How to Help a Student Who is Way Behind

A student with her head down on her desk

One of the most challenging experiences for teachers and tutors is trying to help a student who has fallen way behind.

Many classes are cumulative, so if you’re missing the content from earlier in the year – or from previous years – it’s very challenging to learn what’s being taught now.

For example, let’s say it’s the second semester of Algebra II, and a student is trying to learn all the ins and outs of polynomial functions. But they don’t know how function notation works, and they don’t remember how to factor quadratics – two topics from earlier in the year that are essential for this new topic. Learning polynomials is hard enough without having to relearn those other two topics.

For the student, it’s a very confusing experience. They don’t know what’s going on in class, and they don’t know how to make it better. As a result, they find it harder and harder to engage with the content. Frustration builds, and they slip deeper and deeper into a downward spiral of avoidance.

For a teacher or tutor working to support this student, it can be difficult to know what to do. Do you back all the way up and teach them the underlying concepts that would make the current topic easier to learn? Maybe, but that might take more time than you have, and it certainly won’t leave you with much time to teach the new content. Or do you help them fake their way through it, and drag them further down the path they’ve been on for months or years? Either way, it doesn’t feel very good.

There’s no easy answer to the question of how to support a student who is way behind. But I do have some wisdom to offer, most of it gleaned through a combination of learning from my own mistakes and studying under Greg Smith.

Understand the problem.

The first thing you need to do as a teacher or a tutor is understand what the problem is. This is critical because the problem is never that the student is “lazy” or “stupid.” The problem is structural. The way our schools and curricula are designed is the problem.

We don’t teach for mastery. We try to get as many kids as possible to “good enough” and then move on to the next topic. Massed practice and interleaving aren’t used to create strong memories. Spaced repetition isn’t used to help kids down the mastery path. Even when students are doing well, we mess things up by encouraging them to skip ahead, which is rarely a good idea.

And while students could take matters into their own hands and pursue mastery learning on their own, that’s an unrealistic expectation for most students. Plus, schools rarely teach students how to do that.

So what you get are students who have too many holes in their content knowledge to make sense of the new material. The non-stop conveyor belt of our education system doesn’t give them time to pause and get caught up, so it just gets worse and worse with each passing month. It’s exhausting and demoralizing, so many students become disengaged.

a disengaged student

And who can blame them? They didn’t fall behind because they were lazy. They’re not struggling because they’re stupid. They got here because of the way we’ve structured our educational system.

Know the way out.

The second thing for tutors and teachers to know is what a student can do to climb out of the hole they’re in.

First, it’s important to know that there is a way out, so you can instill a sense of hope in your students. Second, knowing the way out puts you in a position to give such students helpful advice, if they want it.

A downward spiral of avoidance can be reversed with hard work. It will be difficult and uncomfortable at first, but it will get better. Students who take notes in class, even when they’re confused, do better. Students who complete every homework assignment, even when it’s a struggle, learn more. Students who ask questions before, during, and after class become less confused over time.

an engaged student with his hand up

Knowledge gaps can be systematically filled. It’s a time-consuming process, but you don’t have to fill them all or do it all at once to start seeing benefits. Ideally, a student who has fallen way behind might spend 15 minutes a day working on old content before diving into their homework. When anxiety levels are high, it’s wise to spend time expanding your comfort zone by backing way, way up. If that’s counting ducks on Khan Academy, go count ducks.

However, the prospect of doing all this while still keeping up with current work is very daunting. By the time they realize this is what’s going on, they’re usually so far behind that it will take quite a while before things start to feel better. If they’ve fallen behind in multiple classes, the task of catching up can feel insurmountable (even though it’s not). And students are busy, so the suggestion of doing this kind of catchup work is a tough sell.

Thus, although you know what they can do to climb out of the pit they’re in, be careful about telling them.

Don’t give advice without permission.

If you recognize what’s going on – if you see why they’re struggling so much – resist the urge to just blurt it out. They might not be ready for that message, and dumping it on them could easily send them into a shame spiral.

a ginger cat covering its face in shame

Instead, meet them with empathy and offer to share your thoughts.

Tutor/Teacher: “It seems like this is really confusing for you, and that you’re feeling frustrated. Is that right?”

Student: “Yeah.”

Tutor/Teacher: “Well, you’re not the first student I’ve seen feeling that way. I might know what’s going on and what you can do to make it better, but the ideas I have to offer might be a little uncomfortable to hear. Do you want to talk about it? It’s totally okay to say no.”

If they say no, just let them know that it’s an open invitation should they ever change their mind. If the student says yes, gently explain why things are so confusing and what they could do to make it better.

Go slow and keep asking permission.

