What to do if your child is having behavior problems at school

A BabyCenter article by Ann Bartz

How to help your child at school & how to help your child at home

While children can display a wide range of behavior problems in school, from disruptive talking in the classroom to fighting and name-calling on the playground, the reasons for bad behavior are usually simple. “If a child is acting out a lot in school, my assumption is either that he’s having strong feelings and needs a hand with getting those feelings out, or that something in school is really not working for him,” says Alison Ehara-Brown, a licensed clinical social worker and school consultant in Berkeley, Calif. As a parent, you can try to change the situation in school so your child has a better time there. You can also help your child at home, by understanding how his feelings are getting in his way and giving him the means to express them.

“Children carry little packages of bad feelings that shut their thinking down if something triggers those feelings,” says Patty Wipfler, a parent trainer and founder of the Parents Leadership Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. “Sometimes it’s mathematics that does it; sometimes it’s other children looking happy and relaxed when he doesn’t feel that way.” When a child’s thinking shuts down, he may do something inappropriate because his ability to think before he acts is temporarily gone.

How to help your child at school

Assess the situation. Start by spending time in your child’s classroom (volunteer as an aide for a day or two) to see what’s going on. Or have a child therapist, school psychologist, or learning specialist evaluate your child in the classroom. You could even ask a friend or relative — your child’s favorite uncle, say — to go to her school for a day. Look at the teacher’s teaching style and your child’s learning style: Is a mismatch in the teacher-child relationship causing your child to feel misunderstood or angry? Go out to the playground at recess: Is your child being teased or frightened and then acting out in an attempt to get someone to notice she’s in trouble? You may learn a lot by spending a day in your child’s environment and paying attention to her interactions with the people around her.

Check out your child’s relationship with her teacher. This basic dynamic can make or break a child’s experience in the classroom. “Often when a child is having behavior problems in school, it comes down to a feeling that the teacher doesn’t like her,” says Ehara-Brown. “To be able to learn and to act well, it’s really important to children to feel liked.” Often it’s enough just to bring the problem to the teacher’s attention, but if your child somehow pushes the teacher’s buttons in a way that makes it difficult for the teacher to like her, as a last resort you can look into moving your child to a different classroom. Or see if an adult who likes your child (such as a teacher’s aide) can be added to the classroom; sometimes this is enough to smooth out troublesome behavior.

Work with the teacher. Just having to sit still during class is a big challenge for some children. The teacher may be open to letting your child move around or do other activities if you talk to him about it. “When one of my sons was making the transition from kindergarten, where he had a lot of space to move and play while he learned, to the older grades, he had a really hard time with sitting still and not talking,” says Ehara-Brown. “One of his teachers told him that while she was talking or reading it was fine for him to draw, and once he was able to do that, he stopped getting in trouble.”

Strategize. Buff Bradley, a former elementary school teacher who now runs a home daycare center, suggests setting up conferences that include you, your child, and her teacher. Brainstorm together about how to make school go well for your child. You may want to devise a signal your child can give her teacher, such as raising two fingers, when she’s feeling frustrated and restless and is about to start acting out; at these times, the teacher could give her something special to do, such as taking papers to the principal’s office. Or the teacher could think of a signal, such as a tap on your child’s shoulder, to remind her to behave without embarrassing her in front of the class.

Give your child a break. Sometimes the daily grind of going to a place where she is not succeeding can push a child into behavior problems. If you can, try taking a day off from school and work every once in a while to do something with your child that she really enjoys, whether it’s playing a Monopoly marathon, spending the day at the beach, or just hanging out in the backyard listening to the radio. Take advantage of the times when she is home sick to get close and pay special attention to her.

Help your child remember that you care about her. Knowing that she is loved can pull a child out of a downward spiral. “It can sometimes work to give your child a special reminder of you, something she can put in her pocket, like a little note that says ‘I love you and you’re great,'” says Patty Wipfler, a parent trainer and founder of the Parents Leadership Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. Or put a picture in her lunchbox of the two of you hugging.

Tell your child that she can decide where her mind goes. If your child is having a miserable time at school, she can think of you, or of the fun she’s going to have after school, rather than stay trapped in bad feelings. A great example of this idea is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where Harry encounters some monsters called dementors who suck all the happiness out of their victims. The antidote that a powerful wizard gives Harry is to think of the best time he ever had; this allows him to gain power over the monsters.

