Recently, my sweet kindergartener, Turkey Burger, made a bad choice at school. To protect her privacy (hehe), I won’t go into details. It shocked the heck out of us! By the end of the week, I had gained some perspective, but in the moment, I was kind of freaking out. I also have the experience of being the 3rd grade teacher making that uncomfortable phone call or filing that online report. So I absolutely know both sides of the bad-day-at-school coin. I hope my perspective can help you figure out what to do when your kid gets in trouble at school.
When your kid gets in trouble at school, pretend to be clueless.
Usually, your child will be well aware that you’ve been notified of their misbehavior. But when your kiddos are little bitty, sometimes they remain clueless. Turkey Burger had no idea we had been notified of the incident via an online report, and I asked her teacher to not discuss it in front of her at pick up.
If you have the opportunity to pretend you know nothing, take it, and see what information your child volunteers. This isn’t to gleefully catch your child in a lie by omission. The purpose of pretending to be ignorant is so that you can gain insight into how comfortable your child is with sharing their bad day.
After all is said and done, you can explain that you already knew everything. Remind your child that you would rather have heard the news from them. Tell them that they can trust you with the good news and the bad news. While there will always be consequences, there will also always be love. By the way you handle these incidents, your child will learn that they can trust you with the best and worst versions of themselves.
Believe the teacher, and then gather more information from your child.
As a former teacher, I can tell you that none of us enjoy conveying bad news about your child. In fact, some of us procrastinate or do whatever we can to solve the problem on our own or as a team. There are typically two reasons why teachers contact parents with bad news about their child’s behavior.
1) The incident was big enough that parent contact is 100% mandatory, as dictated by school leadership. This category includes hitting or other acts of aggression, ongoing bullying problems, stealing, or great big meltdowns that completely disrupt learning.
2) There is an ongoing smaller problem that the teacher is struggling to manage on her own. These incidents aren’t big enough to require parent contact or involve school administration, but the teacher is finding it difficult to manage her class with the behavior happening. Examples are excessive chatting, off-task behavior, refusal to complete school work, and drama king/queen playground behaviors.
It’s highly unlikely that the teacher is exaggerating the problem, misrepresenting the behavior or incident, or flat-out lying. It is possible that the teacher doesn’t understand what motivates your child or is unsure of the root of the problem. If you will remain open-hearted with the teacher and truly eager to work with him or her, you’ll usually find a great partner willing to collaborate and find a solution.
Give your teacher the benefit of the doubt. Then, address your child from that perspective and gather more information. Your child doesn’t need a mindless defender; he or she needs a mama that loves him enough to learn more about his weaknesses and help him grow.
Get to the root of the problem.
Finding the root of the problem isn’t so that you can ignore or excuse the behavior. Rather, you need to find the root of the problem so that you can solve it. Sometimes, this isn’t terribly helpful. For example, the root of excessive talking is just that your child is super social. That’s not something that requires solving; you’ll just need to help your child tap into some self-control. However, acts of aggression, bullying, or just occasional meanness deserve some digging.
It’s entirely possible that your child is acting out in school in ways that don’t resemble his or her behavior at home. In this case, bear in mind that the environment is totally different. If your perfect angel has a demon streak at school, investigate what’s hard about school. Is he or she overwhelmed by the crowds and noise?How s the difficulty of the work? Students very rarely act out when the work is too easy due to boredom – that’s a bit of a myth. But if the work is too hard and not properly scaffolded, many kids will shut down or lash out. Is your child finding it difficult to sit still or focus? That could definitely be the driving force behind low grades and incessant moving about the room at inappropriate times.
A Word About ADHD/ADD and the School Environment
So many parents become defensive at the idea that their child might be suffering from ADHD or ADD. Parents often fear medicine, as they worry their kid might behave as if they’re drugged or simply lose their personality. Often, horror stories from older relatives who had bad experiences with ADHD medicines influence families. Finally, parents sometimes feel that the teacher or school system simply doesn’t afford their child enough exercise.
