Acting Out in School: When Your Child is the Class Troublemaker

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Detention written in chalk on a green chalkboard

Every parent of an acting-out child knows that once your kid has a reputation for being a troublemaker at school, it’s very difficult to undo that label. That’s because your child becomes the label. When the teacher looks at him, she often just sees a troublemaker.

Sadly, it’s hard to change that image because even when your child tries harder, the label is reinforced when he slips up.

And then he’s really in trouble, because not only is he still a troublemaker—now he’s seen as a manipulator, too.

We all know that teachers and other adults (including us) assign labels to kids all the time. And we know that doing so doesn’t help the problem. Labels are unfair, subjective, and stick with a child even if that child manages to change for the better.

Nevertheless, school teachers, like all of us, label kids. And that’s not going to change. Make no mistake, teachers talk and are well aware of who the troublemakers are before they get to their class at the beginning of the year. After all, it’s part of their job to anticipate and plan for the behavioral issues they will be dealing with in their classroom.

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Be Honest With Yourself About Your Child’s Behavior

I advise parents to be honest with themselves about their child’s behavior. Have an open mind about your child so that you can help the school improve your child’s behavior.

Part of what you have to do as a parent is distinguish between the label and your child’s style of functioning in school. In other words, if your child has been called a troublemaker, ask yourself what exactly that means. How does he make trouble? Does he speak out of turn in class? Is he easily distracted and bothersome to the students sitting next to him? Or is he disrespectful, threatening, or abusive?

Don’t Defend Your Child When He’s in the Wrong

It’s important to assert yourself as a parent and advocate for your child at school. But it’s just as important not to defend him when he’s in the wrong.

Understand that defending your child when he has behaved inappropriately will not help him develop appropriate behavior skills. So if your child is known as a school troublemaker and is disruptive and rude in class, you must acknowledge that.

Don’t forget, for many parents of kids with behavior problems, it’s easier to fight with the school than it is to change their child’s behavior. And when you fight with the school, you let your child off the hook instead of having him make needed changes.

Therefore, whenever possible, though it can be difficult, parents need to work in tandem with teachers and the school.

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The New School Year: Starting Off On the Right Foot

If your child is in danger of having the troublemaker label follow him from grade to grade, you’re probably wondering how to start him off on the right foot.

At the beginning of any school year, coach your child about the importance of first impressions. Let him know how important the first couple of weeks of school are in terms of getting along in class and doing well in the eyes of the teacher. Tell him that presenting himself as respectful and responsible will make a big difference for him. You can say to your child:

“Remember how we talked about what you would do differently in school this year to get along better? Well, one of the things we mentioned was that you should be polite to your teachers and not talk back. When you have the urge to talk back or be rude, what could you do differently?”

Don’t Undermine the Teacher’s Authority

If parents have a problem with a teacher or the school, they should never discuss it in front of their child. Make no bones about it, if you undermine the teacher openly at home, it becomes almost impossible to get your child to behave appropriately with that teacher.

I understand that parents won’t always agree with their child’s teacher. In certain cases, I thought my son’s teachers had some rules that didn’t make sense. My wife and I talked about it and discussed it with the teacher, but my son never knew it. That was because we wanted to uphold the image of the school as an entity that has to be respected—and one in which our son knew he had to behave respectfully.

Teach Your Child That Life Isn’t Always Fair

Don’t try to eliminate everything your child doesn’t like in life. Instead, help him manage things even when life isn’t fair. After all, there’s going to be injustice in school and life, and parents should explain that to their kids. I think it’s good to say to your child:

“That’s an injustice and you’ll have to deal with it. Life isn’t always fair.”

Some things in life aren’t fair, and part of growing up is learning to deal with that fact. There is no such thing as a school where everything is fair, and there is no such thing as a workplace where everything is fair.

Teach Your Child That School is Like a Job

In my opinion, going to school is like having a job. You coach your child through their school career the same way you might give them advice when they start a profession. You can say:

“You have to learn to get along. There are going to be good people and bad people. There are going to be good times and bad times. There are going to be people who don’t like you and people you don’t like.”

When I worked with kids who didn’t get along with their teachers, I would say:

“Look, it’s your job to get along with your teacher, not your teacher’s job to get along with you.”

A teacher’s job is to be respectful of their students and to help them learn. It’s not their job to humor kids when they’re in a bad mood or when they act out. No workplace does that. So when your child complains about his teacher, I would say:

“Whether you work at a gas station or a law firm, your boss and co-workers won’t put up with that kind of behavior. You have to learn how to get along. That’s part of becoming a grown-up.”

We all know that some of the most important criteria for success at a job are: “How well does this person manage adversity? How well does he get along with people he doesn’t like? How does he deal with supervisors who are a pain in the neck?”

We’re all going to have that in life. So the idea is to give your child the skills to get along no matter who he or she is dealing with.

When to Give Additional Consequences at Home for Behavior at School

Let’s face it: every parent whose child acts out in class gets sick of hearing from the school—even if they know their child is legitimately a problem.

Many parents don’t want to hear from the school about their child’s behavior. Rather, they want the school to handle it. But, often, the school thinks parents should be more involved in dealing with inappropriate behavior.

So when should parents get involved? I think the answer to that is straightforward. In my opinion, it depends on whether the problem is functional or relational. Let me explain.

A functional problem is an inability to follow the rules consistently. Functional problems include being late for class, chewing gum, or running down the hall. I think schools should handle those problems. It’s their school and they need to manage it. I do not think parents should give additional consequences at home for functional behavior problems.