Get outside help. If you think it’s necessary, get recommendations for a good therapist for your child. Interview possible candidates on the phone, and tell them you’re looking for someone who can help your child work through the emotional issues that are making her act out at school. “Tell them you’re not interested in a medication approach,” says Ehara-Brown, “but are looking for someone who can work with your child’s teacher and the school system and give the teacher ideas on how to handle her behavior.”

How to help your child at home

Don’t punish your child. Children aren’t to blame for having bad feelings, says Wipfler. “It’s not something they asked for. Your child isn’t bad, and you’re not bad for having a child with a behavior problem; these things just happen.” Punishment for bad behavior will only make your child feel terrible about himself and prolong the difficulty by further shutting down his thinking.

Think about what’s going on in your child’s life. Is he dealing with a big, one-time event, like a divorce or a death in the family, or smaller stressors over the long term, like teasing from an older sibling or pressure from a critical parent? Criticism can sap a child’s positive feelings about himself; teasing can leave him looking for someone smaller or younger to take it out on. If your whole family is weathering a trauma, your child may be trying to handle strong feelings on his own without adding to your burden. You may never know exactly what’s at the root of his difficulty with school, but you don’t need to know in order to help him.

Try talking. Your child may be able to tell you straight out what’s bothering him, or you may have to set up certain conditions first. Children talk to adults when they feel safe, loved, and close. You can give your child that sense of contact either by playing with him vigorously and generously, or by listening to him without judgment or interruption.

Your child may also be more willing to open up if you ask him a positive question first. Someday when you’re lying in the grass at the park, or out for a walk, or riding in the car without being in a hurry, ask in a relaxed tone, “If you could make school any way you wanted, what would it be like?” or “If you could make recess perfect, how would you change it?” You’ll hear about what’s hard at school, but you’ll have bypassed the hopeless feelings that can make children reluctant to talk.

Let your child fall apart. Children keep a lot inside but are always looking for ways to get their feelings out. You can help, says Wipfler, by being ready for “a tantrum, or a rage, or an insistence that something be done in a very particular way or his world will crash: ‘You have to put butter on my mashed potatoes — it can’t be margarine’ or ‘I will not turn off the TV.’ Children will get very particular about a small thing because they have a little volcano of feelings inside that has nothing to do with what they’re getting upset about. But it’s the only way they know to address what they feel.”

This won’t be easy for you as a parent. You may be every bit as cranky as your child at the moment he picks to fall apart, or you may be under a lot of pressure to get something done. But your child will benefit tremendously if you can go down on one knee, put an arm around him, and listen while he cries as long as he needs to. Your child may say things that are difficult to hear — criticism of you, perhaps, or revelations of difficulties you didn’t know he was having. But if he can cry all the way through these feelings, using you as a target, your child will feel heard and understood and will be able to think better in situations that might otherwise throw him. The day after a big emotional release, his behavior in school (and with his friends and with you) will most likely be profoundly better.

Wipfler tells a story of one parent who divorced the father of her two girls and married a new man. One of the daughters was furious about these developments. She was almost unable to do any of the assignments in her 3rd grade class, and at home she brought up the same bad feelings over and over. “Once she hid in the back of a closet and was crying and trembling and perspiring,” says Wipfler. “Her mom stayed out of kicking distance but kept sticking her hand in toward her child and saying, ‘I really love you, and I’m sorry it’s been hard.’ Her daughter was pushing at her hand and yelling and screaming — she had a huge cry.” Finally she decided she was finished and asked for some orange juice. Then she wanted a bath, and her mother filled the tub for her. Five minutes later, the mother heard her daughter singing, “I love my mommy, and I love Steve, I love my life and the flowers everywhere.” Her grades soon went from failing to A-minuses, and her distaste for school evaporated. Her mother, who had been afraid that her daughter would have to struggle with learning issues for the rest of her life, was astounded: In six months of several other outbursts and intense cries the girl had turned it all around. “If a child has an ongoing struggle,” says Wipfler, “it may take listening many times, but you can change a child’s whole life in this way.”

Stay close to your child. You can always help your child have a better day at school if you take time for closeness. Get up a bit earlier to carve out some relaxed time with your child as the day begins; a little bit of snuggling or playful cuddling in the morning can set him up for a better day. He’ll go to school feeling more connected to you, and a little sturdier when he encounters a trigger that usually sets him off.

Play with your child. Set up playtimes with your child so he can get some of the attention he’s seeking by misbehaving at school; you may also get a better sense of what’s on his mind. In his book Building Healthy Minds, Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington Medical School, advocates “floor time,” or play, as a way to discover what’s bothering a child. “When a child is misbehaving, pretend play can sometimes help reveal what’s on his mind, why he’s so angry and provocative.”

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