Surprising reasons why your kid is underperforming in school

You’re understandably frustrated that your child isn’t living up to her potential. But before you blame her attitude, check if these conditions are hindering her academically, says EVELINE GAN.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

You know your kid is bright, but why does her report book show otherwise?

While you may be tempted to blame laziness, a bad attitude or her “terrible” teachers, experts say the reasons for your kid’s bad grades are not always straightforward and can be due to various factors.

For instance, poor school performance can be a sign of undetected health issues.

A case in point: Optometrist Titus Wu has encountered his share of students who struggle to keep up with school work due to undiagnosed vision issues.

“A mother of a seven-year-old girl I saw shared that her daughter was not doing well in school. She always thought it was because her child was not interested in studying,” says Titus, a consultant at Titus Eye Care.

As it turned out, the girl had uncorrected myopia in one eye and lazy eye in the other.

“When the girl first got her prescriptive glasses, she was ecstatic that she was able to see everything clearly,” Titus recounts.

“We worked with her for a period of six months to improve her vision, and that was the period when we saw massive improvement in her academic performance.”

Here, the experts pinpoint surprising five reasons for your kid’s poor grades, and what you can do to support her.

“I can’t see well”

Does your kid squint when she looks at distant objects or gets headaches after reading for a short while? 

Does she tilt her head in an odd manner, constantly rub her eyes or blink excessively?

If you notice these signs, she might have undiagnosed vision issues, such as myopia and astigmatism, that could affect her school performance.

“Sometimes, children who have poor eyesight are assigned to the front of the class, hence masking the issue,” Titus explains.

“Left uncorrected, myopia and/or astigmatism may lead to a squint, which may result in lazy eye (reduced vision function caused by abnormal development of the eye).”

A common misconception is that kids who pass their eyesight test during school check-ups have perfect vision necessary for learning well. While the vision screening initiative by the Health Promotion Board has picked up serious eye conditions in some children, there are some limitations, Titus says.

“The vision screening only checks how well your child can see. Sometimes, due to various reasons such as a crowded environment, distractions or child being shy, the results may not be accurate,” he explains. 

My Reading Room

WHAT YOU CAN DO Have your kid’s eyes checked by an eyecare professional every six months, from around the age of four years, Titus says.

Studies show that getting plenty of sunshine and outdoor play can lower the risk of myopia, he adds.

The recommended outdoor time is three hours each day. But if you cannot spare the time, aim for an hour per day, he says.

Prolonged near work may signal the eye to grow longer, causing myopia to kick in. So, remind your kid to take visual breaks after every hour of revision or reading.

“While doing near work, make sure your child is in a brightly-lit room with a desk lamp. He should be sitting upright and make it a point to read at an arm’s length distance,” Titus says.

Get more eye care tips from websites such as www. and (Singapore Optometric Association). 

“What did you say?”

Even if your child has 50 percent hearing loss, it is easy to miss it, says Dr Lynne Lim, a senior consultant ear nose throat - head and neck surgeon at Lynne Lim Ear Nose Throat and Hearing Centre.

“The child may appear like she has attention deficit, bad behaviour, poor IQ or autism.

For example, she may seem to ignore people speaking to her or reply inconsistently,” she explains.

One of the most common childhood conditions that can affect hearing is glue ear, or otitis media with effusion in medical-speak.

This occurs when fluid is trapped behind the eardrum in the middle ear.

“Otitis media can result in hearing reduction, with poor academic performance and delayed speech and language development. It can also cause giddiness and imbalance, which can be missed because children usually do not complain about these symptoms,” Dr Lim says.

At least three in five kids have an episode of glue ear by age five or six, she says. 

My Reading Room

Your child has a higher risk of getting it if she has a large adenoid – a mass of soft tissue behind the nasal cavity – nose allergies, frequent colds and flu, or a history of cleft palate or craniofacial syndrome.

Those exposed to secondhand smoke or who feed lying down are also at risk, Dr Lim says.

WHAT TO DO Watch for signs like difficulty hearing in noisy backgrounds like classrooms, restaurants or when the TV is switched on, Dr Lim says.

They may appear to lose interest and start doing their own thing. Some children with hearing issues may keep asking “what did you say?” while others have poor balance or appear clumsy, she adds.

If you suspect that your kid has hearing issues, see an ENT specialist, pediatrician or your family doctor to get the right treatment.

After removing ear wax properly, your doctor will use an otoscope light to examine the eardrum, Dr Lim explains. In some cases, your kid may have to undergo ear cleaning and a microscopic ear examination in the clinic. 

“Yawn… I can’t stay awake in class.”

Staying up late to revise is counterproductive if your kid does not get enough sleep.

Research shows that missing out on just around half an hour of needed sleep can drastically affect students’ grades and hinder their learning and memory.

