How to Help A Child Who is Acting Out at School
No kid acts perfectly at school 100% of the time. Not one.
So let’s ditch the labels. No more “good kids,” “bad kids,” “troublemakers,” or “bullies.” There’s no need to categorize a child’s behavior.
Why? Because there are a million variables at play, every school year, every day.
Still, a call from the principal bearing news of behavior problems is concerning. A teacher expressing her frustrations at a parent-teacher conference is upsetting. And seeing the results of a tough day of school on a child’s face is absolutely heartbreaking.
School is a place where kids are learning far more than academics. They’re learning to be respectful, decent schoolmates in a shared environment. Along that path, they’re bound to stumble.
But whether it’s a one-off event or routine trouble, it’s how we handle a child’s school misbehavior that impacts that child’s self-worth and prompts less–or further–misbehavior. That’s why it’s so important to tailor our words and actions towards misbehavior appropriately and strategically.
And, ideally, by getting parents and teachers on the same page.
When school misbehavior occurs, here’s where to start:
Stay Calm, Empathize, and Find the Root Cause
When notified about behavior issues at school, some parents understandably jump into defensive mode. You know how great your kids are, and it’s your job to protect them. Any misbehavior at school must be justifiable.
Did something in the classroom prompt this disruption?
Is the teacher overreacting?
Did some other kid start it, and my kid took the fall?
Other parents might automatically lay full responsibility on their kids, believing there is zero excuse for misbehavior.
However, the best approach is to gather all the facts before making any assumptions.
While listening to your child’s side of the story, encourage them to express their feelings and concerns. Assure them you will listen without judgment or blame.
By using a calm voice and demeanor during this process, your kids will feel more comfortable opening up to you. And, by empathizing with your child’s perspective–even if you disagree with their actions–you will keep them from becoming defensive and further disengaging from the conversation…and possibly the truth.
Your goal right now is to find the root cause of the misbehavior without creating a power struggle. That’s it.
Finding the source (or sources, as there may be multiple contributing factors) proactively addresses the problem, as opposed to retroactively managing the symptoms.
Root causes can be surface-level. But, they can also stem from deep, unmet needs.
Psychologist and author of The Explosive Child, Dr. Ross Greene, states, “Kids do well when they can.” So, if a child is struggling, there is always an underlying reason for that struggle and or misbehavior.
Pro Tip: For Positive Parenting Solutions members, watch or review our Expert Series: The Explosive Child.
For example, when talking and listening to your child, keep in mind the following pertinent questions:
- How is her sense of belonging and significance in the CLASSROOM?
- Does he need more positive power in the classroom?
- Does she feel discouraged?
- Is the teacher understanding and supportive?
- Are there other personalities in the class that clash with hers?
- Has he been labeled as a “troublemaker?”
- Does he struggle with impulse control?
- Are there attention or learning differences?
If any of these questions can be answered with a “yes,” then it’s possible you’ve found your root cause. Or, one of the contributing causes.
So, what’s next?
Pro Tip: For Positive Parenting Solutions Members, please reference our Expert Series: Keeping Our Kids Safe from Bullying
Communicate and Collaborate with the Teacher and School
Just like you will listen calmly and without judgment to your student, do your best to listen to a teacher or administrator with care and attention when they notify you of misbehavior. Again, gather all the information you can and avoid rushing to any unfounded conclusions.
If necessary, request an adults-only meeting with the teacher or school counselor to gain a better understanding of the problem. This might help all parties avoid any miscommunication that can commonly arise from emails or text messages.
During the conference, ask what the teacher needs–or doesn’t need–from you.
With all the information at hand, it’s now time to work as a team. Through open and honest communication with teachers and school staff, you can develop a two-pronged plan for addressing the misbehavior. This includes both sides setting clear expectations for and from one another. It also means remaining open to the school’s guidance and recommendations for addressing the issue.
This is also a good time to talk about what you are doing at home to encourage the best possible behavior in your child.
