Determining the Cause of Declining Grades in High School

Determining the Cause of Declining Grades in High School


If your child has always done well in school until they entered high school, you may be concerned as to why they don’t achieve as well as they did in elementary school or middle school.

This is a concern for many parents of high school freshman and sophomores this fall. For example, Diana said her 16-year-old son Joshua had always attained A and B grades until he started high school.

“We thought he would continue to receive excellent grades in high school,” Diana said. “But we noticed he began failing tests. He’s a sophomore now and his grades continue to drop as they did throughout his first year.”

Diana described Joshua as a talented football player who could receive college scholarship offers. “He is really a great kid,” she said. “Josh has a great group of friends who are involved in sports at school and they are all excellent students.  He never causes us any concern at home – except for his school grades.”

She says that Joshua seems to want to do well at school and he appears to try hard to pass tests and get good grades. “However,” Diana says, “he is very disorganized and he doesn’t want to take our advice about organizing his school work or changing his study habits.”

Furthermore, Diana says she and her husband have tried studying with Joshua, and they’ve done a lot of talking to him about what could be going wrong and how he needs to try harder to be successful in his academics. “But what we’ve found is that no matter what we do it doesn’t works,” Diana explains, “and he doesn’t seem to have the same kind of commitment to academics as he does to football. We’ve noticed that when he says he is studying he seems to be daydreaming rather than concentrating on his work.”

Diana and her husband wonder if they should be punishing Joshua or whether he needs some kind of professional help.

If you have a teenager with a similar problem, there are several possibilities that could explain the lack of success at school.

Many teenagers at about the time they start high school are trying to cope with all of the changes they have to endure as adolescents. Physical changes and puberty, relationships with the opposite sex, and trying to find a way of fitting in with their peers often take precedence over studying and grades. The perils of figuring out who they are, finding their way with peers, and beginning the process of becoming more independent from their parents leads some teens to become withdrawn and depressed.

However, there is at least one other possible explanation for the downhill slide in academics at this stage in their lives. A great many students had success prior to high school, but they got by on the basis of compliant behavior in the classroom along with intelligence and a good memory. However, high school is different. It requires more organization and study skills which some students never developed.

In the case of Joshua and other young people, their disorganized approach to school work along with attention problems create difficulties which they cannot overcome just by continuing to behave in the classroom and by being smart. While Joshua may not have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, he apparently does a lot of daydreaming and he is disorganized.  He may, therefore, have attention deficits which need to be addressed.

It is not uncommon for adolescents like Joshua, who have attention and organization problems, to resist advice from their parents. Many of them deny the symptoms that go along with attention deficit problems, which include a short attention span, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, because they don’t want to be tagged with a disorder. Because of their concern about not living up to the standards for academic excellence in their families, they sometimes become depressed. But depression is not the cause of their academic difficulties. Rather, it is a by product.

If this sounds like your teen, it would be important to have them evaluated by an experienced child and adolescent psychologist who has assessed many previous students for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  Ruling ADHD in or out would be a first step in determining the cause of the declining high school grades. Once the difficulty has been identified, then it can be dealt with both by you and your teen.


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