Your teenager is struggling in school, and you’re convinced it’s because he’s just not applying himself. He barely does his homework, there’s a constant struggle at home, and the more you push, the more he retreats.

This is the classic case of a shut-down learner, says Dr. Richard Selznick. Selznick, who serves as director of the Cooper Learning Center, a division of the Department of Pediatrics of Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey, assesses and treats a broad range of learning and school-based academic and behavioral problems. Over the years, Selznick has consulted with thousands of families and has discovered that, unfortunately, shut-down learners are a fairly common group of learners. “The prototype shutdown learner is a teenager who feels pretty beaten down by the time he comes to me,” Selznick says. “He has an emotional block, and his battery is depleted. He’s got his parents coming at him, the teacher. It’s too much.”

Selznick’s recent book, The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child, is written for parents of just this kind of kid. “I try to present things to parents in a very down-to-earth way, without any jargon, so that it’s digestible and not threatening,” Selznick says. “The message is this: parents need to understand these kids. Yelling at the kids, telling them they’re not trying hard enough—this doesn’t work.” Selznick explains that in many cases, parents just need to back off, be less aggressive about the homework, and find a way to relate to their child’s struggles.

“These kids may have a range of learning disorders,” Selznick says, “but I want to stay away from the labeling because in the end, these kids have a great number of strengths that they need to key into.”

As Selznick explains it, the shut-down learner tends to be a problem-solver, someone who learns spatially and thrives with hands-on tasks that load on visual and spatial abilities. On the downside, they often lack the core skills necessary for success in school. “These kids often get all the way through the system, getting more and more disconnected because they simply can’t learn the way teachers want to teach,” Selznick says. “But when you say to the kid, ‘Look, you’re really good at this stuff—if I put you in a room with a hundred kids, you’re better than ninety of them’—then the kid feels okay, like ‘I’m good at a lot of things. I’m smart.’”

Selznick says the key is that these children learn differently; they need patience and understanding from parents, and they also need their parents to believe in their strengths and to empower them.

 “They can be a hard group to work with. They’re giving their parents a hard time, they look bored in class, they’re disconnected,” Selznick says. “Or, the second type I see is the ones who are more pleasant in the social area, but they’re masking their insecurities. Either way, they need to understand that they’re really smart kids and they’re good at things, too.”

In fact, Selznick says, if these kids can survive school without losing too much self-esteem, they have a good chance at being highly successful.

Lloyd Stone, a classic shut-down learner growing up, has turned out to be successful despite his earlier challenges in school. Today, at 53, Stone is president of Manny Stone Decorators in New Jersey, a company that designs and builds trade show exhibits for clients on a national and international scale. I’ve overcome this and adapted to it and have actually been able to assimilate into society by creating a different path,” Stone says. “It’s almost like a mutation … I branched out in other directions that got me to the same place.” Stone’s experiences in school have also given him a very specific take on best practices in business: “I hire B students. A students, things come too easily to them,” Stone says. “I want the B student, the guy who has met with defeat and has been able to learn from defeat.”

This should be music to many parents’ ears. However, Selznick urges parents to trust their instincts when their kids are young and to spot the learning problems early. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, you know how boys are. He’ll grow out of it.’ But if your gut tells you something’s wrong, get it checked out,” Selznick says. “Save your kid the trouble later.”

If you think your young child might fit the mold of the shut down learner later on, here are a few things to look for:

  • Tuning out in circle time
  • Highly spatial and visual learners
  • Active or over-active
  • Difficulty with language-based activities such as reading and writing

Shut-down learners don’t develop overnight, and early intervention is key. Selznick suggests that if the problems persist into 1st or 2nd grade, a visit to a child or school psychologist is probably a good idea.