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True, your child can probably survive a bad school year. Indeed, genes, parenting, and peers matter more, at least in terms of long-term outcomes. 

But think back to your own schooling. Weren’t there years in which you were much happier or less so? Helping your child have a whole year of more happiness—That’s worth your effort.

And much is in your control. Here are potent things you can do. No, you needn't volunteer in your child’s class. That’s just not realistic for so many of today’s parents.

Unearthing issues

When you’re asking your child about the school day, don’t ask, “What did you do in school today?” That invites “Nothin.’” Instead try something more likely to yield specifics, such as, “Walk me through your school day from when you got on the school bus.”

While you’re glad to hear about the good things, key to making this your child’s best year yet is to unearth and solve problems, for example, your child is being scapegoated. Or the work is too hard or too easy in one subject or many. Or your child is behaving poorly. “The teacher made me sit in the back again. She hates me!”

Taking proportionate action

Most problems you unearth are unlikely to yield ongoing misery let alone affect your child into adulthood. But if it’s something that will make your child unhappy even for a chunk of the school year, for example, s/he just doesn’t get what’s going on in math, take a closer look.

Ask your child to explain what s/he's working on in class or for homework. If, for example, your child is pretty clueless, see if a bit of parental explanation that night or even semi-regularly is enough to put your child over the hump.

But if you sense the problem is bigger, send a brief non-blaming email to the teacher. Remember, s/he has 20 to 30 kids, all with needs. If my child were routinely finding the schoolwork too easy, I might write,

Dear Ms. Jones, I’m a little concerned about Tommy. Most days, he comes home saying he finds school too easy. And when I watch him do homework, he is able to fly through it. I’ve been supplementing with after-school activities but I hate to see him so unhappy. Any advice? 

If you’re lucky, the teacher will give him some more appropriate-level work.  If not, accept that this too shall pass. Or if it's seriously mismatched curriculum, see if there's a more appropriate class. Ask the principal in a way that doesn’t blame the teacher, that you’re just aiming for a reasonable teacher-student fit.  For example,

Tommy is finding the work in Ms. Jones class too easy, and despite talking with her, she has her hands full dealing with the other kids. Might there be a better-suited teacher?

No guarantees but it’s worth a shot.

If the problem is that the work is too hard, sometimes the best solution is a kindly tutor. Rarely is anything academic so important that it justifies a taskmaster tutor. Patient, pleasant, and even fun is usually what’s called for.

Social life

More kids are happy or not with school because of friends, lack thereof, or being targeted by a bully, which by the way, come in both sexes. One parental tactic to encourage good friends is to ask your child, “Who is the nicest kid in your class? Want to invite him or her to come with us to the movie (amusement park, whatever?)  Think of yourself as a matchmaker.

Of course, kids often don’t tell all, so if you sense a problem, it couldn’t hurt to make a school visit, especially if you think the problem is social. (You may learn enough about your child's academic performance by examining the work at home.) During recess, hang out on the schoolyard, although not so close to your child that s/he’ll be embarrassed. Even from a distance, you’ll learn something about how your child interacts. If you’re seeing your child ignored or ostracized, you might even do what I wish my mom would have done: Ask a popular kid or two for feedback. “Is Tommy doing anything to make him not liked?” If my mom had done that, perhaps I would have learned much earlier that my attempts to be clever were seen as showing off.

The takeaway

As adults, it’s easy to forget how fraught school can be. Perhaps these tips can help this be your child’s best school year yet.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at

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