If your son is failing in college, as parents you’re understandably concerned and want to make sure that he succeeds. It’s very common for students to have problems, or even fail completely, however your son is in the category of most concern. Young men in the U.S. tend to have more problems in college, having lower graduation rates and longer graduation times than young women. It can be heartbreaking to find out that your son failed a class, an entire semester, or was even suspended due to lack of academic progress. Even more perplexing is what to do about it, where to seek help, and what type of help to look for. This guide is meant to help parents learn about options to help their son, the role of each, as well as some pros and cons when trying to help their son.
When parents are trying to help a young man who’s had problems in college, there are some basic questions to answer:
What actually happened that lead your son to fail?
Keep in mind that a student doesn’t just randomly fail in college by chance, courses are usually comprised of a series of exams, assignments, and homework so there must be more than one bad grade to lead to failing a class. In some cases there can be a slow erosion of grades after the start of the term, where they start well then end poorly. The first two weeks of a class are the “honeymoon” period where they seem to do very little, and usually the easiest information is covered early in the term. Early on there may only be homework and minor quiz grades, but by week four the first round of exams typically comes. After this a student’s grades may begin to slowly wane with the introduction of harder information, and after midterm courses tend to get harder and more congested with end of term projects and finals. In other instances a student may have an abrupt drop or failing grades grades in one or more classes, and typically this signifies something more significant going on. It’s not a single class that poses a problem for them, but a pervasive issue, which implies that there’s something bigger going on. For example, a student with bad writing, study, or other skills may show these weaknesses across classes, rather than just have one class they are not good at. If they all reach a point where they’re past the easy content, the need for real skills may be paramount, so any deficits will be glaring. An abrupt drop in grades can also signify an event that happened, or the development of a more serious issue like anxiety or depression. Your son’s higher risk of failing due to young men doing worse in college may cause one or more of these patterns.
What are the problems?
Failing grades can be caused by a number of problems, ranging from emotional issues to a simple lack of skills needed to succeed in the college environment. The college ages, 18 to 24 years, are also the typical ages of onset for adult conditions like clinical depression and many others. Also, students diagnosed with issues during high school, such as attentional deficits, can find the impact to be much more severe once they are in the low structure environment of college. For skills, many students who were patted on the back during high school as good writers suddenly find that their flowery prose does not score points or meet the requirements for college-level papers. They may score poorly for getting off topic, not supporting their arguments, incorrectly using MLA or Chicago style, or otherwise not knowing how to complete a structured assignment. Other students may have done well in high school by relying on their good memory, but then find that this no longer works in college. They then realize that they never learned how to study, learn from texts, or otherwise don’t put in the time they need for their classes. They often wind up in a situation where they cannot improve their grades so the problems just compound themselves.
- Tip: There is typically not one single causal factor when a student begins failing in college, and your son most likely doesn’t have a single problem to solve. It’s usually the combination of issues that can include skills, motivation, choice of major, and even the college environment that are leading to bad grades.
What do we, as our son’s parents, think is wrong?
No one knows a child better than their parents, and if you think about their history this may give some clues about the problems and therefore the help needed. If you always felt that he was disorganized, lacked focus, or otherwise had trouble completing school tasks your suspicion that your son be evaluated for attentional issues may be warranted. Or if he has a preexisting condition upon entering college, did he request academic accommodations? Is he taking the medication, and is it working? In many cases a student may feel that they can just skip medication during the weekends or use it as needed, then they can experience side effects that turn them off completely from being compliant with the treatment. In other cases it may wear off during the day, so they need the extended release version. For skills, if you never saw your son study during high school but was a “good tester” that should give you a clue that he likely never acquired strong learning skills which may be a part of the problems. Too often what appears as normal procrastination can often signal other issues, like a poor choice of college or major. Young men do the worst at large public colleges, only 25% on average finish on time, and if you add this to something like attentional issues plus a tough major like Engineering major with no accommodations or inconsistent medication you may have a perfect storm on your hands.