I agree that modern school kids don’t get enough physical activity. Every campus in America would benefit from longer PE classes and more frequent recesses. However, parents need to realize that neither the teacher nor the administrative team has flexibility in this area. State laws and accountability measures around testing have created a rigid environment that punishes innovation and recreation. Most teachers recognize how counter-productive it can be to keep students still. They incorporate lots of movement within the classroom, but that’s not enough for kids who are suffering from ADHD or ADD. Unfortunately, if you want your child to have more movement in their day, you’ll need to explore homeschool or private school options.
One Teacher’s Observations of ADHD/ADD Medications
I want to elaborate on my own experience with students beginning ADHD or ADD medication. Families often recognize the truthfulness of the teacher’s assessment, but worry about medicating away their sweet baby’s personality. Still other parents don’t recognize that their child is uniquely different and requiring support to succeed at school. Yet, teachers can easily spot a kid who is very active versus hyperactive. In the worst cases, parents think they can just punish the hyperactivity or lack of focus out of their child.
I taught for four years, so I saw probably close to 10 students begin ADHD and ADD medication. In almost every case, students who previously hated school began to enjoy it. If your child behaves like a zombie on an ADHD medicine, it’s the wrong drug or the wrong dosage. Love your child well enough to explore all solutions. If you aren’t comfortable with drugs, keep searching for other alternatives, and punishing your child every night will not help. Do not settle for 8 hours a day of misery – not even for one year.
One Third Grader’s Story
One mother of a third grader that I taught last year decided to pursue medication at the end of a hard conversation. The boy’s mama bemoaned that he was such a wonderful, fun little guy with a fabulous personality, and she didn’t want to see him unhappy. I was forced to tell her the harsh truth. He was miserable in school, and just as I assumed he was miserable at home, she assumed he was happy at school.
Since I knew this same conversation had happened in both 1st and 2nd grade with his previous teachers, it was time to be very direct. “Your son is not happy in school, because he hasn’t been successful at a single task all year. He simply cannot ignore any activity around him, and when the timer goes off, he’s so sad that he hasn’t done anything. I’m worried that he might spend his entire upbringing miserable in school, for 8 hours a day and five days a week. I think solving this is an emergency.” When he started medication, the change was immediate, and I began to see his confidence grow. The speed at which this child made up lost ground was awe-inspiring. He went from the bottom 25% of the class to the top 25% in a matter of two months.
When your kid gets in trouble at school, be on Team Teacher when talking with your kid.
If it’s important to you that your child succeed in school, he or she needs to know that you’re in a partnership with the school and that you value their learning community and the other adults there. Of course, we’re always on our children’s side, and we want to be their advocate. But don’t advocate for your child to be right all the time. The better approach as their cheerleader is to advocate for their growth – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Sometimes, encouraging their progress means admitting when your kiddo screwed up.
Complaining to your child about their teacher, or belittling any of the staff members will exacerbate your problem 100% of the time. Your child will immediately know that getting in trouble at school means nothing to their adult(s). They are sure to repeat the behavior, and in many cases, they will ramp up those attention-seeking behaviors to test the limits at home. They’ll think, “Wow! I got in big trouble at school, and Mom defended me. Let’s see how far we can push this…”
If you’re convinced your child is being treated unfairly, do not convey that to him or her. Instead, privately address the matter with the teacher and do not let your child know about the meeting. See if you can sort things out behind the scenes.
Give your child tools to overcome their classroom challenges.
Parents sometimes feel that teachers are punishing their kids for normal behaviors. But normal, impolite behaviors need to be managed, too, so that kids can grow and succeed. Just because a problem is normal (for example, inappropriate chattering, interrupting, attention-seeking), doesn’t mean it should go unpunished or unresolved.
Dealing with Anger
Look for private resources, if affordable, to help your child succeed in the classroom. Sometimes kids really do need therapy to work past anger problems that keep presenting themselves in an unhealthy manner. Thanks to standardized testing and modern school accountability measures, your school counselor is not likely a great candidate. There might be little lunch meetings they can attend with the counselor and other students, but if the problem is big and scary, do not rely on the public school system.
