Parents and educators want children to flourish at school. They them want to be high achievers, to feel part of the school community, and to be happy at school. Consequently, families and teachers often go to great lengths to support young people to achieve this. Most children want to feel a sense of belonging within the school community, connect with others, and perform well academically.

The reality is that conventional teaching and learning methods follow an assembly-line pattern which allows little room for deviation. Educators deliver a predefined curriculum based on the gradual mastery of specific academic and developmental milestones. The student demonstrates mastery of knowledge and skills by completing cumulative and summative assessments. These are often standardised. Thus, learner progress is often reduced to, and defined by assessment results.

The system compares and evaluates assessment results of individual learners against those of classmates and students at other schools. All pupils are expected to learn content in the same way and at the same pace.

This cookie-cutter approach flattens diversity, failing to take into account that everyone learns differently.  Moreover a student’s personal circumstances affect their ability to learn and adjust to school. Experienced teachers tailor a range of different teaching and learning methods to suit different learning styles. Pupils may struggle academically if there’s a mismatch between teaching and learning styles.

However, like society in general, the organisation of schools and the education system is fundamentally organised around points of similarity. Consequently, these systems more easily accommodate similarities rather than differences. If a student’s home life, ideologies, and language aligns with that of their teachers and the wider school community, they will fit in. It’s also easier to perform well if the way you learn  complements the teaching and delivery style.

Reasons Students May Not Thrive at School

A complex interplay of circumstances and factors influences a student’s academic progress, and their social, emotional, and cognitive development. Effective teachers and schools support pupils who don’t fit the mould. They identify and mitigate potential barriers to learning.

Factors which can negatively affect schooling include:

Poverty and adversity:

A 2018 study, conducted by Nicholas W. Papegorge and Kevin Thom, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, provides compelling evidence that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to pursue tertiary education.

The report revealed that although genetic traits associated with educational attainment are evenly distributed across America’s population, the least academically inclined children of high-income parents graduate from university at higher rates than the most academically talented offspring of low-income parents. Put simply, poorer children have less access to resources and opportunities to develop their academic talents compared to wealthier counterparts.

Developmental science indicates that poverty or hardships such as trauma can expose children to the long-term consequences of “toxic stress.” Dealing with such stressors may lead to impairments in working memory, behaviour regulation and organising information. Poverty and adversity can also hamper positive social relationships, as well as physical and mental health and resilience.

Many families don’t know where or how to seek appropriate support and resources. As a result, poverty and other hardships can have significant long-term negative effects on a young person’s development and readiness to learn.

Physical and Learning Disabilities

Physical and learning disabilities can negatively affect a person’s education and their potential to succeed academically. To mitigate the impact of specific conditions on educational achievement, teachers and schools can put in place supports and reasonable adjustments for certain tasks and activities. Doing so levels the playing field by ensuring that all students can participate in learning opportunities on an equal footing and reach their full potential. Common physical disabilities include cerebral palsy, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, and paralysis.

Learning disabilities are sometimes tricky to diagnose, but can be detected with thorough evaluations by psychologists and medical specialists. Affected children may engage in disruptive behaviour, have difficulty concentrating, and struggle academically. Early diagnosis and consistent support can mitigate issues associated with different learning disabilities. Some of the most common cognitive disabilities are ADHD, poor short-term memory, difficulty with visual-spatial perception, poor organisational and executive functioning skills, auditory processing deficit, and dyslexia.

Learning Delays

School children can fall behind academically for many different reasons. They may be ESL students, have experienced trauma, or simply learn at a slower pace than others. If gaps in foundational skills and knowledge aren’t addressed in kindergarten or early primary, they can widen to become significant. When students haven’t mastered basic literacy and numeracy by the time high school begins, then it’s an uphill battle for all concerned. Students who are years behind their classmates often become discouraged by years of failing grades and little visible improvement.

Students with learning delays may resort to avoidance strategies, engaging in disruptive behaviour, skipping class, or simply not participating in lessons.


Finally, boredom and disengagement is a common problem in the classroom. Learners may become bored or disengage with tasks they find too difficult, because they lack the knowledge and skills needed to complete them. Conversely, more advanced students can become bored if tasks fail to to challenge them. Orgnaising tasks so they are at the right level for individual learners keeps engagement levels high. Boredom can be alleviated by ensuring that content is presented in stimulating ways which link with student interests and preferred learning styles.

Tailor Learning to the Student

No one-size-fits-all approach works for all learners across contexts. Teaching and learning must be shaped to meet the needs of each student, to take into account and value difference.

Effective schools and educators understand where their pupils come from: their culture, personality, preferred learning styles, limitations, and how the interplay of these circumstances and factors influences a person’s readiness and ability to learn. They are willing to experiment and adapt, providing reasonable supports to suit different students and situations.

Learn about specific strategies schools and teachers can use to support students who experience the challenges described above in Part 2 of this article.




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MacCann, Carolyn, Amirali Minbashian, and Kit Double. “Understanding emotions is nearly as important as IQ for students’ academic success.” The Conversation. 3 March 2020.

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Vukovic, Rebecca. “Intervention programs: Emphasising progress.” Teacher Magazine. 14 May 2019.

About the Author

PhD in European Languages and Cultures