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9 Ways to Help Failing Students

Please, not again!

You’re starting to panic (just a little) as you grade the latest test from Veronica. She’s been struggling, but has been making some progress, and you’re desperately hoping this test reflects that.

But it doesn’t look like this paper is getting a smiley face.

Instead, it looks green enough to be a forrest.

See, you tried to ease the blow by marking it in green instead of red. At least it’s not bleeding, you think.

But nothing can ease the pain of how bad this test is.

Veronica is failing, and you don’t know what on earth to do about it.

Failing students tend to bring up a variety of emotions in us. We get frustrated, we get worried. We wonder if we’re a horrible teacher. We want to strangle them give them a mean look for not trying hard enough.

But what’s worse, we often simply don’t know what to do. We’re trying our best, and it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Are we missing something? Is it our fault?

Maybe it would help to run around in a panic (just for a minute). Scream (just a little)…

Or maybe just throw our hands up in the air and give up.

But while these may all sound quite tempting, they’re not quite going to be that helpful.

So instead, let’s take a deep breath. Let’s recognize that often our students’ lack of effort is a big part of the problem.

But let’s also realize that, as the teacher, there’s a lot we can still do to help – and it’s our responsibility to do all we can.

So what exactly can we do to help the students who are failing our class? I’m so glad you asked….

How to Help a Failing Student

  1. Get the parents involved early. Whether or not you think the parents will actually make a difference, go ahead and involve them early. The responsibility for teaching kids is ultimately the parents’, not ours, so they need to be informed about what’s going on.

    But don’t just tell them their kid is failing. Give them specific ideas of what they can do to help. Many parents want to help but just don’t know exactly what to do. Use language like “We all want so-and-so to succeed and I believe he would if _____.”

    (Speaking of parents, if you have some that are becoming quite challenging, check out my post “What to Do with the Parent Who’s Driving You Crazy

  2. Intentionally help the student whenever possible. How you do this will vary depending on your grade level and class structure, but make it a priority to help your failing students whenever you can. In my middle school math classroom, I scheduled time for students to work on problems so that I can move around the classroom & help individuals. Make it a point to check in on your failing students, even if they didn’t raise their hands for help. And if you do see their hand up, make them your first priority.

  3. Encourage them. Considering how frustrated and discouraged as we sometimes get with our struggling students, imagine how they must feel. Yes, sometimes it seems like they don’t care, but often this is just a mask or coping mechanism for their frustration. We need to encourage them as much as possible. Praise them for even the smallest successes or improvements, and tell them that you believe in them and know they can succeed.

  4. Provide opportunity for self-reflection. Help the student walk through a process of self-reflection. This will, of course, vary depending on the age, but for middle school and high school I give them a short questionnaire that ask them to 1) list all the reasons they think they were failing and 2) write down a plan for how to improve.  Then go over it with them, encouraging them and giving additional ideas (and occasionally prodding them to think a little deeper).

    Now we all know that asking a student questions like this can result in the blank stare. But don’t let them off the hook. Be patient and let them sit there and think about it (while you do something else, of course). Or ask prodding questions such as “Do you think not doing your homework is part of the problem?” to help get the ball rolling.

  5. Ask how you can help. This is a simple concept, but we don’t do it often enough. Ask the failing student what you, as their teacher, can do to help. You may not get much of an answer, but you may also be surprised at their response. Then, of course, do what you can.

  6. Look for underlying problems. Try to determine what underlying problems are causing them to struggle. Do they have a genuine learning disability? Are there problems at home? Do they need glasses? Are they playing too many video games? Often we try to correct the symptoms without ever getting to the root of the problem.

  7. Require them to complete class work. I realize this is easier said than done, but do everything in your power to get them to complete their work. Don’t just let them off the hook: require them to at least make a valiant attempt. See the post 17 Ways to Get Your Students to Actually Do Their Work for more ideas for how to make this happen. 
  8. Don’t give up on them. Too often it seems like nothing is ever going to change, but we can’t give up on our students. Sometimes we won’t see the results for months or even years, but that doesn’t mean we’re wasting our time. We’ve got to believe in our students and show them that we believe in them. It’s a conscious choice – it does not depend on our feelings at the moment.

  9. When all else fails, let them fail.  When you’ve done all you can and it’s report card time and they clearly earned an F, give them an F. Now I know in some schools this is simply not allowed (which is a tragedy), but unless it’s forbidden, go ahead and put the F on the report card.

    Just passing them along to the next grade or course is not helping them, and often what they need most is to go through the course again.

    I’ve seen firsthand how valuable this can be with students who had to retake my Algebra I course (either because they failed or as a recommendation because they barely passed). They always do so much better the second time around & they leave the course with increased confidence. To have simply passed them on to Algebra II would not have been a kindness – it would have set them up for more failure and confusion.
     Need to think this one through a little more? Check out the post Should Failing Students be Held Back?