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Always keep in mind that there is most likely not a single, leading causal factor that lead your son to fail classes in college, there are usually multiple factors at play. These could be related to skills, college choice, social issues, medical problems, and more. This is especially true if there is a pervasive failure across many classes, or if the failure has longevity over several terms. Experienced interventionists know that the most effective approaches to help failing students are usually multi-modal and multi-systemic, meaning that elements from the educational, healthcare, and supplemental supports realms may be needed in order to bring the best outcome.
Options For Help
There are a variety of services to explore if your son is failing in college, and these can be college-based, healthcare based, private educational supports, or programs that specialize in student failure and offer a comprehensive intervention approach. When making decisions to help solve your son’s problems, you may need to examine more than one of these, since research shows that the right combination of efforts will bring the best outcome.
Below is a brief overview of possible solution routes that parents can research to help their son. The pros and cons of each will also be covered, as well as which work well together.
College Based Options
Practically every college has some form of help for students. These can range from basic services like tutors to writing centers, learning centers, with some colleges even having full-blown medical centers on campus. What a college can offer in terms of help will vary by their size. For example, some small private colleges may not have their own tutors, and large schools might even offer in-depth testing or physician services. One downside overall of relying on college-based resources to help your son is that that will not intervene if he is failing a class, and in fact their own view of “intervening” is to put students on probation or suspension. Also the rule for colleges is that students must “avail themselves” of the resources available to them. In other words, they will not take action if a son is failing, the student must seek help, which can often leave them with no help at all. Also, due to federal privacy laws, colleges won’t talk with parents unless it’s practically a life threatening crisis, where some private services will. The upside to college based services is convenience, they are already where the student is located, and the cost is usually included with tuition.
Colleges typically have both subject-specific tutoring and writing centers to help students with specific classes. If it is a larger college, they may integrate both tutoring and writing help in to the same department, but others may have separate centers for tutoring and writing. Tutoring can be useful when helping a student with a specific class, such is if they don’t understand how to solve problems for their college algebra class. Similarly, writing services can help students to plan papers and give them feedback on their writing in terms of style, completeness, or the final product. Again, convenience is the upside of such a service, and that they are free to students. But there are clear downsides as well. For example, the bulk of the tutors are at college centers are usually students themselves, not professionals, nor can they help much if a student is failing toward the end of the term. Also, some students at large colleges complain about language barriers, where a foreign student is a tutor but cannot speak English very well. Also, learning centers cannot diagnose why a student is failing their classes, their view is narrowly in course-specific help, so if your son is having problems due to disorganization, procrastination, or other reasons these will be unaddressed.
- Tip: Students are reluctant to use the school’s resources, especially if they are doing poorly, since they are embarrassed. A survey at my website showed only one in five would use the school’s help sources, they’d rather seek private help.
First Year Programs
Nearly every college has some time of first year program to support incoming freshmen. Typically these are focused on helping the student become familiar with the campus, adjust to dorm life, make friends, and have a successful start at the school. They may include meetings, activities, orientation, and registration for courses with an undergraduate Advisor. Such programs do not specifically provide academic support to students, and are not set up to improve grades. In fact, freshman support programs were originally designed as a retention strategy, to keep students at the school for the first year. Colleges know that students tend to leave after the first year for many reasons, ranging from not liking the school to being academically suspended, so the advent of freshmen support has the goal of keeping their freshman class enrolled. Again, the downside if your son is failing is that they don’t offer intensive academic support that is often needed, plus these programs do not continue in to the sophomore year where most suspensions happen. It’s easy for a student to cruise by in the first year since colleges typically allow two semesters on academic probation, but after that (their third term) they are usually suspended or dismissed.