Dealing with Perceived (or Actual) Laziness
Sometimes teachers are too worried or reserved to speak their mind when it comes to student achievement. If your child is significantly underperforming and acting out because the work is too hard, be brave enough to ask if the teacher thinks special education testing might be warranted. Obtaining special education or 504 resources can be a game changer for many kids. Realize that many students will give up on completing work if they are falling too far behind. It can look like defiance, when really it’s just frustration boiling over.
It breaks my heart when parents worry about their child being “labeled” because kids rarely know nowadays who receives services, nor do they care, particularly in elementary school. Because these students are taught via inclusion, the other students often have no idea why there are extra adults in the room. Kids miss out on so much extra help because their parents are worried about teasing, and I’ve never seen it in the modern age of teaching.
Finally, sometimes truly capable kids are simply not doing their work, and unfortunately, it really IS good old fashioned laziness. In these instances, it’s time to reinforce the concept of hard work at home. Don’t try this with their homework, though. Have your child do yard work or cleaning tasks to teach them the reward of a job well done.
Who Knows Your Child Best?
I’ve read on social media this statement quite a bit, particularly on teacher complaint posts: “No one knows your child better than you.” There is no doubt that’s true, and the teacher is missing important information about your child. It’s important to remember, however, that teachers almost always have a better sense for how your child stands developmentally.
For example, you may be aware that your child struggles with inappropriate expressions of anger, and you might know the root of the problem better than the teacher. But your child’s teacher will have a much better sense for whether the outbursts fall in the “normal” range for their age or if it’s something that warrants expert help. She’s very well acquainted with “average” in ways that a mom or dad are not. If a teacher brings something to your attention, it probably needs to be addressed in some manner.
Don’t go to the principal unless you’ve tried your best to resolve any conflict with the teacher.
There are so many parents that find one thing they dislike about the teacher, and go straight to the principal. It’s completely unfair to treat someone like that. Teachers have very challenging jobs, and communication with kids can be confusing and misrepresented. Every teacher deserves the respect to answer for him or herself before going to the boss. Addressing problems head on, quietly and respectfully, can really strengthen the relationship.
Differentiate between who your child IS and what they DID.
There are no bad kids; only bad choices. Practice saying that ALL the time, especially when you’re in the trenches! Make sure your child doesn’t internalize the idea that they are a bad kid or a bad person in the making. Here is one of my favorite videos to play for my third graders when the class had gone awry – and before any big challenge they faced. It’s motivating, kid friendly, and celebrates individuality.
Motivate your child at home with incentives that matter.
Teachers are sometimes limited with the rewards they can allocate to students who show progress with their challenging behaviors. Some that you might hear are:
- No shoes day
- Public celebrations – group cheerleading
- A special seating reward at lunch time
- A fun job, like assigning good behavior “points” to classmates who are on task
- Extra computer time at the end of class
- A trip to the prize bucket
Here’s a full list of PBIS incentives that many schools will use to motivate kids.
Teachers work hard to motivate kids, but often their own families knows their “love language” best. Perhaps it’s more time on video games, or a special ice cream outing with Dad or Grandma. Collaborate and communicate with the teacher, making sure that you’re always informed and welcoming of any information.
When your kid gets in trouble at school, give your child a consequence and a hug.
When a punishment is doled out, it doesn’t need to be in an unloving manner. He or she has already had a rough day, and some compassion is needed. After discussing the root of the problem and what led to the misbehavior, explain what the consequence will be. Think carefully about the punishment and make sure you’re never giving a consequence unless you can follow through 100%. Shortening or modifying a consequence sends a message to your kiddo that they can manipulate the outcome with whining or complaining.
Don’t forget to give your child a hug and remind them that you love them, even when they mess up. No matter your family’s approach to faith, teach your kids about forgiveness. If your family teaches the Bible, it’s especially important to use the word “forgiveness” to discuss any wrongdoing. This will give them the foundational language to continue learning about Jesus, as well. Consequences and mercy need not be mutually exclusive.
What tips do you have for parents whose kids are struggling in school?