Young Kids in School: Help for the Top 4 Behavior Problems

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Having a young child in school can be a mixed blessing for parents. You might be relieved that your child is in a routine and you no longer have to organize their day for them. But if your child has behavior problems, school can suddenly become a major stress point for you, your child, and your entire family.

If your young child is having trouble adjusting to school, you are not alone. I often hear from parents who are anxious and concerned about their young kids in school.

Below are the 4 most common questions parents bring to me about their young kids in school. Most parents have experienced one of these problems. The practical advice I describe can help you to solve these problems so that you and your child have a happy and productive school experience.

1. My Child is Aggressive

“My 5-year-old daughter starts kindergarten this year and we are terrified that she will act out. She was kicked out of two pre-schools due to hitting, biting, and other problems interacting with the other kids. She was aggressive throughout her toddler years, even towards teachers. I’ve talked to her about her behavior but we haven’t seen great results as she doesn’t seem to care. What should I do?”

First, I’d like you to think of your daughter starting kindergarten as a new beginning for both of you.

For your daughter, it will mean a new school, new friends and teachers, and a new environment.

For you, it will mean beginning a new chapter in your parenting life, filled with re-gaining control of your house, letting your daughter know that you’re in charge and creating an environment in which your daughter feels safe, secure, and ready to tackle kindergarten.

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Many young children are aggressive, mainly because they don’t know how else to act in a situation that causes them stress or anxiety. Some children are naturally calm and can self-regulate their mood and actions. Others struggle with this.

Since your child acts out more, it is imperative that you assert your authority as the adult and that she knows you mean business.

This can be done in a loving manner in which you set behavior expectations and she learns how to calm herself. Start by talking to your daughter when she is calm. You can say to her:

“I’m so excited for you to start kindergarten! You will have a lot of fun at your new school. But before you begin we’re going to do some new things to make sure you have a great year.”

Then, create a rules chart for school and hang it where she can see it. Ask for her input about what the rules are and add them to your list.

Some examples can be: “No Hitting,” “No Biting,” “Be Nice to Teachers,” “Be Kind.”

Explain to her that she is a big girl now, she is starting a big girl school, and she will have to follow these rules.

Next, create a “Good Behavior Chart” and arrange colorful stickers or pens where she can place a marking each time she is caught being good at school or home.

Try using one of the free downloadable behavior charts from EmpoweringParents.com.

Using a behavior chart and stickers will encourage her to react differently and motivate her to exhibit good behavior because every kid, even strong-willed ones, love positive reinforcement.

Explain to your daughter that when school starts she will have the opportunity to place a sticker on her chart if she shows she can follow the rules.

After collecting so many stickers your daughter earns a reward, which can include staying up 20 minutes later that night, extra storytime with you, an opportunity to watch a movie, or anything that you think she would like.

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If behaviors persist, talk to the teacher immediately. This shows the teacher that you are motivated to help your daughter change. Teachers are more likely to work with your daughter and help her along if they know you are on board and taking measures to help her overcome this obstacle.

Notice when your daughter behaves nicely and praise her. It’s just as important that she knows when she is doing well as it is that she knows when she is not.

2. My Child Has a Hard Time Making Friends

“My son is going into first grade and we are really worried about his social group. Last year he was very quiet and seemed to be lagging behind the other kids in social situations, like making friends or playing at recess. He only got invited to one birthday party the entire year even though other kids seemed to be getting together more frequently for parties and playdates. This breaks my heart and I want this school year to be better.”

It is really hard to watch your child not be as socially active as other kids, especially when it appears they are being excluded. All parents want their kids to fit in and be accepted.

But I’d like you to consider a few things. First, have you talked to your son about how he feels about his social life?

Many times when kids hang out with just one or two other children parents assume they are miserable, when in fact many kids prefer one-on-one play over the manic hustle and bustle that often goes along with young children’s playgroups.

So make certain that your son views this as a problem before you assume it is one.

Second, during these tender years, many parents project their childhood anxieties onto their kids as they navigate through school.

It is not uncommon for parents, who may have struggled socially or were shy, to see their children’s social situations as problematic, when in fact it has more to do with their feelings around how they were treated by peers during their childhood.

A question then to ask yourself is, “Is this my child’s problem or mine?” If it’s your problem, don’t make it your child’s problem. Just pull back and work on yourself.