Your child’s teacher may or may not be familiar with the techniques you use to proactively help your child. If you’ve already been successful with certain positive parenting strategies at home, now is the time to share which work best with your child.
Link to downloadable: Three strategies to share with your child’s teacher and encouraging phrases for teachers
Let the teacher know these are not reactive strategies; like applying a band-aid after misbehavior occurs. These are the positive parenting tools you use to continually provide a strong sense of belonging and significance, making your child less inclined to act out.
If you’re new to positive parenting techniques, now is the time for you–and the school–to put a few of the strategies to effective use.
To get started with a supercharged approach…
Reinforce Positive Behavior (the Right Way!)
Kids who struggle to meet behavioral expectations are constantly being corrected and redirected. They continually hear their names called out in class and their actions scolded. At home, they may hear similar reprimands.
Soon, they begin to believe they are actually “bad” kids. And, guess what? Their behavior worsens.
One way to upend this negative cycle is to celebrate and encourage a child’s positive behavior. Kids should hear at least as much positive reinforcement as the admonishments they receive–if not far more!
My mentor in positive parenting, Vivian Brault, used this analogy:
Imagine telling your prized rose bushes, “I’ll start giving you fertilizer after you give me the kinds of blooms I know you’re capable of.”
Now, switch it to parenting. “If my kids start behaving well, then I’ll give them encouragement.”
It becomes clear, now, that this retroactive approach is doomed to fail. Positive reinforcement and encouragement must come first.
You aren’t rewarding your child for their successes. Not with candy, money, or even praise.
Encouragement is far better; it verbally reinforces the positive behavior your child displays and makes them feel good about themselves. If we’re focusing on how they’re making us feel or offering an external reward as gratification, they’re going to miss the true satisfaction of self-accomplishment.
Notice the difference, for example, between the following phrases:
“I heard from the teacher that you’ve been talking less in class. That makes me really happy!”
“Your teacher mentioned that you’ve been working really hard on paying attention and listening to instructions. She even said it’s been helping other kids in the class focus too. You must feel so proud of how far you’ve come!
See how the focus is on how our kid must be feeling? We don’t want to condition our kids to make us, or others, feel proud or pleased. We want them to want to succeed for themselves. That’s the kind of motivation that doesn’t rely on others and the kind that lasts.
Encouraging phrases (which focus on effort and improvement) and praise (which focuses on a successful outcome) often become unintentionally intermixed. That’s why I’ve included a downloadable list of encouraging phrases in this packet that you can pass along to your child’s teacher as a quick reference. Many teachers already understand the power of encouragement versus praise, but others may be less familiar.
Link to downloadable: Encouraging Phrases for Teacher & Administrators (FREE!)
Download to share this with your child’s teacher
With this list, your child’s teacher will have go-to verbiage to pull from. And students that are acting out will go from feeling defeated to inspired.
I realize it might feel counterintuitive to encourage a child who is misbehaving. But this child is already feeling disheartened enough.
That’s why positive behavior, on any scale, should be intentionally highlighted–with zest!
Set Clear Expectations at Home Without Consequences
A common reaction to a child getting in trouble at school is the urge to discipline them at home. Because, don’t they need to learn how serious this is?
I understand your concern about your child’s classroom behavior, but, please…do not issue consequences at home for misbehavior that happens at school.
When a child misbehaves at school by pulling someone’s hair, yelling at the teacher, or escaping a classroom like she’s running for freedom, that behavior must be handled when and where it occurs. Trust that your child’s teacher has handled the situation at school according to the school’s protocol.
Applying consequences at home would only further the child’s discouragement and reinforce feelings of insignificance and resentment.
Your job at home is to show empathy–because getting in trouble was probably upsetting and embarrassing for your child–and then focus on communication and training. Help your child process what happened and discuss alternative ways he could have handled the situation. Use role play to practice how he could do or say something differently if a similar situation happens again.