But the whole game changes when it comes to relational problems. Relational problems are an inability to get along with others or an inability to respect the rights and property of others. Disrespect, threatening, verbal, and physical abuse are all relational problems.

If your child steals, if he’s physically abusive, if he’s threatening, if he gets into a fight, the parents need to hold him accountable and give consequences at home in addition to the consequences the school assigns.

How to Handle Functional Problems — The Inability to Follow Rules

If your child tells you, “I got detention because I was running in the hall,” the thing to ask him is:

“All right, so what are you going to do differently next time? What did you learn from this?”

Don’t give speeches. Rather, just ask simple questions that help your child clarify the situation. Don’t judge him and be as matter-of-fact as possible. Just shrug and say:

“Well, that’s life. You can’t run down the halls in school.”

And teach your child by simply saying:

“Look, you know what you’re doing. You made the choice. Now take your consequences and learn from them.”

And leave it at that. No long lectures. Just state the facts and allow him to bear the consequences of his choice to break the rules.

How to Handle Relational Problems — Disrespect, Violence, and Abuse

If your child has been caught destroying property, speaking rudely or obscenely, or hurting someone at school, as a parent you need to deal with that very strongly. Find out the facts and then let your child know very clearly that there are consequences at home for that kind of behavior in school. And the first consequence is:

“I’m not going to defend you—I’m not going to fight with the school to protect you. You need to pay the price for your actions.”

And then give a consequence in addition to his school’s consequence. For example, if your child has a fight in school and he’s suspended, I recommend no electronics for the length of the suspension. He should not be suspended from school and then be allowed to goof-off and relax at home all day.

Make the suspension unpleasant for him. If it’s not unpleasant, it’s not going to shape his behavior. The whole theory behind a consequence is that the unpleasant memory of it will shape the person’s behavior next time. So don’t undermine the school’s consequences by making the suspension a week of play and vacation for your child.

Don’t Shield Your Child From Consequences

Again, one of the things parents have to avoid is shielding their child from consequences. You’re making a big mistake if your child destroys property or assaults someone at school and you do everything you can to protect him so that he doesn’t have to face the consequences.

I think it’s okay to support your child while he deals with consequences—I would. But the more you shield him from consequences, the less likely his behavior is going to change. Let’s face it, people don’t change until there’s pressure to change. And unfortunately, that pressure often comes from negative consequences, whether it’s a ticket for speeding or a suspension for being physically aggressive in school.

As adults, we understand that people get tickets all the time for speeding. You may not like getting a ticket. And you may not think it’s fair that you were singled out. But the bottom line is that the ticket makes you look at your behavior and change it.

When a child gets in serious trouble at school, many parents become worried that it will go on their permanent record. Is that a legitimate worry for a parent? Yes. But you don’t soothe those worries by sweeping the problem under the rug.

Let me be clear: if your child assaults someone at school and doesn’t get a record now, he’s going to get a worse one later—that’s all there is to it.

Tell the Teacher What Works for Your Child

I recommend that you tell your child’s teacher how you deal with his behavior at home. If your child has a history of behavior problems, meet with their teacher early on in the year and say:

“We know that Jake can be disruptive. This is how we deal with it at home. And if there’s any way we can help you, please let us know.”

Certainly, you should tell a teacher what works and what doesn’t work at home. This doesn’t mean you’re limiting them. Instead, you’re helping them be more effective with your child’s behavior in the classroom.

So if you have specific techniques you use, share them. An example might be:

“We find Jake does his homework better when his door is open or he’s sitting at the dining room table. So he might do better in school if you have him sit close to your desk.”

Or:

“We find Jake does better at home when we get him started. So if you could take a minute to get him going on the assignment, it might work out better.”

Be sure to ask your child’s teacher how you can be helpful. Be open to what they say—they might have some great ideas. Ask the teacher:

“What can we do at home to help support you at school?”

Parents and Teachers: Be on the Same Team

Parents and teachers should be on the same team. But too often, they’re not. There was a time when teachers and parents worked together—when if the teacher called a parent, the parent genuinely worked on changing their child’s behavior. Kids were held accountable at home and their behavior was better at school. Nonsense just wasn’t tolerated the way it is today.

Things are different now. Too often, parents blame teachers and teachers blame parents. And children are in the middle and often get away with their inappropriate behavior by playing their teachers and parents off one another. Kids can be highly manipulative in this respect. A misbehaving child doesn’t want the parent and teacher on the same team.

I think the parent’s attitude should be “How can we help the teacher do their job? What can we do at home?”

Similarly, the teacher’s attitude should be “In what areas do I need the parents’ support and what is my responsibility? How can we work together to get this child on track?”

I’ve heard a lot of stories about bad teachers. I’ve met one or two myself. But, by and large, I believe most teachers are trying their best. And if you have an issue with a teacher, I recommend you go to that teacher and talk about it. And if that doesn’t work, then set up a meeting with an administrator.

Just realize that the more adversarial your relationship with the school, the more your child’s behavior is going to be unchecked. And the more the troublemaker label is going to stick. And that’s not good for your child. Don’t forget, when parents and teachers fight, nobody wins. And the result is that your child doesn’t feel he has to change his behavior at all.

Conclusion

The bottom line: support your school if your child has a discipline problem. That is what is best for your child. It may not feel best for your ego, but that is what’s best for your child. Is this a lot of work? Yes, it is. But I think parents need to try to find the time to do it.

I know that sometimes I expect a lot from parents. But kids need a lot of parenting nowadays. And often that means working with your child’s school.

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

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