My Son Struggles in Class But Works Well at Home

By Dr. Lisa Hunter, Child Psychologist


I am very confused because my son works differently at school than when he is at home. The work his teachers say he struggles with in school is work he breezes through at home without a problem. The problem is mainly in math. I went to his school to see for myself and I was amazed. He worked so slowly and needed so much help.

His teachers also complain that he gets distracted and looks at the bridge and out the window a lot. This is a concern of mine because they've checked off "promotion in doubt" on his report card twice already. This is very frustrating and I don't know what to do.


I'm sure it's frustrating that your son works so differently at home than at school. If you think about it though, it's not that surprising. I imagine when you work with him at home, you work individually, with minimal distractions and limited time pressure. Plus, since you know him well, you can tailor your teaching to his individual learning style.

At school, the learning environment is much different. He's one of many students, there are lots of distractions, and the teacher cannot devote all her attention to him. The differences in your son's ability to complete work at home and school suggest that there may be something about the classroom environment that is getting in the way of his ability to demonstrate the skills you know he has. It sounds like his inability to sustain attention in an active classroom may be the problem.

There are several things the teacher can do to help your son sustain attention in school:

  • Seat him near the front of the class and away from any windows.
  • Use attention-getting devices like secret signals or color codes to redirect him when he loses focus.
  • Reward him with praise or a sticker when he does pay attention.

If these interventions do not lead to any improvement after a month or so, I would recommend having your son evaluated by a psychologist to determine if his tendency to lose focus is a symptom of an attention disorder.

Dr. Lisa Hunter is an assistant professor in the department of child psychiatry at Columbia University and the director of school-based mental health programs at Columbia University's Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health. Her research focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of school-based mental health and prevention programs. In addition she is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in cognitive behavioral treatment for children and adolescents.


Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.