It’s a very curious thing that as parents, we are all very aware of who “that kid” is in our child’s class. The one who bullies the others, gets into fights, never does their homework, and talks back to adults for whatever reason, that kid. And yes, we are eternally grateful that ours is not that kid.
The saddest part of this oh-so-common tale is that there’s a family in it. There are loving parents or guardians who would walk to the ends of the earth to change the way people view their child, and more importantly, they would probably give up a kidney in exchange for their child not being that kid. What happens when you’re that parent, and all you want is for your child to get through the day without detention, a red slip, a visit to the principal, or that dreaded phone call home?
At some point or other, we’re all going to receive that phone call. The clipped tones in the receiver immediately tell us that trouble is well and truly afoot, and we just know our much-loved offspring are right at the center of it. Along with the phone call comes that heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach as you realize that what started as a perfectly good day has been completely been ruined. You also know the ramifications will extend into the days that follow because you will obviously support the school and deal with it at home, too.
Some 30 years in education have taught me a few things, but perhaps the most important one is that in most cases, children’s negative behavior is not random, unprovoked, or the result of a child being “bad.” It’s a response to something, like a feeling, words, or actions. Our job as educators is to get to the bottom of it in a fair manner.
There are two sides to a story
However, fairness and justice can quickly get sidelined in a busy classroom. We also know a child with a reputation for getting in trouble doesn’t always get the full measure of fairness. If you’re the parent of a troublesome child, these words will be resonating with you. Let’s explore how we can support the school and its behavior expectations, but most importantly, advocate for your child and ensure they have a safe space at home.
A very good friend of mine tells the tale of getting a call from the principal to come and pick up her 10 year old son Sam from school, as he had just punched a kid and there was blood. My friend was deeply embarrassed about this on two levels. Aside from the matter of her son hitting another student, she’s a well-known child resilience expert and had done a lot of training with the school staff.
Upon arrival, she was told at length how wicked Sam was and how unacceptable his hitting other students was. My friend, of course, agreed wholeheartedly with the second point, but she wanted to hear Sam’s side of the story. She asked if any of the staff had inquired as to why Sam had hit the other child. As expected, there had been much talking “at” Sam but little interest in his account of the events.
I think what she did is the wisest thing we can do as parents. She asked her son to tell his story, and believe me, it well and truly deserved to be heard.
There was history between these two boys. The “victim” was a kid who hated to lose and always wanted to be in charge. On this occasion he had pushed his luck a bit too far. A group of students had been playing “King of the Square,” a popular playground ball game, and Sam was having a run of success. This didn’t sit well with the “victim,” and he made it his business to interfere and disturb the course of the game over several days.
As frustration built up, Sam began using some of the strategies his mom had taught him for dealing with difficult playground situations. He had invited the disruptor to join in with a reminder of the rules his group were following. When this didn’t work, they chose to play in another area. Failing again to secure peace, Sam had calmly told the “victim” to please leave him and his friends alone.
Having eventually exhausted the options his mom had given him, Sam employed the final strategy-seeking help from an adult. He approached the teacher on duty and tried to explain what had been going on only to be told to “go and sort it out.” That he did and rather categorically, you might say. Now, while I agree Sam shouldn’t perhaps have hit the other student, he had tried every strategy he knew without success.
Unlike many kids, Sam had learned a range of strategies for dealing with playground issues. He knew how to behave without appearing to be a bully or a victim and the right words to use when asking someone to either join in properly or walk away. Sam also knew that at times, it’s easier to step back rather than keep trying to tackle the problem. Most importantly, he knew to seek help when he couldn’t do it.
How to deal with a child acting out at school
As the parents of “that kid,” it’s important to be honest with ourselves, too. If our child struggles on the playground, in the classroom, or in any social situation, we really need to explore this. We should be able to advocate for our child from a position of strength. Being told your kid is naughty, disruptive, violent, rude, aggressive, or some other unpleasant thing is absolutely heartbreaking, but believing it is not an option. So, what to do?
1. Be your child’s greatest advocate
When a child has done the wrong thing, they generally know it. They’re aware they have let people and themselves down. It is important though that they know you’ll leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of the issue and hear their story.
2. Understand their needs and support them
We must always remember that our children’s behavior reflects a feeling. Make every effort to find out what triggers your child and what situations they find difficult. Is it playing ball on the playground, transitions between lessons, sitting on the mat, or struggling to remain engaged at their desk? Left unchecked, these little things can cause big problems for our young ones as they navigate the minefield that is school.
Don’t despair if you find that your child struggles with one of the above. Each of these is fairly easily solved with supportive interventions that your child’s teacher should be able to implement with relative ease. If you’re unlucky and have one of those rare teachers who will always blame the child, then you may want to suggest strategies of support you’d like to see implemented.
3. Teach them specific social skills
Teaching particular social skills is critical for the success of children with behavior problems. Using the information about their needs, work out what they should know. You may want to consult books on teaching kids how to read and respond to social cues and situations, such as The Whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind and Real kids in an unreal world: How to build resilience and self-esteem in today’s children.
It will require lots of practice, and you might feel like a goofball doing role-play about sharing, but it will give your child the valuable practice they need to succeed. If you notice they are really experiencing difficulties in situations that involve communication and socialization, consider talking to your doctor and see if there are support groups that deal with these issues.
4. Have consistent expectations
Children with behavioral problems benefit from clear and consistent boundaries. Keep a regular routine at home with plenty of sleep, a good diet, and limited access to digital technology, especially before bed. In this way, you can rule out sleep deprivation and food intolerances as contributors to behavior. Something like a visual chart can really help children remember what’s expected of them. When they get older, a simple list on a post-it note can be just as effective.
In the past, I thought I had consistent expectations at home, but in reality, I was simply barking out orders. Using a list system definitely made my life easier. In my professional life, I’ve been creating visual timetables for 16 years, so I guess the proof is in the pudding.
5. Have open dialogues with all parties
There are many people at school who can make a difference. By having a discussion with your child, you can find out which adult they like, sometimes even why. I’d venture to guess your kid likes this person because they are kind and see the child, not the behavior. There will be other people who, while not directly involved in your child’s classroom teaching, also act as strong advocates for them.
You need these people, and you need to point them out to the school leadership. Even a person on the “inside” can guide your child to success, and every little success makes a difference. Things you could ask them to do include acting as a mentor, offering time with them as a reward to play relational games (games that implicitly teach turn-taking and sharing), being someone the child can go to when they’re struggling, or just checking up on the kid every morning to ensure all looks good for the day.
6. Reflect on what your child has experienced
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) also play out in the school. Remember you are not at fault. Losing or separating from a partner, being a victim of violence, or battling a mental health condition is not a pathway you would have chosen for yourself, let alone your child.
These experiences, however, will truly have an impact on your child at school. Fortunately, educators are becoming aware of trauma on the brain, too. If your child has experienced one or more adverse childhood experience, have an open conversation with someone you trust at their school, as tough as this may be. Share the parts of the story they need to know and discuss what they can do to help. Put them in touch with agencies that work with your child. This will provide a more holistic approach to offering support at school and at home.
Finally, here’s the most important piece of advice. Your little one struggles. They will make progress, but they will still make mistakes. Celebrate the progress and reflect on the mistakes. Unlearning being “that kid” is a tough business, but with support, guidance, and, above all, love, your child will emerge a much happier, content human being.