Dear Dr. Linda,

In kindergarten our daughter, Sally, was tested by the school because her teacher was concerned that she wasn’t picking up reading. At the time, her testing placed her in the gifted range. As the years went on she had some good years and some bad. It seemed to depend on the teacher. She’s now finishing up fifth grade and she is not doing well in any subject. The school just tested her again and she scored below average in everything. How can that be when she scored in the gifted range in kindergarten? The minute she gets off the bus, she doesn’t stop complaining about school and by the time we finish the homework and she’s going to sleep, she’s in a total meltdown. This happens every day! Any ideas on how this happened and what we can do about it?

Samantha and Tony

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Dear Samantha and Tony,

Somewhere along the way, somebody dropped the ball, and it wasn’t your daughter. When children struggle in school, they don’t know what’s happening. All they know is that they’re not able to do the work their classmates are doing, they’re embarrassed, and so—thinking like the children they are—they begin to lie, avoid, hide papers, act out or cry. Those are signals. It would be wonderful if they said, “Mom, Dad, I think I’m having trouble learning how to read, or learning how to write or learning to do math. Help me.” But they don’t know how to explain what’s happening, except to say, “I hate school.”

Why wouldn’t they? What used to be a joyful experience isn’t anymore. It’s drudgery for them. As I’ve said before, I’ve never met a child who doesn’t want to see 100 percent on his/her paper. Every child wants a gold star and if they can’t get it, there’s a reason. It’s up to the adults in their lives to find out why they’re struggling. Thinking they’re lazy or they’re just not that smart and acting accordingly only compounds the problem.

So, what happened here? The kindergarten teacher was on the ball—she saw that something might be wrong and recommended that Sally be tested. But when they saw how well she scored on those tests, the interpreters probably chalked it up to the fact that Sally was only in kindergarten. Most kids don’t learn to read or read well until they’re in first grade. And even then, there might be a slight developmental delay that will go away on its own.

Make an appointment with the teacher and school psychologist who did the testing. Talk to them about the possibility of Sally having a reading disability (dyslexia), a writing disability (dysgraphia) or a math disability (dyscalculia). Talk about the possibility that Sally may have ADHD without the H (hyperactivity), which is often associated with boys. Many girls have ADD and just have trouble staying focused on what is being taught. I call them the “hearts, flowers, unicorn” girls because they drift off into their own little worlds and miss what is being taught.

What often happens is that over time, they become stressed and anxious. Again, why wouldn’t they be? If you’re upset about something, how well do you pay attention to what’s going on in the room? The anxiety alone affects attention and memory.

Years ago, before neurologists, psychologists, and the educational community understood what was happening with these children, many of them dropped out of school by the eighth grade. A variety of reasons were given, but whatever they were, they masked how unhappy they were. But it doesn’t have to happen.

Have your daughter evaluated by someone who is skilled in diagnosing learning disabilities and understands that no conclusions can be drawn about what’s really happening until the anxiety is under control. You can’t remedy a problem until you know its source and you won’t know until the pressure is removed and learning becomes fun again.

Dr. Linda

Dr. Linda is co-author of “Why Bad Grades Happen to Good Kids,” and director of Strong Learning Tutoring and SAT/ACT Test Prep. Send your questions to Linda@stronglearning.com.