most valuable in future life. Lowther notes that there is renewed interest among the psychology and teaching communities in Daniel Goleman’s 1990s book on emotional intelligence. In the book, he argues that this type of intelligence is more important to future life success than IQ measures or academic achievement. 

“There is also lots of research around the growth mindset, how parents respond to failure and how we help children achieve in areas they excel in,” she adds. “Children may be kind, helpful, friendly, funny – we can appreciate their qualities and be where they are.” 

For William, the school journey continues, but his supportive parents are working with his school and now outside agencies to nurture who he is and help him to achieve his goals. Out of school, he is a brilliant sailor and waveboarder. In school, he has shown such a gift for managing the school garden that he’s been put in charge. Jane says: “It’s about finding out how he can be a successful learner and, most importantly, feel successful. 

“The interesting thing is that my daughter, who is an all-rounder at school, may get bored at weekends and needs direction and organised things to do. But out of school, William is always busy. He is incredibly practical and might be cooking, working with his hands or doing something outdoors – he is never bored.”

If you enjoyed this article, why not read How to install a love of learning in children?