Q: Our son has been in honors classes all through school up until his junior year last year, when his grades took a dive. What could be going on and what can we do about it?
A: The cause of suddenly declination grades in school can often be found in one of seven categories.
Many times it's not just one issue, but a combination of issues.
Seven deadly reasons and then what to do about them
1) Some very bright kids have gotten through school so far by just showing up. They are bright enough to simply show up for class on a regular basis, listen with half an ear, and still do very well. At some point, however, they reach a level where just showing up stops working and they actually have to put forth some effort. If they have never had to study before, they may not know how. So learning how to study and work in school is the solution that is called for in this case.
2) Another version of the above issue is that at some point, the work gets difficult enough that previously unrecognized learning difficulties begin to surface. The student may have found ways to agree on his own, and those coping strategies are no longer working. He was bright and creative enough to find his own strategies to deal with the learning challenges, but now he needs some assistance. The first step is to get him evaluated to see if there are any learning difficulties, and the next step is to learn strategies to deal with whatever learning difficulties are discovered.
3) There are times when the chosen field of rebellion becomes school and grades. This is especially true if the kid gets it that school is more important to the parents than it is to her, and the parents have been pushing too hard for too long. The parents are complaining that the kid takes no responsibility for school and the kid complains that the parents are always nagging about school. The solution here is to put the teen in charge of school. If she then handles school, the parents can then back off. If, after having been put in charge of school, she does not handle school, then she has given her parents a personal invitation to bug the heck out of her about school. Most teens will go to any length to avoid that scenario.
4) Sometimes depression can be the cause of suddenly declining grades. Has the teen or family been under a great deal of stress in recent weeks, experienced the loss of a loved one, a change in a parent's job, an unwanted move? Is a parent away in the war? All of these things can result in a depression that precedes the teen from performing well at school. If you suspect depression, get your teen to a family physician for an evaluation.
5) Sometimes I see a smart kid is just plain bored, and then has no motivation to do well. When you are trying to decide on the most useful consequences for bad performance, you need to know whether the child is motivated more by wanting to avoid something negative or achieve something positive. That's why the "putting the teen in charge of school" solution mentioned above also works well in this situation. When it works, the student has avoided being nagged and gotten to be more in charge of himself.
6) Related to the motivation problem, some teens just run out of gas. After having put so much energy into school for so many years, sometimes there is just nothing left. In many of these cases, the child and / or parents are overachieving perfectionists and are just worn out.
One solution is to work with both the parents and the child on the difference between excellence and perfection. Shooting for perfection will wear you out, while aiming for excellence keeps the energy flowing. In addition to learning the difference between perfection and excellence, a time of rest away from school also will help.
7) There are a variety of other agendas that could be in the way as well. A teen could be messing around with drugs, could be skipping school, or wants to sabotage school in order to win a battle or go to another school, or some other agenda known only to him. If you have trouble implementing any of these solutions, or school has just become a battleground issue in your family, you'll want to consider making an appointment with a family therapist to help you get unstuck and back on the road.