Pin for Later: Pin this post where you can easily find it when you need a refresher.

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What to Read Next
  • Here’s how I intend to really use the information in this post:

    I’m going to print this blog post and literally make copies and put them on a clipboard for my own use (if that’s ok with you, as the author!!). Then I’m going to check things off as I go through them for my failing students. This will serve 2 purposes:

    1) It will allow me to stop blaming myself because I’ll be able to see the steps I’ve taken!
    2) I can refer to it during parent conferences when the parents want to know what I’ve done to help their child!

  • You have really good step by step ideas. I also like the idea of creating a checklist. It will help keep teachers aware of what they have tried. This will be really helpful in documenting what does and does not work. That’s valuable in student services meetings.

  • It’s the parents’ responsibiltiy to teach the child?!!? So why is the name of your profession teacher? This makes no sense. Every F you give is your F, your failure. Try to remember that. (And yes, I’m a teacher.)

    • Have you never heard about not being able to teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught? You must be extremely lucky not to meet anyone like that…

    • I have to disagree with you “every F you give is your F, your failure.” I am a teacher as well, and there are some students that, no matter what you do, refuse to do anything. I do not consider myself a failure for assigning an F when a student chooses not to turn in work, or when a student sits in the classroom and refuses to complete an assignment. I would also like to say that it is, ultimately, the parents’ responsibility to teach the child. The parent should teach them right from wrong, the parent should teach them good vs. bad, the parent should teach them manners, etc. Those things should be instilled in children before they are of school age. The problem with the world today is that children are spoiled and they are no longer being taught how to behave at home. I would have never stepped foot in a classroom and act the way my students act these days. Students know they can do whatever they want and there will be no repercussions. It’s sickening! I teach because I love teaching and I am not a failure because a child makes an F!

    • What????????? I never fail my students – they fail – If I have done all I can do and they still refuse to change their ways – it is the only natural consequence –

  • “The responsibility for teaching kids is ultimately the parents’, not ours” is a ridiculous statement, in my opinion. Children spend most of their waking hours at school. Parents trust you to teach them. They simply cannot put the hours in that you do, because they have entrusted their children to your tutelage! I refer you all to http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2009/december-09/helping-failing-students-2.html for more concrete, useful advice. If more junior high school teachers took their jobs seriously, rather than believing education was ultimately the responsibility of parents, then college teachers wouldn’t have to do the remedial work described in the link. I’m sure you can do better!

    • As a Bible-believing Christian I strongly believe every aspect of raising children is intimately the parents responsibility. As a parent, I would never abdicate that responsibility even if my kids went to the best school. Now that does not mean the teachers aren’t also responsible. Obviously this is our job as teachers and we must do everything we can. We are certainly responsible for students’ learning but I 100% hold to the position that teachers are not ULTIMATELY responsible. To think teachers are is to take away God-given authority and responsibility from the parents.

  • If the parents were not ultimately responsible, they would not be the ones who have to go to jail when their children are deemed to be truant. (At least that is what can happen in my particular state.) Parents are the ones who decide who will educate their child — themselves (homeschool), public school teachers, or private school teachers. Yes, the responsibility for a child’s education rests with the parents. I am both, a parent and a teacher. My husband and I made the decision to not homeschool and in which school to place our daughters, because their education is our responsibility.


  • These ideas are critical for helping students. The idea that you are a failure if you don’t do well on a test permeates society.

    The first time I took the G.R.E. I had pneumonia and coughed throughout the entire test.

    The room was all wood and echoed with each cough. I was so embarrassed. I don’t remember the results, I threw them away.

  • I’m beyond frustrated. We had 30 of our freshman class fail. Our school has 60% on free and reduced lunch.
    We wrote letters, made phone calls, made home visits. We met with them repeatedly, we met with parents, we put them in guided study halls, we offered free tutoring ever night, and some we pulled from all classes to sit almost one on one to help them get through. Our major problem is attendance. Some missing up to 147 days out of 180, yet we are still held responsible. Parents feel they can’t do anything, students are apathetic; what else can we do?

  • I don’t think it is the parents responsibility. It seems like it is pulling teeth to get a teacher to email a parent back. How can the parent be responsible, when the school doesn’t even keep them in the know of what they are doing in class!? I am a little shocked by teachers who have this perspective. It is mostly your fault because you obviously are not ENGAGING the kids!

    • I’m sorry you have had this experience. We are encouraging teachers in the first point to communicate early on with the parents and give them specific suggestions for helping their kids succeed.

    • You are absolutely right that the parents can’t help their kids if they don’t know what’s going on in school.

  • Why students just feel like not coming to class, but always around in the campus. I am talking about attendance.

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