If they do say yes, the conversation you’ve signed up for is a tricky one, so please consider the following guidelines:

  • Stay positive, playful, and gentle the whole time.
  • Ask permission every time you change topics within the conversation. Make sure they’re still okay talking about it.
  • Do not begin with what’s wrong. Instead, praise what they’re already doing, whatever it may be: working hard, actively studying, getting things turned in, using resources, taking notes, asking for help, etc.
  • Let them know that this is really common and that it’s not their fault, and there’s nothing wrong with them.
  • But also let them know that it doesn’t help to blame teachers or blame the system. Making things better will require being proactive.
  • When you explain how to climb out of the pit, let them know that you’re going to present an ideal, best-case scenario for what to do to move forward. Then show them that this idea is actually one end of a spectrum, with doing nothing at the other end. Name some options that fall on different parts of that spectrum, and let them know that any additional engagement is worthwhile.
  • Set them up with whatever the easiest, simplest version of “next step” along that spectrum would be, and reassure them that they’ll never be in trouble with you if they don’t take it.

Students who are way behind can get caught up, but it doesn’t help to tell them how if they’re not ready to listen to your message. And the message they need to hear is not one of unfettered optimism. They need realistic optimism.

Yes, you’re way behind. And yes, getting caught up will be difficult and time-consuming and uncomfortable. But it will get better, slowly and steadily, if you work at it.

How to Check Online Grades

a student staring anxiously at her online grades

One of the hallmarks of modern student life is online grades. Unlike the pre-digital world I grew up in, most schools now maintain a running record of students’ grades in each of their classes. This can be a useful resource for students, tutors, and parents if they know how to check online grades effectively. On the other hand, if you don’t know how to check online grades effectively, you can easily wind up wasting your time and creating unnecessary frustration.

So in this article, I’m going to explain how to check online grades in such a way that leads to better academic outcomes for students and better relationships between students, parents, teachers, and tutors.

Students

The first rule of checking online grades is to actually do it. Some students simply forget to check. Others deliberately avoid checking. If you do this, you’ll miss out on critical data about your performance as a student.

However, the second rule of checking online grades is to do it sparingly. Don’t check compulsively, all the time. A couple of times a week is probably enough. The grades don’t get updated every hour, so there’s no reason to check multiple times per day. At best, compulsive grade checking will be a waste of time. At worst, it will give you anxiety.

The third rule is to know what you’re looking for. And what you’re looking for is surprises. Surprises are things like:

  • Grades that suddenly went up or down
  • Missing work or missing quiz/test grades
  • You thought you turned an assignment in on time, but it’s marked as missing.
  • You thought you did the entire assignment, but it’s marked as incomplete.
  • You thought you did well on an assignment, but the grade is much lower than expected.
  • You thought you aced that test, but you actually didn’t.
  • You thought you failed that test, but you actually did well.

Most of these surprises will be upsetting. But you need to be aware of them so you can deal with them and learn from them. When a student is avoiding looking at their grades, it’s usually because they know the grades are low. They may know they have a lot of missing assignments, and they don’t want to face that problem head-on. But the sooner you take an honest look at your situation, the sooner you can get to work making a change. Teachers are generally much more forgiving if you address problems right away rather than a month or two later.

For missing work, you’ll often be able to resolve it by simply going into the school’s online portal, finding the assignment, completing it, and turning it in. If there are many missing assignments, make a list. For cases where you cannot find the missing assignment, you’ll need to ask your teacher about it.

For assignments with lower-than-expected grades or those marked as incomplete, the first step is to review the instructions. Did you do everything that was asked? Did you do everything in the way that they asked you to? If not, you might be able to make corrections or complete the assignment for a higher grade. If you still think you did everything correctly, talk with your teacher. If you’re confused about why you received the grade you did, you’ll need to ask for better feedback.

For missing tests and quizzes, you’ll need to speak with your teacher about finding a time to make them up. When you’re sure you’ve turned something in on time, but it’s marked as missing, you’ll need to ask about it. (Note: If you turned it in late, it won’t be graded right away, so be patient.)

Anytime you realize you need to ask the teacher about something, you should message the teacher immediately, and you should make yourself a reminder (a planner note or a phone alarm) to talk with them in class or during office hours.

And the last rule of checking online grades for students is don’t use them as your primary resource for learning about assignments. If you do, you’ll mostly find out about due dates after they have passed, and you’ll constantly be playing catch-up. Instead, use the school’s online portal and what the teacher says in class to learn about current and future homework. Record these assignments in a planner or on a to-do list. That way, you’ll usually be ahead of the game, and there will be fewer surprises when you check your grades.

Tutors

Before we get into how parents should look at online grades, let’s discuss how we here at Northwest Educational Services do it because the way our tutors check online grades is a good model for how parents should do it.

a tutor and student checking grades together

The first thing is, we check with the student. It’s an activity we do together. Thus, we’re not “spying” on their grades or coming at them with a list of missing work that we found by checking in their absence. Parents – this alone goes a long way toward eliminating any combativeness around discussing grades.

