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John Scardina is a certified school psychologist, child development expert, and parent educator. Check out his website In this interview, he reflects on ways to improve communication with our teenage children.


Q: When a teenager is struggling in school in a particular subject, at what point should a parent get involved?

A: Ideally, there should already be an ongoing, open relationship about academics, a shared concern. If you haven't been talking to your child about schoolwork, the initial reaction to a setback is often defensiveness from the child. The first step is to reach an agreement that there is a problem, and to identify what that problem is.

The next step is to create a plan (Plan A): establish goals and set definite time limits on reaching them. Daily or weekly grids can be used to track progress on grades, number of pages read, etc. It is important that both parents and teen monitor the progress together.  If Plan A doesn't work out, then be prepared to move to Plan B. Involving the teacher may be part of Plan A or may be necessary only after Plan A fails. Be involved, but also let your teen take ownership of the problem to the best of her ability. Above all, be optimistic


Q: What should parents do if they suspect there may be an underlying reason for their child's difficulties in school such as a learning disorder or anxiety?

A: I strongly recommend that parents first do some research on their own when it comes to learning disabilities. There are many good books on the topic, but I especially like A Mind at a Time, by Mel Levine, M.D., The Misunderstood Child, by Larry Silver, and The Mislabeled Child, by Eide & Eide. Next, I recommend having a conversation with your child's teacher to share your concerns and to get the school's perspective (if the school has not already initiated contact with you). After that meeting, you can request that the school do a psycho-educational evaluation. In most states the school has 60 school days (not calendar days) in which to respond to such a request.

There is an excellent website called that helps parents navigate the legal intricacies of special education law. Another great resource is the Education Law Center based in Philadelphia. They are a non-profit legal advocacy and educational organization whose mission is to ensure that all Pennsylvania's children have access to quality public education. 


Anxiety can manifest itself in various ways--it can affect your teen's appetite, sleep, energy, and moods. If you feel that anxiety is impacting your child's quality of life, there are several paths you can take. First, have your child visit Mood Gym, a free interactive web program designed to help teach the user cognitive behavioral therapy techniques including assessment tools to pinpoint the level of anxiety and/or depression, relaxation techniques, and the like. I also suggest consulting your family physician and school guidance counselor or psychologist. If therapy is recommended, these professionals may be able to refer you to an appropriate therapist who specializes in working with adolescents.


Q: Many parents and teens lock horns during the high school years over schoolwork, grades, and the college application process. Do you have any advice about how parents can navigate this important time?

A: The most important piece here is "Who owns the problem?" If you want to empower your teen to be responsible, then you must work toward that. It is OK to let your child suffer natural consequences from not following through on a task because, as we all know, the stakes get higher as we get older, so it's better to teach this lesson early on. A recent article by Craig Lambert in Harvard Magazine refers to the rise of "snowplow parents" who have apparently replaced "helicopter parents." Snowplow parents are those who "determinedly clear a path for their child and shove aside any obstacle they perceive in the way." But when we rush in to help our children in both big and little ways, we are actually sending them the message that they are not able to handle the situation themselves.


Parents need to have an ongoing dialogue with their child and help him keep his eyes on the "prize," whatever that might be--what college to attend, what career to pursue, or life goals. Many parents can't separate themselves from their child's goals, but it is important to step back and respect his individuality and to encourage him to "own the problem." Start early, have respectful dialogue, negotiate goals, work on goals, and help set guideposts along the way.


Q: Can you share some specific strategies for improving communication between parents and their teens?

A. When you must have a difficult conversation with your teen, I am a big fan of the "sandwich" technique: begin with praise (the praise must be true, specific, and helpful), then address the criticism or problem, then finally go to the hope: "Johnny, I really appreciate how hard you have been working to raise your grade in Spanish by doing extra credit projects. Nonetheless, avoiding the extra help sessions and any direct conversations with SeƱora Rodriguez because you don't like her as a teacher is not a good way to improve your grade. I believe you can talk to her directly in a respectful way, and I hope you'll try that soon." 


It is also important to remember to fight fair and to focus on the problem, thereby depersonalizing the issue. When problems escalate, some families bring in a third party to maintain a level of decorum, whether that is a family therapist, someone from the family's faith community, or a school guidance counselor or psychologist. Always keep the door open, though. Don't ever give up on your child. If you have an argument or uncomfortable conversation with your teen one evening, take her to breakfast the next day and talk about other things. As trying as it may be, keep reaching out and showing up.

What is a School Psychologist?

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I have worked as a certified school psychologist for the past twenty years, yet I realize that many people still don't know what that means: what indeed is a "school" psychologist?

To paraphrase the words of the National Association of School Psychologists ( we are people who:
  • help children and parents find success in academic, social, and emotional arenas;
  • provide counseling, instruction, and mentoring for emotional issues;
  • use assessments tools for psychoeducational testing that identify learning needs and point toward strategies for success;
  • promote achievement through research-based strategies for success for students and their families;
  • promote wellness and resilience through appropriate social and emotional education;
  • work with teachers and administrators to improve school climate and teacher effectiveness;
  • enhance understanding and acceptance of diversity among cultures and social groups. 
Check out your child's school psychologist: that person can be a valuable resource for you and your family! Also check out for ideas about how I might be a resource for you as well.

Blessings on you and yours...

In peace,

John Scardina
Certified School Psychologist
Parent Educator/Coach

When your bright and inquisitive child struggles in school, many times the issue at hand involves what we call executive  functioning skills:  skills which allow us to guide/direct/manage what we think/feel/do. We often talk of eight discrete areas:
  • inhibit
  • shift
  • emotional control
  • initiate
  • working memory
  • plan/organize
  • organization of materials
  • monitor.
Some thoughts about these skills:

 Executive functioning develops in the prefrontal lobes of the cerebrum, which do not seem to fully mature until age 24. (So the auto insurance companies had it right: rates don't go down for young drivers until age 25!)


Executive functioning can be a major issue for ADHD individuals but can exist apart from an ADHD diagnosis.


Very bright individuals with executive functioning issues will not test for "learning disabilities" but will struggle with production in school.


Effective parenting and teaching allow the adult to "be the prefrontal lobe" for children some of the time while developing these functions through explicit activities.

For a detailed treatment of executive functioning go to my web site - www. - and click on the keyword "executive functioning" on the Services: School page.

Blessings on your day!

In peace,

John Scardina

Certified School Psychologist/Parent Coach

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