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3 Ways to Help a Failing Student Turn Their Grades Around

By: Angela Abaya Date Published: March 20, 2018

The early elementary school years are crucial years when it comes to developing a child's sense of competence and efficacy. Once the child enters the formal schooling system, he is subjected to the pressure of grades, teacher feedback, and meeting performance expectations. All of these may lead him to compare himself with other students, and inevitably, he will begin to make judgments of his own skill and capabilities.

"Why can’t I understand multiplication when it’s so easy for everyone else?”

“I got the lowest score in class.”

“Why is teacher so proud of her work but not mine?”

"Why did they laugh at my answer?"

The biggest risk of a young child who’s struggling in school is that he’ll give up – not just on a subject, but on himself.  As his teacher, you play a significant role in shaping his sense of competence. The words and actions you use to urge him when he struggles will either bring shame and guilt, or hope and confidence. Help your students handle challenges by motivating him in a positive way.

Assess where he struggles

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Assess the source of your student's struggle and identify whether basic skills need to be strengthened. Maybe your student struggles to hold attention, so he misses out on important instructions and fails to understand what is expected of him. Maybe he gets too wrapped up on small details, so he is unable to get his work done on time. It's possible that his vocabulary needs boosting, and because he struggles with words his answers come out wrong.

Whatever the case may be, point out that he can practice and improve whatever skill he still needs to develop. But more importantly, remind him that just because he is still developing some skills, that does not make him a stupid person. Focusing on specific skills and experiencing small successes on those skills may motivate him to continue improving in other areas.

Use the right kind of praise

Merely experiencing success and being praised for it, however, does not ensure that a child will be motivated to work harder. In fact, some forms of praise may backfire when it comes to motivating children who are struggling. We often try to motivate children with statements like, "See, I knew you could do it, you're smarter than you think!" or "I told you this would be easy! You're good at this!" Researcher Carol Dweck, however, suggests that focusing praise on one's ability may reinforce a fixed mindset, or a belief that one is born naturally good at some things but hopelessly bad at others (e.g. "I was not born with math abilities!" or "I'm bad at academics but I'm a natural-born athlete.") A child with a fixed mindset is less likely to persist in the face of challenges, and is also less likely to seek challenging work.

Instead, we should focus our praise on their efforts and progress, e.g. "I like the way you tried different strategies until you figured out the right answer" or "I noticed that you struggled in the beginning, but it was great to see you sticking to it until you finished what you had to do." This fosters a growth mindset, which believes that success isn't about innate ability, failure isn't permanent, and that skills can be learned with persistence and practice.

But wait, there's more...

Encourage them to set real but challenging goals

Many of Dweck's "followers" have unwittingly placed too much emphasis on the praising effort, leaving out the fact that students still need to achieve certain standards and expectations for performance. In the end, students still need to understand that they must strive to gain knowledge, improve skills, and achieve progress - not just try and try without getting anywhere.

Help your struggling student set realistic goals, goals that are not so complicated that he ends up even more frustrated. But at the same time, make sure those goals are challenging enough to keep him engaged and energized.

Remember, you play a special role in a struggling student's life - the words and actions you use to motivate him will shape the way he faces future academic challenges.


1. Dweck, C. (2016). Praise the effort, not the outcome? Think again. Times Educational Supplement, (5182). 38.

2. Bong, M. & Skaalvik, E. M. (2003). Academic self-concept and self-efficacy: How different are they really? Educational Psychology Review, 15 (1), 1-40.

3. Wigfield, A. & Eccles, J. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68-81. DOI: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1015