Among other things, I’m considered a student retention professional so I know these kinds of programs very well. Student retention is a recent concept, emerging in the last several years, and many colleges are now say they have retention programs. However, there is no homogenous definition for them, and they can vary wildly or even illogically between colleges. Some are using administrative approaches like surveys and big data to say that they are intervening with students, which couldn’t be true, since no one every meets with the student to try and help them. Others require students meet with an Advisor once every two weeks, but they do not work on academic issues. If your son is having problems, starts to fail, or needs help, a retention program may do little or nothing that has a significant, immediate impact on their grades. Advisors will not work with them to help them succeed in their classes, or meet with them in any frequency that makes a significant difference. Students who are placed on academic probation may need to meet with an Advisor as part of their status, or take a “success” class, but students actually say later that these efforts were not helpful or were just outright misguided. One syllabus I saw for a success class had, out of seven major topics covered, dedicated modules on proper nutrition and daily exercise, as if either could immediately raise falling grades. The clear downside is that both research and students both see the same thing, retention programs have little practical effect for improving grades.
Any reasonably developed college will have a campus counseling center that support students. In this context “counseling” means therapy, and such centers routinely deal with stress, relationship issues, or similar problems in daily living. College counseling centers are not a substitute for ongoing psychotherapy, and they often set limits on how many times they are willing to meet with a student. If a student was receiving therapy prior to attending college, they typically are not allowed to continue that therapy locally at the school’s counseling center. Again, the benefit of such a service is convenience due to being right on campus, and if a student is experiencing stress then this can be a good route to take. However, many conditions are not responsive to therapy, like ADHD, and long term therapy for clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and others will not find enough sessions allowed to make them a replacement for a private therapist. Students often say they don’t like to use counseling centers, partially due to fear of a stigma coming from using the service, but often for other reasons. For example, many counselors may actually be students in training, which may not be the best choice to help your in a crisis. Moreover, the obvious is that counseling centers do not deal with academic issues. They are set up for psychotherapy, not academic problems, and their staff are not equipped to help students to gain skills, uncover academic deficits, and will not directly help them with their classes.
- Tip: Student counseling centers are for short-term “triage” and general problems of life like stress, not long term counseling or direct help with academics that your son might need.
Most of us are familiar with healthcare services and what the basic types of practitioners do. For example, if we have a cold or the flu, we go to a general practitioner in order to receive medication. But it can become more complex when it comes to uncovering what the problems might be for academic performance at the college level. Poor grades or failing is most often seen as an educational issue, and although there can certainly be factors underlying this, its “expression” is still educational in nature. For example, attentional issues, anxiety disorders, and learning disabilities can all underlie a student struggling academically. Research shows that for college students healthcare interventions work best with an augmentative “behavioral intervention” to work directly with the student. I’m actually the former Director for an outpatient psychiatric clinic, so I’m well versed in these options and professions. The following healthcare practitioners can be possible sources of help if your son is having problems.
General Practitioners And Pediatricians
A natural reaction for parents is to take their son to the Physician they’ve always worked with, and up until college it’s typically a General Practitioner or Pediatrician. These practitioners typically deal with medical disorders, although may encounter learning or psychiatric conditions in their work. For example it’s actually General Practitioners not Psychiatrists who prescribe the most antidepressants for adults in the U.S., which reflects the typically long standing relationship and trust they have with the patient. A problem can emerge with both these types of practitioners when it comes to co-occurring conditions like simultaneous anxiety and depressive disorders, or if psychotropic medications must be used. Some General Practitioners are uncomfortable with prescribing these medications since it’s Psychiatrists who specialize in these, especially when it comes to poly-pharmacy (when multiple medications of this type are used simultaneously). The same reluctance may apply to Pediatricians, although a more general issue may be at hand for your son in college. Pediatricians often have an upper age limit of patient they are willing to see, so if your child is over age 18 they may refer you to an regular adult Physician. While these practitioners can evaluate your son for medical problems, neither will work directly with him on college courses.
“Psychotherapists” is a generic term for professionals who can offer psychotherapy. They may include Social Workers, Licensed Counselors, Clinical Counselors, and others, although Psychologists and occasionally Psychiatrists provide this service as well. This route is the classic talk therapy tradition, where your son would meet with the person to discuss the problems are that he’s been experiencing. Therapy focuses on the social, emotional, interpersonal, and life functioning areas, and tries to detect the presence of clinical disorders like anxiety, depression, and others. The downsides of this general therapy route is that the practitioner may not be qualified to administer in-depth diagnostic testing, and cannot prescribe medication. Nor do they work with students on academic issues during their class attendance, which makes therapy a conjunctive service to others when helping college students who may be failing. Therapy is a healthcare service by nature, and is typically covered by health insurance.
