Behavioral Problems: When Your Child Acts Differently At School

You may be surprised to find out that your well-behaved child is acting out at school. Find out why this discrepancy arises and how you can facilitate positive changes.

It happens sometimes — you think you know a person, and then she surprises you, and not always pleasantly. But what if this happens with your own child?

Some parents are shocked to hear reports back from the school about how their child is a totally different person! It can be hard to believe that your child is misbehaving in school when all you see at home is a sweet, bright kid. This is a more common phenomenon than you may think. Here is a brief explanation of why this happens, and what you can do to handle it.

Why It Happens

The home and classroom settings are different in a number of ways:

There are different people.

Sometimes kids learn bad behavior from their peers. Kids may see things that other kids do and mimic that behavior. This is totally normal. Children will continue acting in a certain way if they feel they are getting something out of it. The reward they perceive can range from making their classmates laugh to receiving attention from the teacher (even if the attention is negative).

The teacher’s job — and yours — is to figure out what a child's reward is. Chances are, the teachers recognize bad influences and can steer kids away from them to a certain extent. But figuring out another way to satisfy the need being met by the bad behavior will help extinguish behavioral problems in the future.

There are different rules.

Maybe running inside isn’t a big deal at home, but for teachers who are working with two dozen kids in a limited space, running in the classroom can lead to total disruption. Teachers need to enforce certain rules for the safety and respect of other kids, but not all these rules seem obvious or reasonable at first. Kids with a bit of an oppositional streak — ones who love to say “no” — often have trouble with rules that are not consistent from one setting to another. Explaining why the rules are different can be helpful, and forming a trusting relationship with the enforcer is key.

They are rewarded differently.

How do kids get what they want at home? Do they ask for it? Get it themselves? Shout? Whatever it is, it’s probably a different system than the one at school. The standards and expectations correspond to each setting. Some kids adjust to this difference quickly, just by watching and learning; others need very explicit explanations and reinforcement when they do the right thing.

There are different demands.

School is hard work and can be exhausting, especially for younger children. For kids with strong personalities or unidentified learning disabilities, frustration can come out in the form of unsafe or defiant behaviors. Children should be acknowledged for the work they do, and they may need assistance to see the thrill of conquering a tricky skill. Whether they've mastered the alphabet song or the quadratic equation, kids (and teens) need little celebrations of their hard work from time to time.

What You Can Do

If a teacher has contacted you about your child’s disruptive behavior, here’s what you can do:

Understand the origin of the behavior.

In general, kids don’t exhibit any behaviors — good or bad — randomly. If they did, they would deliver insults with about the same consistency as compliments. If a child keeps acting up, she is probably doing it for a reason or otherwise being rewarded in some way. A child who has difficulties in math may welcome a trip to the principal’s office, so teachers may see some shenanigans during math. A child desperately seeking adult attention may act up in order to know that adults are nearby and ready to care for her, even if it’s for negative behaviors instead of positive ones. Identifying the motivation behind your child’s actions will help you understand how to address her needs in a healthy way.

Develop a plan together.

Work with the school to develop a plan for rewarding the behavior that you and your child's teachers want to see, and for ignoring or punishing the behaviors that you don’t want your child to exhibit.

Find something that will actually lessen the number of times your child gets in trouble. Sometimes, the solution is as simple as ignoring the bad behavior. Other times, it entails giving a timeout or taking away a privilege.

You may have information on effective methods that the school does not, so it’s important that you help develop and support the school's plan.

Provide positive reinforcement.

Rewarding kids for the good stuff is always (always!) more powerful than punishing them for the not-so-good stuff — and it’s much more fun! So whatever plan you put together, make sure it includes plenty of praise and celebration for each little milestone.

If your child exhibits the positive behaviors you are working on at home, make sure to express your appreciation. For visual learners, a star chart can also help your child recognize the progress she is making.

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