Lastly, consider that your child may simply have a different temperament than you. Introverted, reserved or shy children tend to feel overwhelmed in large groups and prefer the quieter play of one buddy.

Having said that, if your child is struggling to make friends and is unhappy, now is the perfect time to help him.

Consider inviting one or two kids over that your child connects with for after school or weekend playdates. Try to do this regularly and get to know the other parents so your child can get invited to their houses as well.

If your child wants more friends but lacks the social skills to make them, help him develop these skills. Review how to introduce yourself, how to ask someone to join in a game, or how to share. Tips for making friends can include: request a play date after school, form a team at recess, or pinpoint kids who have shared interests.

Lastly, make sure your child is not annoying other children. Many kids who lack social skills do things inadvertently that make it difficult to form friendships. Your child may be overly bossy, he may not want to share, or he may be overly sensitive to his surroundings. By gently but honestly discussing potentially annoying behaviors with your child, you can help him create a better environment for making friends.

3. My Child Can’t Focus

“My child has a hard time focusing. He’s going into 3rd-grade this year and I’ve heard there’s a lot more reading and writing and that they have to do math every night. He’d rather run around the room or color than do any of the above. Does he have ADHD and do I need to get him tested”.

There is no exact answer to this question, as it will take time to figure out if your son truly has ADHD or is just a typical 3rd-grade boy with a lot of energy.

Most boys this age prefer to run, jump and play than sit still in a classroom and learn. Nevertheless, being able to sit still is a necessary part of his development. Help him improve this skill.

Start by having a conference with his teacher. Tell the teacher about your specific concerns. This will allow the teacher to observe your son’s behavior and academic progress, input that will be imperative if you do have him assessed by a professional.

Also, if your son’s 2nd-grade teacher is still at school, see if she can join the conference to add her perspective. Whether your son has ADHD or not, the skills he will learn from you and the structure he gets from his teacher will aid him throughout his education and development.

Next, create a plan that will help your son get organized. Many times the issue for young kids with focus issues isn’t necessarily a diagnosis of ADHD, but a lack of organization. Buy him a day planner that he can write assignments, notes, or things he needs to do at home, such as getting a permission slip signed.

It helps to have the teacher sign off on his planner each day to ensure he has the right things written down or to add anything he might have forgotten.

Also, have your son clean out his desk, backpack, and cubby area once a week. Set a day each week when your child stacks notebooks, organizes pencils, throws out papers, gets rid of old assignments, and brings home water bottles or plastic containers.

At home, set aside a quiet space for your son to do school work and have the necessary materials (pens, pencils, sharpener, paper, etc.) available.

If your son is high energy, allow him a cooling-off period after school so he can run around, relax, and have a snack before he starts his work.

Try to be as consistent with his work routine as possible, explaining that he is to do his work each day at the same time. Break his work into small segments, setting a timer for each. For example, you can say:

“I’m going to set the timer for 20 minutes and need you to sit and finish your math. When the timer is done you can take a 10-minute break.”

Then set the timer again for his break. This makes homework more manageable.

As always, make sure your son is getting enough sleep each night, has minimal access to electronics and television during the school week, and has at least an hour each evening that is electronic free before bedtime.

4. My Child Doesn’t Want to Go to School

“My 5-year-old daughter never wanted to go to pre-school and now that she is entering kindergarten, not only has she said she won’t go, but she is terrified about starting at a new school with all new kids and teachers. How can I help her adjust?”

Starting kindergarten may be one of the scariest moments of a young child’s development. Most parents aren’t too crazy about the idea either.

It’s a rite of passage for a child to leave the safe, comforting nest of pre-school to enter a large school with multiple grades and larger classrooms. The good news is that most children adjust perfectly well, even if it takes a few weeks or months.

If your child has not yet started kindergarten, look into whether your child’s school has a kindergarten orientation that she can attend. Ideally, an orientation will give her a preview of the classroom as well as a tour of the school itself.

If there isn’t an orientation you can call your school, explain your child’s needs, and ask for a private tour.

Many schools arrange get-togethers for kindergartners before the school year beginning or throughout the first few months of school. Ask if your school does this and, if not, consider starting such a group. Your school should also have a list of kids in your child’s class and it could help to call a few parents and ask if they’d like to get together to help kids get acquainted before the year begins.

At home, there are many things you can do. First, talk about kindergarten in glowing terms, as in, “It’s nice that in kindergarten you’re able to have such a cool playground at recess!” or whatever benefits the school has to offer.