Psychologists are graduate-level professionals who typically specialize in a sub-type of their profession, and in the context of helping your failing son, it is generally clinical, counseling, or neuro-psychology that will most apply. The main benefit from this route is that Psychologists can perform in depth diagnostic testing that can cover intellect, cognitive functions, memory, reasoning, and even detect learning or executive function impairments. They are able to diagnose the most complex disorders, such as learning disabilities, cognitive processing issues, and even impairments following traumatic brain injury (TBI) or concussions. Unlike general therapists, they can use diagnostic testing to detect attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorders, and more. Psychologists are also healthcare professionals, and will not work with your child during active attendance to improve their grades for their classes. They will, however, make recommendations used for academic accommodations, and their evaluations are typically used as the basis for such requests. In addition to their ability for in-depth diagnostics, some may provide psychotherapy, but cannot prescribe medication so they are conjunctive to psychiatric services.
- Tip: If you suspect your son must be evaluated for ADHD, a learning disability, dyslexia, or cognitive processing issues, it’s a Psychologist that might be your first choice.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors that further go on to specialize in psychiatry, and in some states that are dually certified in neurology. These Physicians specialize in the treatment of psychiatric disorders that can affect mood, thinking, attention, and other functions essential for human beings. They are able to evaluate a patient, diagnose them, and prescribe medication treatment, although some Psychiatrists will perform psychotherapy with their patients. Psychiatrists are uniquely suited to prescribe psychotropic medications, the class of medication that is designed to treat such conditions. They are well versed in how these drugs work, their interactions with each other, and the effects on different conditions. This gives them a unique advantage over General Practitioners or Pediatricians in that they specialize in the medication treatment of cognitive and emotional conditions. Psychiatrists, however, cannot perform in depth testing to determine learning disabilities, personality disorders, or assess intellectual functioning, so very often they work in conjunction with Psychologists who can perform such tasks. For college students, Psychiatrists are typically broken in to two categories, adult and child Psychiatrists. The distinction is the same between a Pediatrician and an adult Physician, in that some child Psychiatrists will only see patients within a certain age range, where their adult counterparts may require a patient to be age 18.
- Tip: If you feel your son needs evaluated and medication for ADHD, anxiety, or depression, it’s a Psychiatrist that might be your optimal first choice.
Most of us are familiar with supplemental efforts to help a child with education, and most parents at some point had their child work with a tutor for course subjects, SAT preparation, or for other school topics. For the college system it can become more complex since there are not only tutors but other types of professionals that can help students. As a general caution, it’s having the right combination of education and experience that truly qualifies such a practitioner for their work, so not all individuals or services are equal in that sense. Because these are educational in nature, unlike healthcare, they are not covered by health insurance.
Some services or methodology that can help your son if he’s having trouble in college are:
In addition to those found at college learning centers, private tutors can be used for students who are having problems in one or more classes. Tutors specialize in subject-specific help, such as for math, chemistry, history, or other subjects. They are focused on course content, in comparison to process issues like being organized, following-up with Professors, prioritizing work, and other areas. Course content is the information taught in class or contained in written materials, and tutors specialize in helping students to understand and master the factual information of courses. Typical examples of tutoring help are understanding how to solve calculus problems, mastering the nuances of foreign languages, or understanding the differences between terminology in a biology class. There are various advantages with private tutors, such as being readily available around college campuses, since many upperclassmen and graduate students are often available for tutoring. Tutors can also schedule and meet individually with students according to their class schedule, and can conduct multiple sessions to help them to catch up if they are behind. The downsides are that any process-related issues may be left unaddressed, so if your feel your son failed his last exam because he has poor study skills, underestimated how long it would take to prepare, or simply didn’t track the date then tutoring will not help. Very often students complain that it is hard to find a “good tutor” which can mean one knowledgeable enough or even one that has the right personality and background to help students.