A sleep disorder can also affect how well she recharges at night. For instance, in obstructive sleep apnoea, your child’s airways are blocked at the nose or throat.

This affects oxygen levels during sleep, Dr Lim says. “This makes the child tired, grouchy, and affects concentration and focus, thus resulting in poor academic performance. A child with OSA is also more prone to getting infections that make her miss more school days,” Dr Lim explains.

Kids who sleep poorly may snore, choke at night, breathe in through their mouths at night or even in the day, wet their beds or have restless sleep, she adds.

In the day, they may complain of headaches. Some may have overbite of the teeth and have weight issues.

WHAT TO DO Besides getting potential sleep disorders checked out by a doctor, it is also important to enforce good sleep habits.

Kids aged between six and 13 should be getting nine to 11 hours of sleep each night, according to guidelines by the National Sleep Foundation as well as the NurtureSG committee, which promotes physical and mental health in children.

Aim for a fixed bedtime every night and avoid stimulating activities such as screen time before bedtime, Dr Lim says. Your child’s bedroom should be comfortable and noise kept to a minimum, she adds.

Find out more about sleep disorders at visit www. and

“I don’t have enough time!”

Sometimes, the real culprit behind bad grades may simply be poor time management.

Telltale signs include trouble completing homework on time, providing incomplete answers in exam and making numerous careless mistakes, says Charis Sim, academic director of The Learning Lab Tampines.

Without good time management, students often find it hard to have a clear idea of the tasks that require attention and action, prioritise tasks for optimal productivity and accomplish them efficiently, she adds.

“Good time management will help the child better organise her workload. It also helps the child tackle the problem of being underprepared and to avoid last-minute study marathons, which often result in lack of sleep,” she says.

WHAT TO DO Help your kid get her school priorities in order with these effective time management tips from Charis:

Make lists to sort and prioritise Teach your kid to list tasks that need to be accomplished within a shorter timeline, followed by tasks with less urgent deadlines.

You could also introduce the idea of compartmentalising or sorting. For example, make two separate lists – one for school work and another for household chores.

This gives her an outline of “work” and fun time. Flexibility is important, too. If necessary, encourage her to rearrange her to-do list. 

• Have a plan and stick to it Revise for exams in a systematic way in the weeks and days leading to the exams.

Before planning, ask your kid: Which topics are you weaker in? Which components or sections do you tend to lose marks in?

For instance, she may allocate one-and-a-half days to review topics or components that she is weaker in, and half a day to areas she is more familiar with. She may also prioritise revision of subjects that are tested earlier.

Having control over the revision schedule gives her a sense of ownership and motivation to stick to the plan.

• Eliminate distractions to sharpen focus Create a study zone that is free of mess. That allows your kid to focus only on what is useful at any given time. For example, a neat room lets her see which resources she has and boosts productivity.

Set aside digital distractions like mobile phones and tablets until she’s finished working on her task. 

My Reading Room

“Reading and writing are such a chore.”

While general development delays are usually detected earlier, learning disabilities may go undiagnosed until your kid is older – from the age of six, says Hepsi Priyadharsini, senior occupational therapist at National University Hospital’s (NUH) Child Development Unit.

A child with learning disabilities has normal intelligence but struggles with certain skills, such as reading, writing and doing maths.

“It results from the difference in the way a person’s brain is ‘wired’, which affects how she receives and processes information,” Hepsi explains.

Dyslexia (a learning difficulty in reading) is the most common type of learning disability, she adds. However, different learning disabilities can affect each child differently.

Look out for these telling signs:

• Reads slowly and may yawn while reading

• Difficulty with spelling, rhyming, blending letter sounds

• Has decoding errors, especially with the order of letters

• May have difficulty with handwriting

• Trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, and days of the week

• Trouble finding the right word

• Poor reading comprehension

• Difficulty in understanding word problems

• Difficulty in learning basic math concepts

• Turns head when reading across the page

WHAT TO DO Time is of the essence if you suspect your child needs special assistance. The sooner you seek help, the better chance she has in reaching her full potential, Hepsi says.

Support for kids with learning disabilities are available at:

• NUH Child Development Unit at Jurong Medical Centre and Keat Hong Community Club (

• Dyslexia Association of Singapore (

• KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (, and AWWA (www.awwa. 

A headstart in school starts with play

Want your little one to do well in school? Don’t underestimate the power of play as well as her ability to perform simple everyday tasks, such as opening doors, zippers and getting out of bed independently.

Movement and physical activity are crucial for brain development, says senior occupational therapist Hepsi Priyadharsini.

They also have a positive impact on your child’s ability to learn, as well as confidence and self-esteem.

Kids grow and develop rapidly in their first five years, so it is important to start early.

“Parents can support young children’s motor development by planning play activities at indoor and outdoor playgrounds, as well as play dates that provide opportunities to move their bodies,” she adds.