- “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 clinical social worker and school consultant.
While children can display a wide range of behaviour problems in school, from disruptive talking in the classroom to fighting and name-calling on the playground, the reasons for bad behaviour 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 clinical social worker and school consultant.
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.
“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
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 behaviour problem; these things just happen.” Punishment for bad behaviour 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 behaviour in school (and with his friends and with you) will most likely be profoundly better.
Stay close to your child. You can always help your child have a better day at school if you take time for closeness. 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 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.