Academic coaching, in contrast to tutoring, can help with the student learning process. Coaching can cover a student’s efforts at planning, organizing information, how they approach their studies, learning skills, writing processes, and more. It can be an excellent augmentative approach to tutoring, and with the right person implementing it, can interface with health services such as psychiatric or psychotherapy services. But it is more of a method than a stand-alone profession. Many Licensed Counselors, Social Workers, and others use coaching methodology for “sub-threshold” cases where the person is not formally diagnosed with a disorder, but have more generalized problems. This highlights a drawback to coaching, in that it is only a methodology, and not necessarily a recognized practice. Many academic coaches may merely be life coaches, with no substantive credentials or background, so they may be inexperienced or unqualified to work with failing students. As my colleagues at Purdue put it to me at a recent conference: Coaching is a graduate level practice, and certain specialty areas of graduate studies better apply than others, such as psychology. Therefore it can be difficult to find a truly qualified person to correctly use implementing coaching, and it works best as a method that is incorporated in to other programmatic efforts. Coaching is not a substitute for academic Advising, nor can it address specialty areas like medical withdrawals, academic accommodations, or recognize the signs of deeper problems unless the individual has the right background. In the right hands, though, coaching methodology can be a good way to deliver academic skills and expertise to help students. If you feel that your son has been failing because of not having good learning skills, cannot plan and execute on papers or projects, or otherwise needs help in planning out what you must do a qualified individual using academic coaching methodology may be a good choice.
- Tip: It’s a graduate degree in clinical psychology that you are looking for in a truly qualified individual to deliver academic coaching, and especially for executive function coaching. These practitioners receive training in intelligence, learning processes, cognition, memory, and many other areas plus the disorders that affect them. They are also trained in both formally and informally assessing the presence of primary and secondary conditions. Backgrounds in special education, secondary guidance, and even other psychology disciplines like cognitive or counseling do not receive such comprehensive training.
Executive Function Coaching
Similar to the above, executive function coaching is applying coaching methodology to improve or address issues with “executive functioning” in students, and is a highly specialized area that very few practitioners are truly qualified to do. Executive functions in humans relate to the brain or mind, and these can include memory, reasoning, planning, organizing, and other aspects. Students with impairments in this critical area are often diagnosed with learning disabilities, attentional issues, cognitive processing disorders, or similar conditions. Applying academic coaching methodology to executive functions can be much more intricate than it sounds. For example, a student may have a known cognitive processing issue, but if they are struggling it may not be due to that condition since others can be at play. For example anxiety can mimic the effects of attentional problems, and undiagnosed conditions like post-concussive syndrome may only show it’s effects during college with the increased need to learn quickly. Individuals using executive function coaching must be highly qualified, far more so that tutoring, academic coaching, and other areas. They must be have the credentials and experience with clinical disorders, cognitive disorders, intellectual functioning, and be able to intervene in these areas. Backgrounds in education, general counseling, guidance, or similar curricula are not sufficient to understand and intervene with clinical severity cognitive impairments. These can involve multiple physiological systems, such as auditory and visual aspects, as well as co-occurring conditions like anxiety and others. While executive function coaching can have a strong impact with students, it is difficult to find practitioners who have the clinical-cognitive-psychological background to apply it competently. But if you feel your son is struggling in college due to being diagnosed with attentional issues, slow processing speed, or learning issues, this may be a viable route.
There are a few programs that are specialized to help students that are failing in college, and your son most likely will benefit most from this type. They use a comprehensive model implemented by graduate-level professionals that integrates research-based knowledge plus different elements of disability support, academic and executive function coaching methodology, college Advising, best practices in student retention, and other areas. Years of research shows that this multi-systemic, multi-modal intervention approach brings the best results compared to the unidimensional approach used by the above options, and is the “gold standard” in professional fields for getting best results. Their staff often include dually- or multi-credentialed staff whose experience covers medical issues, higher education factors, college success, and other aspects that can often come to bear with failing students. Efforts to help a student are individualized, in that they are tailored to the student’s specific circumstances and needs. For example, one student may need help with practical academic skills, while others may require the development of accommodation plan, transfer planning, or other things. The Directors of such programs are also experienced at implementing such programs across colleges, environments and a variety of situations, as well as the staff contact level in these programs is very high with both students and parents, making it an almost concierge-style model. These programs can also handle specialty situations, like academic probation, dismissal, medical withdrawals, and others. The downsides, like any education effort, is that they are not covered by insurance, and finding a program that truly uses this comprehensive model can be difficult.
