How To Spot A Student Who Is Struggling

Last Updated:

September 6, 2023

Table of Contents

How do you know when a student is struggling? Better yet, what are ways that we as educators can support them? In this article, we’ll dive into some of the common - and uncommon! - signs that a student might need an extra hand, as well as some potential ways to navigate these situations.

Does any of this sound familiar? A student is consistently struggling to receive good grades. In the classroom, they often act out or get easily irritated with your or their peers. Or, a normally straight-A student suddenly has a drop in performance that continues without improvement. They don’t seem like their normal, bubbly self in class, and they don't seem to talk to their friends as much like they used to.

So what does it mean? There can be a myriad of reasons for this kind of behavior - not understanding material, problems at home or in social life, mental health challenges -  but it’s important to learn the signs so you can recognize, and intervene, before it escalates.

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Academically, a struggling student might exhibit the following signs:

  1. Rarely turning in or completing assignments
  2. Poor quiz/test results
  3. Might work longer than others on material but still make very little progress
  4. Is easily frustrated by material
  5. Avoids being called on if they don’t understand the material
  6. They don’t take good notes or have trouble keeping things organized
  7. Distracting others, or the teacher, to get out of doing the work
  8. Does a good job on specific problem-sets or pieces of material but often stays there to avoid moving onto material they don’t understand
  9. Irritation and anger (towards teacher, students, even friends)
  10. Using the bathroom for extended periods of time (to get out of whatever the work is)

Emotionally, or in regards to mental health, a struggling student might exhibit the following signs:

These signs should be seen as a change from normal behavior.

  1. Rarely turning in or completing assignments
  2. Skips class, or is routinely late
  3. Puts hoodie on, sleeps in class, or has head down on desk
  4. Significant apathy or tiredness, even when material previously interested them
  5. Exiting the classroom abruptly and coming back later
  6. Anxious behaviors (tapping feet, biting nails, playing with hands, hair, or clothes, not from boredom)
  7. Change in tone and affect (monotone voice, flat facial expressions)
  8. Wearing the same clothes repeatedly, unwashed or unkempt hair
  9. Irritation and anger (towards teacher, students, even friends)
  10. Using the bathroom for extended periods of time (avoiding socializing, having trouble with emotion regulation, etc.)

More often than not, students don’t tell their teachers they’re struggling. They might feel like the teacher doesn’t care, they’re afraid they’re going to be pitied (or bullied), or maybe they worry about putting pressure on friends and family about their struggles. They might not want to seem uncool or vulnerable in front of their teacher or others. That’s why it is so important to recognize early signs of struggling, before there are escalations that can lead to more intense disciplinary actions or expulsion.

What can you do as an educator?

One option? Ask your student to meet with you privately after class, or during a time when you’re both available to chat. Start the conversation off with an ice-breaker: how their week is going, if they saw the football game, if they’re excited for an upcoming event.

Next, you’ll want to gently ask them about what’s been going on. 

You might want to use statements like the following:

  1. I noticed you hadn’t turned in your homework on Wednesday. You’re usually on top of those kinds of things. Is everything okay?
  1. I saw that you’ve been getting into more arguments with your classmates. This isn’t behavior I would expect from you. Is there something going on we should talk about?
  1. I haven’t gotten my assignments back from you, and I noticed you weren’t too interested in answering questions today in class. Is there something about the material that isn’t making sense to you? 

You want to give the student room to feel safe and heard if something is going on. If the student does open up to you about something going on - maybe they’re going through a break-up, or they are really lost in the current academic unit - this is your opportunity to be empathic, and to potentially offer solutions. 

Solutions depend on what the problem is. For example, if it's an academic issue and the student isn’t grasping particular material, or gets confused with a new unit, this might be the time to offer one-on-one guidance, refer to a tutor, or ask for another, older student to tutor them. Remind them kindly of your expectations: completed, quality, on-time material - and remind them that they can come to you at any time if they struggle in the future.

Utilizing the counselor’s office, or offering one-on-one chats, would be appropriate for individuals who are suffering with mental health concerns. Just remember that it isn’t your job to fix what they’re going through, but to be a support and figure they can turn to for guidance - somebody who is on “their side.” Usually, mental health problems are bigger than one person, and that’s when using discretion and informing parents/guardians as well as higher level faculty members can be important.

Ideally, having “check-in” times with these students, even when they seem to be doing better, is helpful to remind them of their goals and that they have you as a support figure. Stay cognizant, be compassionate, and don’t be afraid to pull somebody aside to say, “Hey, what’s going on?” as a means to help them in the moment, and as a way to prevent things from escalating down the road.


Bates, A. (2022, March 10). Spotting the signs that pupils are struggling. Optimus Education. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://my.optimus-education.com/spotting-signs-pupils-are-struggling