- How to Handle a Functional Problem 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 that?” Don’t give speeches. Just ask simple questions that help your child clarify the whole object lesson. I wouldn’t judge him and I would 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, “Look, you know what you’re doing. You made the choice. Now take your consequences and learn from them.”
- How to Handle a Relational Problem 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. I think you need to find out the facts and then you need to let your child know very clearly that there are consequences at home for that kind of behaviour. And the first consequence is, “We’re not going to fight with the school. You need to pay the price for your actions.” If your child has a fight in school and he’s suspended, for example, he ought to have consequences at home. I would recommend no electronics for the length of the suspension. He should not be suspended from school and then allowed to goof off at home all day. Make the suspension unpleasant for him. If it’s not unpleasant, it’s not going to shape his behaviour. The whole theory behind consequences is that the memory of unpleasantness will shape the person’s behaviour next time. So don’t undermine the school’s consequences by making the suspension a week of playing and vacation for your child.
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 very 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. “It’s your job to get along with your teacher, not your teacher’s job to get along with you.” We all know that labels are assigned all the time and that they don’t help the problem. Not only are they innately unfair, they are also subjective. In other words, one person’s view of a troublemaker is not the same as another’s. School teachers, being human, will label kids. 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 the behavioural issues they will be dealing with in their classroom and try to plan for them. Part of what you have to do as a parent is trying to distinguish between the label and your child’s style of functioning in school. So if your child has been called a troublemaker, ask yourself what 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 disruptive and rude? I always advise parents to be honest with themselves about their child’s behaviour. Yes, it’s important to assert yourself as a parent and advocate for your child at school. But it’s also vital to your child’s development that you not defend him when he’s in the wrong. Make no mistake: defending your child when he has behaved inappropriately will not help him develop appropriate skills and to become right as a person. So if your child is known as a school troublemaker and is disruptive and rude in class, it’s very important that you acknowledge that. Parents need to have an open mind about their children so they can help the school in changing their behaviour. Don’t forget, for many parents of kids with behaviour problems, it’s easier to fight with the school than it is to change their child. And when you do this, that only succeeds in letting your child off the hook, when in reality what they really need to do is learn how to change their behaviour. Whenever possible, though it’s sometimes difficult, parents and teachers need to work in tandem. 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 this year. I think that at the beginning of any school year, you want to 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. Tell him that presenting himself as respectful and responsible will make a big difference for him. You can say, “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?” As a side note, 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 at some later date to get your child to behave appropriately. 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 were there 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. 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.” The key is not to eliminate everything your child doesn’t like in life; the key is to help him manage things even when life is difficult. After all, there’s going to be injustice in school and in life, though few parents acknowledge or talk about it with their kids. I think it’s good to say, “That’s an injustice and you’ll have to deal with it.” Because in fact, some things really aren’t fair in life, and part of growing up is learning to deal with that fact. When I worked with kids who didn’t get along with their teachers, I would often 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 humour kids when they’re in a bad mood or acts out. No place does that, so when kids complained about their teachers, 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 behaviour. You have to learn how to get along, that’s part of becoming independent.” In fact, some of the most important criteria for independence 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. Consequences: Should I Give Them to My Child When He Gets in Trouble 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. Parents don’t want to go to work and hear about their kids during the school day; they want the school to handle it. And the school thinks parents should be more involved in dealing with inappropriate behaviour. 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.” A functional problem includes being late for class, chewing gum or running down the hall. I think schools should handle those problems; that is their community, and they need to manage it. I personally do not think parents should give more consequences at home for those types of things. But the whole game changes when it comes to relational problems. These are problems that have to do with inappropriate behaviour towards people or property. If your child steals, if he’s physically abusive, if he’s threatening, if he gets into a fight, parents need to hold him accountable and give consequences at home in addition to the consequences the school assigns. Again, one of the things parents have to avoid is insulating their child from the natural consequences of their behaviour. If your child destroys property or assaults someone at school and you do everything you can to protect him so he doesn’t have to face legal consequences, I think you’re making a mistake. I think you can support your child through those consequences—I would. But the more you insulate him from the natural consequences of his actions, the less likely those actions are going to change. Because let’s face it, people don’t change until there’s pressure to change. And unfortunately, that pressure often comes from negative consequences, whether that’s for a speeding ticket or for being physically aggressive in school. We understand that fact as adults in society: people get tickets all the time for running lights and for speeding. You may not like getting a ticket, you may not think it’s fair. But the bottom line is that it makes you look at your behaviour 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 one later—that’s all there is to it.