Blog: How to Evaluate if Your Child or Teen is Struggling with School or Virtual Learning

Dr. Carey Heller

Dr. Carey Heller; Licensed Psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland

For those of you who have had your child or teen at home during distance learning, you may have had the opportunity to observe them in school in a way that you never would have gotten to do so otherwise. At the same time, this new insight may make you wonder if your child or teen is struggling or what signs to look for that they may be doing so.

The goal of this article is to give you some general ideas of things to look for that may help you better understand how your child or teen learns/functions with school as well as begin to identify if they may be struggling due to distance learning or in general. Each child or teen’s situation is different, there can be multiple causes for observed behaviors/issues, and sometimes things that may seem like an area of difficulty are age or situation appropriate. Nonetheless, by being informed on important things to watch for, it can help you decide when it may be helpful to seek professional assistance to help your child or teen. Of course, when in doubt, it is always better to get a consultation with the appropriate professional.

Attention/Language processing

Does your child or teen frequently seem to have trouble staying focused?

  • Are they missing or misunderstanding oral directions?
  • Do they seem to have a hard time following class discussions and participating?
  • Is your child or teen getting easily distracted by other things on their computer (i.e., playing with buttons, going onto other programs during class time) or staring off into space frequently?
  • Do these issues seem new or only present when attending classes virtually?


  • Is your child or teen having difficulty sitting still?
  • Are they spinning in their chair, shaking their feet, tapping their hands, or fiddling with things that are near them?
  • Do these issues begin as soon as they sit down for school or emerge after sitting for an extended period of time?
  • Is the fidgeting better following breaks?
  • Is your child or teen aware that they are moving around a lot?
  • Does your child or teen seem to focus better when fidgeting or doing something active while watching class lessons (i.e., using desk bike, wobble seat, foot pedals)?
  • Does your child/teen engage in frequent fidgeting outside of academic activities?

Academic Skills

  • Is your child or teen grasping concepts after they are taught in class lessons? If they need to go back and rewatch recorded lessons, do they appear to understand things after going through items a second time?
  • Do you observe your child or teen especially struggling with reading, writing, or math skills?

Executive Functioning

  • Is your child or teen able to navigate their school’s portal and find necessary information themselves (i.e., Zoom links, homework or classwork assignments)?
  • Can your child or teen return to class independently or with timers at home (or from the teacher) without significant intervention on your part?
  • For older children and teens, are they able to organize Google Drive or other electronic files and find items easily?
  • Does your child or teen struggle with keeping track of physical papers?
  • Does your child or teen have difficulty establishing and maintaining routines that they are willing to do in order to stay organized?
  • Does your child or teen need significant prompting to stay on task when completing homework?


  • Does your child or teen resist logging onto school and participating? Is this significantly different than their typical engagement with in-person learning?
  • Does your child or teen appear to enjoy at least parts of classes or specific ones in some instances?
  • Does your child or teen appear to be anxious or nervous being on camera or participating in class?
  • Does it seem that your child or teen values school or homework enough that they would participate and complete tasks if you weren’t providing significant oversight (if this is the case)?

Emotional Functioning

  • Has your child or teen been greatly affected emotionally by the pandemic?
  • Are they struggling with not having as much contact with friends?
  • Does your child or teen seem less happy or more anxious than they normally are?
  • Is your child or teen overly focused on getting sick, vaccines, or other related items?


  • Is your child or teen having increased difficulty disconnecting from electronics?
  • Are they having more trouble sleeping?
  • Is your child or teen especially moody when having to disconnect from electronics?
  • Is your child or teen complaining of headaches or eye discomfort regularly after being on a screen during the school day?

By looking at the items mentioned above, hopefully it will help guide you as to important things to look for in your child or teen’s educational experience with distance learning. From there, it is up to you to decide if there could be any issues, and if so, consult an appropriate professional (i.e., mental health professional, tutor, speech language pathologist, developmental optometrist, a psychologist for psychoeducational testing) depending on the severity and impact of the issue.

Copyright 2020 Carey Heller, Psy.D.

*Disclaimer: The previous information is intended as general guidance based on my professional opinion, does not constitute an established professional relationship,  and should not replace the recommendations of a psychologist or other licensed professional with whom you initiate or maintain a professional relationship*

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