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


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.”


“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.


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.

Related content:
Problems at School? How to Handle the Top 4 Issues
“My Child Refuses to Do Homework” — How to Stop the Nightly Struggle Over School Work


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.

Comments (11)
  • Eileen
    Does well for a while then gets a lot of trouble. He has an incentive chart at school and when he behaves he earns a sticker. For the most part he has been better, but when he chooses to misbehave, it's terrible. For example, he was loudlyMore repeating everything the teacher was saying while she was trying to teach. On a different day, He knocked over some crayons and crawled under the tables and threw a crayon across the room. On another day he pushed a student while standing in line.
  • Constantly in troube
    What if the child (2nd grade boy) is getting into trouble EVERY day for things specifically addressed, consequences given, and no effect? He hits, curses, lies, manipulates, throws things, threatens, and bullies. He knows he's not supposed to, his room is literally bereft of all toys (he only reads, writes,More and draws in his free time, he hasn't gotten screen time for 3 weeks (because he's never been good for even one day to earn it back). All I want is one good day to start giving him positive reinforcement, but he's always triggered to do something asinine. He can't even process consequences from a few minutes ago before he's doing the same thing again, and he's constantly trying to get away with things as soon as our backs are turned. We certainly support his teachers and administrators, and he faces his consequences every time with the full knowledge of what he did. The problem is, he seems to be tolerant of every possible consequence and unphased by positive rewards on the near horizon.
  • Maggie

    My son, almost 15, an A student, has always been respectful towards teachers. Occasionally, he comes upon one that he is like oil mixing with water. He likes upbeat, positive people. If they are seemingly mundane and unhappy, he responds to that energy in the same manner.

    Lately he has hit quite a rebellious stage. His grades in 2 subjects- failing or barely passing. Freshmen year is off to a really bad start

    I've received 2 emails from his Algebra teacher alerting me that he is being inattentive, talking in class and impeding his progress as well as others. He's in mostly honors classes, but math, not being his strong subject- he is in with some kids who really just don't take school seriously and goof around. He joind in. He's been easily distracted and the teacher is concerned with his behavior.

    I've tried numerous things. First we implemented a 9pm turn in of phones and technology. Then no phones during school week, then no phone at all (service turned off) no sleepovers. Spoke to him calmly and told him he's much better than to be disrespectful and failing. As this marking period comes to an end, I wrote him a letter. After reading a blog by a woman in a similar situation who decided to let her child fail, told him that it was his choice and he would own the consequences.

    I told him I was not going to nag him, that he knew what he had to do which involved managing his time and schoolwork. I returned his phone and xbox. Here you go. I suggested he research the schools policy on graduation requirements and that summer school is on the agenda for failing Algebra. He said he'd do better. It's been 2 weeks and his grades are all over the place. Zeros and hundreds. 30's and 85's. I've never received a negative email in his 10 years of school from any teacher. Always raving, positive comments and remarks on his maturity and intelligence ..and how nice he is.

    I do not want to blame the teacher and want to work with her to remedy this. But without knowing his history of NOT being a troublemaker, it's hard to explain I've never had this problem without seeming like a pushover or making excuses. I don't know what my next step is going to be. I thought of contacting the asst principal whom I know and like just to seek his help and to get him on board. Then I think I shouldn't bring attention to my son in case this is just a phase for fear of his being labeled. I'm so disgusted, frustrated and feel like a failure unsure if letting him deal with failure is the right thing to do. I've always advocated for him and cutting the cord to the harsh reality that this might be a life lesson, or not, is what is most disconcerting. Anyone have any advice?

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      It can be so difficult when your child starts acting out at school, and many parents struggle to figure out how to most effectively respond to this type of behavior. You are not alone. It’s great that you have open communication with the teacher, and you are willingMore to work with her to address your son’s behavior in class. I encourage you to continue to do so. In addition, natural consequences and allowing your child to fail can be an effective lesson for your son, though it’s understandable that you might be uncomfortable with this as well. Something else you might try is to talk with your son at home during a calm time about his behavior in class, and come up with a specific plan for how he can follow the rules during math. You can find some helpful information about how to do this in The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”. I recognize how challenging this must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Angelaaconcernedmom1
    My 7 year old has always strugled with being picked on..that said i have told him its okay to stand up for himself and yes if he is hit shoved down or kicked to fight back..its happened too meny times with teachers doing nothing about it. Not my son isMore arguing all the time being rude to students and very disrespectful to his teacher. I have grounded him taken away privelages made him write sentances letters of apology and apologizing in person...just about everything i can think of short of spanking...What can i do???
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      I hear you.It can be very difficult

      when your child starts to become disrespectful to others at school.I’m glad

      that you have discussed these actions with him at home, and have had him write

      sentences and letters of apology.As

      James points out in the article above, it’s also going to be helpful to problem

      solve with your son, and discuss what he can do differently next time.Sara Bean outlines how to have a problem

      solving conversation with your child in her article, let us know if you have additional

      questions; take care.

