Communicating with School / Grades and Testing / Ages 8-18

How to Tell if Your Child is Failing in School

Like drowning, failing doesn't always look the way you think it does.

What does it look like when someone’s drowning? The movie version is easy to picture. There’s a lot of splashing and flailing. A cry for help. Gasps for breath. Bubbles. The problem is, drowning doesn’t actually look like that.

Often, drowning happens when others are close by, without anyone even realizing what’s going on. It’s generally quiet, because drowning victims are focused on breathing, not shouting, and there’s usually very little splashing. Sometimes the best sign that a child in the water may be in trouble is not that they get loud or look distressed, but that they get unusually quiet. 

What about failing in school? What does that look like? 

There’s a Hollywood version of that tragedy, too: The acting out. The sullen looks. The “wrong crowd.” The neglected homework and studying. The concerned teachers. All those F’s and zeroes in red ink.

“Like drowning, failing isn’t always so noisy and obvious. For a lot of students, it’s a quieter process of sinking.”

Like drowning, though, failing isn’t always so noisy and obvious. For a lot of students, it’s a quieter process of sinking. They “do all their work.” They go to school. They have friends. They don’t fail all their classes. In fact, they might not fail any of them. There isn’t necessarily a single moment when they suddenly go from swimming to drowning; at some point, they simply start going under, and never come back up. By the time someone finally notices, it’s often too late.

Academics have been documenting this pattern for years. “A student’s decision to drop out of high school is not a sudden act, but a slow process of disengagement over a period of years,” note researchers at Civic Enterprises and Johns Hopkins University. “Warning signs of dropping out are apparent well before students actually leave school, signaling the gathering storm of trouble for some as early as the elementary or initial middle grades.”

The good news, according to the same researchers, is that “most students at risk of falling off track could graduate if they were provided with the appropriate supports early enough and those supports were sustained.” 

So what are the real warning signs to look for?

  • Frequent absences, which are devastating for kids and have been linked to higher dropout rates. This doesn’t always mean missing full weeks of school; as few as 1-2 missed days a month can put a student in “chronic absence” territory.
  • Poor grades, even in a child’s early years in school. One study of students who dropped out of school found that reading or doing math below grade level as early as first grade more than doubled a student’s risk of dropping out later on. The study found that by sixth grade, a student with a GPA below 3.0 was three times more likely to drop out. Keep in mind that a GPA of 2.0 is still a C average. If you looked at those students’ report cards, you wouldn’t necessarily see “failing” grades.
  • Early reading struggles: Between kindergarten and third grade, students learn to read; after that, they read to learn. Kids who aren’t reading proficiently by third grade simply have not mastered the tools they need to keep up in the years to come. Multiple researchers have confirmed that it’s a serious sign of trouble that has to be addressed urgently.
  • Misbehavior: Suspensions or expulsions are clearly red flags. But there are more subtle indicators of trouble as well, like mentions of misbehavior in report cards, notes home about disrespectful interactions, or a pattern of not completing schoolwork.
  • Disengagement: Every kid says school is “boring” at one point or another, but a child who consistently expresses boredom with school because they feel they aren’t learning anything or are not being challenged should be cause for concern. When researchers asked high schoolers who didn't finish school why they had dropped out, almost half (47 percent) said a major reason was that their classes were not interesting. It was one of the top reasons chosen by students who otherwise earned high GPAs and said they were motivated to work hard.

What do you do if you’re a parent?


Pay attention.

Ask your kids about school and pay attention to their grades. More than two-thirds (68%) of students who dropped out of high school reported that their parents “became more involved only when they were aware that their child was on the verge of dropping out.” That’s usually too late.


Make sure your kids get to school on time every day.

It sounds simple, but attendance matters. It’s hard for kids to learn if they aren’t in class. Keep a close eye on attendance information that appears in most students’ report cards.


Watch out for weak grades.

Not just F’s but C’s and D’s, too. It’s also a good idea to look for any major differences between your child’s grades and standardized test scores; for example, if your child is getting B’s in math at school but scoring below average in math on the latest state test, that’s a problem.


Talk to the teachers.

Make your child’s teachers aware of your expectations and don’t be afraid to push for their honest perspective. “I want to make sure my daughter will be ready for college. Is she on track?” If the answer is no, or maybe not, ask about the plan for getting her back on track.

All parents want the best for their kids. 

It’s why 94% of parents say they expect their children to go to college. Yet only 28% of students earn a four-year college degree by age 25. Why? Many fall off track early in their journeys, without anyone ringing the alarm. They seemed to be doing ok, but then they weren’t. 

Want to make sure your child doesn’t sink in school? Know what drowning really looks like. And be ready to jump in.

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