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 she's having strong feelings and needs a hand with getting those feelings out, or that something in school is really not working for her," says Alison Ehara-Brown, a licensed clinical social worker and school consultant in Berkeley, Calif. As a parent, you can do a number of things at home to help your child deal with her feelings. You can also change the situation in school so your child has a better time there.
How to help your child at school
Assess the situation. Start by spending time in your child's classroom (volunteer as an aide for a day or two) to see what's going on. Or have a child therapist, school psychologist, or learning specialist evaluate your child in the classroom. You could even ask a friend or relative — your child's favorite uncle, say — to go to her school for a day. Look at the teacher's teaching style and your child's learning style: Is a mismatch in the teacher-child relationship causing your child to feel misunderstood or angry? Go out to the playground at recess: Is your child being teased or frightened and then acting out in an attempt to get someone to notice she's in trouble? You may learn a lot by spending a day in your child's environment and paying attention to her interactions with the people around her.
Check out your child's relationship with her teacher. This basic dynamic can make or break a child's experience in the classroom. "Often when a child is having behavior problems in school, it comes down to a feeling that the teacher doesn't like her," says Ehara-Brown. "To be able to learn and to act well, it's really important to children to feel liked." Often it's enough just to bring the problem to the teacher's attention, but if your child somehow pushes the teacher's buttons in a way that makes it difficult for the teacher to like her. Or see if an adult who likes your child (such as a teacher's aide) can be added to the classroom; sometimes this is enough to smooth out troublesome behavior.
Work with the teacher. Just having to sit still during class is a big challenge for some children. The teacher may be open to letting your child move around or do other activities if you talk to him about it. "When one of my sons was making the transition from kindergarten, where he had a lot of space to move and play while he learned, to the older grades, he had a really hard time with sitting still and not talking," says Ehara-Brown. "One of his teachers told him that while she was talking or reading it was fine for him to draw, and once he was able to do that, he stopped getting in trouble."
Strategize. Buff Bradley, a former elementary school teacher who now runs a home daycare center, suggests setting up conferences that include you, your child, and her teacher. Brainstorm together about how to make school go well for your child. You may want to devise a signal your child can give her teacher, such as raising two fingers, when she's feeling frustrated and restless and is about to start acting out; at these times, the teacher could give her something special to do, such as taking papers to the principal's office. Or the teacher could think of a signal, such as a tap on your child's shoulder, to remind her to behave without embarrassing her in front of the class.
Give your child a break. Sometimes the daily grind of going to a place where she is not succeeding can push a child into behavior problems. If you can, try taking a day off from school and work every once in a while to do something with your child that she really enjoys, whether it's playing a Monopoly marathon, spending the day at the beach, or just hanging out in the backyard listening to the radio. Take advantage of the times when she is home sick to get close and pay special attention to her.
Help your child remember that you care about her. Knowing that she is loved can pull a child out of a downward spiral. "It can sometimes work to give your child a special reminder of you, something she can put in her pocket, like a little note that says 'I love you and you're great,'" says Patty Wipfler, a parent trainer and founder of the Parents Leadership Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. Or put a picture in her lunchbox of the two of you hugging.
Tell your child that she can decide where her mind goes. If your child is having a miserable time at school, she can think of you, or of the fun she's going to have after school, rather than stay trapped in bad feelings. A great example of this idea is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where Harry encounters some monsters called dementors who suck all the happiness out of their victims. The antidote that a powerful wizard gives Harry is to think of the best time he ever had; this allows him to gain power over the monsters.
Get outside help. If you think it's necessary, get recommendations for a good therapist for your child. Interview possible candidates on the phone, and tell them you're looking for someone who can help your child work through the emotional issues that are making her act out at school. "Tell them you're not interested in a medication approach," says Ehara-Brown, "but are looking for someone who can work with your child's teacher and the school system and give the teacher ideas on how to handle her behavior."