  • Sensai
    I agree with most of what you've said aside from the part that it is the child's job to get along with the teacher not the teachers job to get along with them and then you use a work environment as an example, saying a boss wouldn't tolerate an employeeMore acting out. And here in the problem lies, teachers think they're in a boss, employee relationship with the student, they're not,. Teachers are providing a service to the child. The child is their customer. This is what tax payers pay for, the teaching service. So, looking at it from a service provider position which is what it is. If a customer isn't happy, the customer is treated with respect and their problem addressed. They are not belittled and demeaned by the service provider. If the customer is wrong, the response may be firmer but it would still be minus that belittling attitude that teachers often demonstrate to children who they feel aren't co-operative. I am not saying teachers should bow to vile difficult students but they do need to be aware that they are in the service industry, they are providing the child, the parent and the state with a service. It is not a child's job to get along with their teacher. The child has no job, they're not employees of the school. They do however have an expectation to behave , follow introductions and be polite and respectful. As they're children there are mechanisms in place to address anti social behaviour. Those mechanisms should be implemented without the teacher making it 'personal' . It is the teachers job to help the child reach their full potential and start each day as a new day not to have an expectation of bad behaviour due to labels.
    • BrianaMorgan
      That mentality is what's wrong with America. Teachers are not your employee, nor are your kids their customers, because you pay taxes. That mentality over-simplifies the role of a teacher and fails to give the proper respect to their position, both, in society and in your child's life. It's aMore very entitled attitude. The reality is that a teacher's role is legitimately to prepare the children for real life. Real life has authority, discipline when that authority is challenged or rejected, leaders who are responsible for learning how to properly manage large teams of people. Individuals who cannot function in those environments without being coddled or feeling entitled do not make it. Prepare your kid for that reality or enjoy having them live in your basement until you die, miserable and complaining about how unfair life is.
      • Bella
        You seem to have a very narrow, negative outlook on children. Teachers teach to standardized tests. Teachers are compensated based on those test scores. Teacher want children to sit still, be quiet and pass with no disruption or interruption. Children experience poverty. Children experience divorce. Children experience one or bothMore parents abandoning them. Children experience stressful home lives. Children experience prejudice and racism. Children experience mental illness. Children experience a lot of things that are NOT their fault. Teachers and administrators need to be able to support children who, for whatever reason, are unable to merely sit still, be quiet and pass. If we are talking about destruction of property and physical or verbal abuse by the student, that is a totally separate matter. However, if we have a child acting out in ways that are inconvenient but not dsestructive, we still have to meet their needs. We still have a duty to ALL children, not just the children who sit quietly and do exactly as they are told. Teachers aren't tasked solely with preparing children for real life. That is a collective effort between parents, family members, friends, teachers, administrators, coaches, etc. Teachers are tasked with educating our children and developing our children's skills in an academic setting. This naturally translates to real life and in the process, these same skills can be applied to other aspects of adulthood.
      • Lily66763
        Hold on children are children not employees and not adults.... I myself am having trouble with my daughter at school with behavioral issues .... we are working hand-in-hand with her teacher and trying to solve this problem… we have taken her to a children's therapy specialist toMore find out if she has a problem and are waiting for results ....sometimes I think teachers think they should all have uniform children working together but all children are not the same and should not be labeled the same.... just because Mary thinks the skies is blue doesn't mean Tommy doesn't think the sky is pink because maybe Tommy sees pink in the sky… we teach our children to think inside the box because if they don't they're labeled differently ....we teach our children to think outside the box but when they do think outside the box that's when they're labeled different .... so we're damned if we do and damned if we don't I guess that's life…
        • NanaChel1
          I agree grandson is in process of being tested and teachers are or have labeled him already so each year he has been those who arnt cookie cutter kids
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