Be a Positive Role Model
When considering expectations, nothing’s better than when we demonstrate the behaviors and values we wish to instill in our children. Our kids are always learning by our example!
Ensure that your home environment is nurturing and supportive. Make it a sanctuary where your child feels safe, loved, and respected.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be arguments or hard days. Nothing is perfect! Sometimes, parents yell at their kids (and each other!) and realize they have overreacted. Other days siblings are at each other’s necks, hurling hateful words, and wondering how to put each other up for adoption.
Even if families have disagreements or frustrations with one another, modeling an “I’m sorry” when we’ve done or said something we regret teaches kids we should all be accountable for our actions.
When kids can transfer these attitudes, actions, and feelings to school, misbehavior is destined to plummet.
Teach Kids Ways to Manage Classroom Struggles
It’s our role to show kids how to handle conflicts and frustrations in a respectful and responsible manner.
This starts by not overreacting and laying blame when we hear about misbehavior and extends to basic problem-solving skills.
You don’t have to wait for real-time situations to train kids on conflict resolution at home. You can always co-implement two Positive Parenting Solutions® tools: Take Time for Training and Role-Play.
These tools help guide children through sample conflicts bound to occur one day–or situations that have already posed a problem–with peers and authority figures.
Maybe your daughter is struggling to sit still in her classroom when she’s supposed to be working on independent tasks. At home one evening, you ask if you can play the teacher while she plays herself in a desk chair.
You start “teaching” a lesson, but your daughter gets up and starts running around. You say, “Hey, Carla, I know you’re getting antsy. Instead of running around the classroom, would you like to stand next to your desk and try 15 jumping jacks?
I’ll tell you what–if you do it quietly, without disrupting any other kids, I’ll let you do that anytime you feel like you have to move!”
Here comes the really fun part. YOU can now play the wiggly kiddo while your child plays the teacher! Likely, she’ll repeat much of what you said, and the lesson will be doubly memorable.
This is the Role-Play tool, and it’s a fun, non-confrontational way to rehearse real-world problem-solving! And with the Role-Play tool, you are taking time to train your child what to do next time!
If you come up with a great solution or two during this practice, be sure to share it with the teacher!
Stay Calm and Carry On
Changes in school misbehavior may not happen overnight. It might be necessary to keep track of your child’s behavior and any improvements or setbacks by staying in communication with teachers and school staff.
But keep in mind during this process not to project your anxiety onto your kids, either. We often pick up kids who’ve been struggling in school and ask with nervous anticipation, “How was your day?? Did you get into trouble at school today?”
Our bated breath alone tells kids we’re worried. They feel our doubts in their capabilities drooping heavily in the air.
Without meaning to micromanage and undermine them, our questions have done exactly that.
Instead, while staying involved in our kids’ progress, we can always assume they’ve had a great day. This assures them we have confidence in their actions.
If they didn’t have a great day, you’ll know anyway, based on your communication and rapport with the school staff. Just encourage teachers to message you privately if there’s a problem. This prevents a child’s exposure to public, on-the-spot discussions that could further dissolve their self-confidence.
Seek Professional Help if Necessary
Sometimes, despite all our best, combined efforts, misbehavior stubbornly persists.
If so, there may be underlying emotional or behavioral issues that deserve to be addressed.
Don’t let this discourage you! You can seek help from a child (developmental) psychologist, counselor, or therapist. Many have strategies and interventions that can be tailored to your child’s specific needs.
When children get into trouble at school, it doesn’t mean they’re “bad.” What they really need, as opposed to admonishment, is catered care and attention.
Because positive parenting thrives on tactics that increase a child’s feelings of belonging and significance, it’s a great answer to misbehavior both at home and at school. I again encourage you and the school to work together to enact positive discipline practices.
Before long, I’m confident you’ll see a vast improvement in your student’s behavior and happiness. Because, when the idea of a “bad” kid dissipates, so does the number of their bad days.
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