The second thing is, we make it clear that this is not an opportunity for us to judge or criticize them. We’re checking out of curiosity. And we also make it clear that we’re not actually curious about the grades themselves. Instead, we’re interested in the extent to which they’re engaging with learning and schoolwork, and we’re using their grades as data about these things. Are they keeping up with the workload and playing the game of school? Are they preparing for quizzes and tests? Are they doing as well as they would like to do?

And that last question really brings us to the issue of ownership. The student owns their grade. And that means they get to decide how to react to it. For some students, getting a C on a test is a disaster. For others, getting a C would be a huge accomplishment. So we don’t automatically assume any meaning when we see a particular grade. Instead, we might simply ask, “How do you feel about that?” And then let their response guide the conversation. If they’re not doing as well as they would like, we extend an open invitation to talk about it. We let them know that we’re here to help, but we don’t force-feed them advice.

And we don’t just look at “bad” or low grades. We look at all of them, every time. We don’t just troubleshoot the things that are going poorly. We also celebrate what’s going well. In particular, we celebrate improvements in productivity, engagement, follow-through, and learning. When we see improvement, we try to get the student to name what they did differently to reinforce the positive change. Done right, online grade checking is another opportunity to help students develop a growth mindset.

Parents

a mother and daughter checking grades together

Parents should strongly consider adopting all of the practices I just described for tutors. But they should also be aware that tutors have it easier. The relationship between a parent and a child (especially a teenager) is typically fraught with far more emotional baggage than that of a tutor and a student. Checking grades together might feel like walking through a minefield, especially if you’ve developed a pattern of combativeness around school conversations. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

As with students, you shouldn’t be checking all the time either. Once a week is plenty. And you have to be patient with the system and with the teachers, in addition to being patient with your child. Missing work doesn’t get graded and entered into the system the moment your child turns it in. So if your child says that a missing assignment is turned in and awaiting a grade, trust them, and let it go for now. If it’s still marked as missing a couple of weeks later, well, then you get to have a conversation with your child about what’s going on. But again, start from a place of trust. Assume that they’ve turned it in and the teacher just needs a reminder to grade it. Encourage them to talk with their teacher.

Getting to a place where you and your child can look at their grades together in a calm, productive manner will take practice. And it will only work if you’re genuinely curious and nonjudgmental. Your child may initially be very resistant to the process and hesitant to open up, especially if they’re struggling, but it will get better eventually. Remember, trust takes time.

Creating an Ecosystem of Learning

A rich jungle ecosystem

Does your child seem disinterested in school or unmotivated to learn?

If so, you’ve probably felt exasperated at your efforts to get them to do their homework or study. Maybe you’ve thought to yourself, “Is there something wrong with my kid?”

It’s okay, you’re not alone. Many parents have this experience.

And there’s nothing wrong with your kid. In fact, the issue might not have anything to do with what’s going on in the child’s mind. The issue might actually be what’s going on around the child.

Is learning the norm?

Take a minute to think about what normally goes on in your household because that’s what your child sees every day.

Do they see you actively learning? Do they see you challenging your mind with art, music, puzzles, or board games? Do you watch documentaries and TED Talks? Do you talk about what you’ve been learning?

The more you lead by example by practicing continuous learning and getting a variety of brain exercise, the more these behaviors will seem normal.

Also take stock of how easily accessible learning is in your home. If you glance around your common spaces, is learning one of the default options? Are there books, workbooks, and textbooks readily available? Does your child have a dedicated home study space, stocked with all manner of school supplies? Do you subscribe to something like CuriosityStream? Or just to something like Netflix?

If you set up your home so that learning is not just readily accessible but one of the prominent options, choosing to learn will feel far more natural.

A child reading with bookshelf in the background

The environment matters.

No one makes choices in isolation. We all make our choices within the context of our environment. And we’re naturally inclined to go with the flow – to fit our behaviors to the physical and social space we’re in. That’s why kids usually find it easier to do schoolwork at school than at home. That’s why college students find it easier to study in the library than in their dorm room.

So the question to ask yourself is this: Is my house a learning jungle or a learning desert? Are there abundant resources with which to grow? And would that growth feel normal, like a tree in the jungle, or would it feel weird, like a tree in the desert?

Create an ecosystem of learning.

As a habit coach, I often help people become healthier by making better food choices and exercising more often. And one of the core tenets of this work is to set up the household so that healthy behaviors are the default option. Replace junk food with healthy snacks. Put away the video game console and set up an easily accessible home gym. Put a book where the TV remote normally lives. In other words, create an ecosystem of healthy living.

You can do the same thing for learning in your own home. Make learning an obvious choice. Make it more convenient. And demonstrate through your own behavior that it’s normal to choose learning when no one is making you.

I wish I could tell you that this strategy will produce immediate and massive shifts in behavior, but it won’t. This isn’t a quick fix. In fact, there are no quick fixes for a child who’s unmotivated to learn. But if you transform your home into a thriving ecosystem of learning, you’ll be providing them the best possible environment in which they can grow.