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.
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.”
“Listening to Children,” by Patty Wipfler, Parents Leadership Institute, $7. A series of six booklets describes how to work with your child to relieve his fears, frustrations, and anger. Topics include “Special Time,” “Playlistening,” “Crying,” “Tantrums and Indignation,” “Healing Children’s Fears,” and “Reaching for Your Angry Child.” Other books and videotapes are also available, as well as classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses: The Truth About Ritalin, ADHD, and Other Disruptive Behavior Disorders, by John Breeding; Bright Books, 1996. $16.95.
How to Talk So Kids Can Learn: At Home and in School, by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish, et al.; Fireside, 1995. $13.
The National Institute of Relationship Enhancement offers classes in filial therapy, a branch of family therapy that teaches parents how to use play to help their children.