- Tip: If you suspect your son needs direct support and has multiple needs like acquiring skills, academic or executive function coaching, transfer planning, suspension support, or even finding a college to get restarted at this comprehensive model support may be the best pick for you. This approach will offer a high level of communication with parents and A to Z support.
Some of the intervention aspects and integrations that make these truly comprehensive programs are:
Comprehensive programs will have experienced interventionists who can offer your son the ability to coordinate with any healthcare aspects, which includes full disabilities support. They will be experienced at working with students who have taken a variety of medications to treat ADD, anxiety, and other conditions, and may have formal training in relevant fields. They can not only understand reports from psychologists and psychiatrists, they are knowledgeable enough to speak with them professionally if needed. Also, they are experienced at spotting emergent conditions and can alert parents about possible problems. Their hybrid qualifications make them experienced at drafting accommodation requests to be reviewed by these professionals, or they can make recommendations for new ones. Because of their backgrounds, integrated program interventionists can recognize when something may have been “missed” like cognitive issues, then make referrals for evaluation. Also, their experience allows them to deal with very special case scenarios, like students returning to college after severe medical conditions, inpatient hospitalization, or return after partial hospitalization programs.
Higher Education Interventions
Comprehensive programs can also offer higher education services and intervention, and they may even have qualified academic Advisors on staff. They can offer the best services for global college planning, transfer advising, and help student with college searches that include the curriculum, general education requirements, foreign language requirements and more. These specialty programs can also help your son with grade correction strategies to help address failing grades, such as amnesty programs, or even submit requests for retroactive medical withdrawals. These experts can also help students who have been academically suspended or even dismissed from their college get restarted, so they often specialize in “re-entry” planning for students who need a fresh start who can’t simply apply as a freshman. In many cases they have active relationships with colleges that are open to such students, and instead of their being left in the limbo of arbitrarily applying, can offer better guidance than a student just blindly completing applications. Also, if a student encounters a medical condition during college, these specialists can assist the student and their family during the crisis.
Direct Help Interventions
Of course, comprehensive programs offer direct help to students while they are attending their classes. They can offer graduate-level academic coaching, executive function coaching, problems assessment, and skills building efforts to help your son be successful. These staff are experts in understanding why students begin failing, and they can assess a student’s needs, identifying what the true problems are, as well as designing interventions or an action plan to help the student to improve. Some of these staff are also considered student retention professionals, so they meet with colleagues and attend conferences at a variety of colleges, then implement the “best practices” for helping students to stay on their academic pathway. They also understand the differential patterns of where students do well or poorly in college across the parameters of size, major, gender, and others. Their credentials may even include gold-standard degrees for helping students, such as clinical psychology, so they understand the intellectual, personality, motivational, and ability-related issues that can lead students to do poorly in their classes. For any type of problem students face, whether personal or for a class, these professionals will know how to respond.
For an example of such a comprehensive program, visit the program page at my main site for the one that I run as an example (opens in a new tab).
If your son is having problems or failing in college, there are many possible help routes to explore. Trying to understand exactly what the problems are is the first logical step, and because you know his history you might have some educated guesses at that. College based services, like learning or counseling centers, offer convenience but may not meet his needs, since they do not offer enough support and students can be reluctant to use them. Healthcare options include therapy or evaluations for deeper conditions, but cannot directly support him at school. Educational supplements, like tutoring and coaching, often bring the issue of finding truly qualified help or are narrow in their scope. Finally, comprehensive approach programs, often considered the gold standard because of both their experience and integrated model, can offer full-service support and are the best, most effective route to take.
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