Try to get your child excited about becoming a “big girl” and going to a “big girl school.” You can create an “I’m a Big Girl Now” chart that lists all her new responsibilities related to going to school. Some examples are: get dressed; eat breakfast; get your backpack ready; get buckled into the car; go to the classroom every day.

Each time she completes a task on the chart allow her to put up a sticker and after earning so many she gets a reward.

Lastly, try to keep a consistent schedule at home once the school year is underway. This should include the same bedtime each evening, nutritious meals and snacks, limits on how much access she has to technology, and enough exercise through play or sports.

Conclusion

The first few years of school can be both exciting and harrowing for kids and parents alike. Experiencing a few bumps along the way is a normal part of starting something new, so make sure to give yourself a break if you and your child struggle a little in the beginning. With a little effort and preparation, you will find that you have the tools to help your child succeed.

About

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

Comments (10)
  • kattia11
    Hi what answer did you give to your 13 year old daughter if she want to pierce her belly
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      kattia11 

      Many parents wonder how to address requests for piercings

      from their teen, so you are not alone.  Many teens want to get these done,

      either as a way to fit in with their peers, or as a way to stand out as an

      individual.  This is a common aspect of adolescence, called https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parenting-teens-parental-authority-vs-peer-pressure/,

      where teens are starting to develop their own identity outside of the family

      unit.  Ultimately, it is your decision as a parent whether you choose to

      allow your daughter to pierce her belly.  Thank you for your question;

      take care.

      • kattia11
        Thank you
  • Jess

    My son turns 4 yrs old next month. He has been in daycare and preschool since he was an infant. A month ago we changed pre-schools for financial reasons and suddenly he is being written up for behaviors such as not listening, not following directions, defiance, and today they the sent hoke 3 incident reports that said he was hitting a peer and tried to hit his teacher. I would describe him as strong-willed, smart, funny, and loevable.

    His last pre-school never mentioned any problems with behavior. I just finished reading Have a New Kid by Friday and am implementing stronger rules in the house. He is strong-willed but very capable of displaying good behavior. He is an only child so I don't get to see him around peers except when we go to playgrounds and gymnastics class. He's very outgoing and friendly with all ages. I cannot believe it sounds like he might be bullying other kids at school?? Anyways my husband and I are both frustrated and concerned.

  • GinaBadalaty
    These are some wonderful tips but I'm worried that the boat has passed on making friends for my kids who have great difficulty with speech. In fact, my autistic daughter almost never speaks. Now in grade 5 and 8, they are friendly and outgoing, and kids like them, but it'sMore extremely challenging to see their friends outside of school - even with annual birthday parties. I'm not sure how to rectify this and my 8th grader is in a news school. Perhaps after school activities will help? That's only an option for my 8th grader, though.
  • Stephanie

    Hello, I am very concerned that my son is beginning to think that he is a "bad kid."  Last week 3 notes were sent home.  The first note was because he cut a hole in his shirt on purpose when the class was using scissors.  He's in kindergarten and kids will experiment with scissors.  The next day, there was a note in his homework folder that "he had a hard time following directions."  Then a couple of days later there was another note the he put twigs, leaves and other items in two of his female classmates hair.  After I calmed down, I asked him what happened.  Well.....he and the girls were playing.  One girl had grass in her hand and was trying to hug him and two other girls were trying to hug him too.  So.....they were all playing and excited and then he picked up the twigs, etc. and put it in their hair.  The teacher only chastised him (I assume she didn't know what the other girls were doing).  I spoke to my son about speaking up for himself and letting the teacher know what the other kids were doing also.  That way, the teacher would have a better understanding of the situation.  

    Well, now he tells me that he's the only kid in his class who gets in trouble.  He says that one little girl blames him for everything.  I'm pretty sure it results from 

    if he's the kid who gets in trouble the most then other kids pick up on that and point out everything he does.  I stopped asking him "how was your day" because he interpreted that to mean "were you good? did you get in trouble?"  I don't want that to be the focus of our conversations.  So......I make a point to ask "what was the best thing about your day" or "what was something fun that happened today?"  He'll answer those questions but will still go back to "I didn't get in trouble today" or "I wasn't redirected today."  

    This is a private Christian school and I know he likes the school.  But........I need him to be emotionally safe, which is why I chose this school.  I've spoken to his teacher once and she seemed receptive and did not seem to suggest that he was a bad kid.  She did say that he and one other student have to be redirected the most.  Parent/teacher conferences are in 3 weeks.  I don't think I can wait that long to speak to the teachers again (2 kinder teachers who team teach).  But......I don't want to appear overbearing and then my son be treated with contempt or disregard.  I need advice on how to approach the teachers in a way that appeals to their heart.

    • drjoanmunson

      @Stephanie

      It can be upsetting when it's your child who is acting out at school. My advice to you first and foremost is to take a deep breath and understand that your child is going through a very big transition and things will get easier!  Your son just needs time to figure out how to act appropriately at school. All kids need this. At home create a "Rules Chart" and list all the house rules (these apply outside the house as well). Some examples can be: "No Hitting", "No Yelling", "No Fighting", etc. Next to each rule, list the consequence that your child will experience if the rule is broken. These an include: "No television", "Go to bed 15 minutes early", "Favorite toy sits in time out". Each time your child breaks a rule he will have a consequence. Also create a "Good Behavior Chart" and each day that your son doesn't misbehave at school he is allowed to put a sticker on that day. After so many days (say 4 or 5) he earns a reward. This can come in the form of an extra story at bedtime, staying up a bit later, or playing a special game with one of his parents. 

      Talk to his teacher so he/she knows what you are doing at home to curb his behavior as well as so you can gain clarity about his behavior.  Ask the teacher: "When does he misbehave?"; "Who does he get along with the most?"; "Does he not get along with certain student?"; "Can he have a special job to keep him out of trouble?"; "How can you help him when he misbehaves?".  The point is to create a dialogue with the teacher to brainstorm how to best help your child. If your son's teacher tells you he is fine, just a little rambunctious, believe her. Do not label your child in your mind as "a bad kid". Each time you tell yourself this you will believe it and your focus will continue to be on all the things he does wrong and you will miss out seeing all the wonderful things he is capable of. He sounds like a perfectly normal kindergarten boy.

      Finally, most children struggle with adjusting to kindergarten. It is a very stressful time in a child's development where they have to learn how to stand in line, sit still, share, work in a classroom, and navigate through a large group of students. Praise your child when he behaves, compliment his kindness and listening skills at home, and review with him what the rules are each day before he goes to school.  Assure him you love him and you know he will be a good student.

  • Angie
    I have a six year old son he started pre school ok ( he dont want me to go with him at school/dont like to be absent and hie was doing well) now the school just started here, he is in grade 1 and new school. The first 3weeks areMore ok but the last 3weeks till now is very difficult for us, he cries a lot and doest want to go i side the room. We are escorting him everyday ( he was bullied on the first week, it was resolved and he said he is now fruends with everybody) he said he misses me and his little brother, the school is boring, the room is unpleasant to look at and he keeps on telling us to transfer him in another school, which is more further. (As per the teacher and principal he is well behave in class and very active and doing well). My fear is even weekends he always think of the school. He always cry. It really breaks my heart coz he is too little to be stress ( but im really forcing him to go to school everyday whatever it takes)
    • drjoanmunson

      @Angie

      Your son's behavior can be very normal for kids still learning to adjust to school.  It is a very good sign that once you are gone and he is in the classroom that his teacher reports that he is well behaved and very active!  Knowing that he is okay should be a big comfort to you and that his problem isn't the school so much as him separating from you when he has to each day.  First, talk to his teacher about how she can help your son when you drop him off. Can she keep him occupied and distracted so he doesn't feel so much sadness? When it is time to leave, make the agreement that the two of you will have a little ritual each day. This can include 2 kisses, a big hug, and the promise that you will be there for him after school. Make your exit quickly and let the teacher or teacher's aid escort him to his classroom. Do not walk into his class with him or linger around the school to see if he is crying. It sounds as if once he is occupied in the classroom he does just fine, so don't make it worse for him by allowing him to cling to you.  If he gets upset on the weekends remind him that everyone has to go to school and that you know he will be fine. Make light of the situation; if you talk too much with him about it he will start to think it is a bigger deal than it is. Invite his friends over from school on the weekends so he can play and form relationships outside of your home. That way when Monday rolls around you can tell him, "Won't it be so great to see your friends today?", which can distract him from missing you and his brother.  Many kids go through this exact issue, so you are not alone. By making him see that school is an important part of his life and that he has the ability to form friendships he will acclimate in time. Good luck!

  • kattia11
    Thank you Rebecca for your time and support I'm really appreciate
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