With a new school year approaching, it’s time to start thinking about helping our children be as successful as they can be. That includes resisting the temptation either to push children beyond their means so they fear never meeting up to expectations or to neglect staying involved so they feel unimportant. In other words it means meeting your child where he is—be it deep in anxiety and school resistance or excited for new challenges.
Meeting our children in the present is often the toughest job for a parent. Fears keep us setting expectations for the child we want rather than the child we have. Fully accepting what is puts us in a more influential place.
In my book, Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With, one principle states, “Behavior is your clue”. Behavior is what we have to tell us how our children are doing—whether or not they feel in balance with themselves and with their world. When a child feels balanced, her internal needs are met and her behavior reflects that balance. When a child is behaving unacceptably, it signals an unmet need. In other words, the child is having a problem not being a problem.
When we use external motivators like sticker charts and prizes or withdrawing privileges and isolation to try to motivate “good” behavior, we ignore the cause of the behavior, the underlying motive. We simply manipulate behavior. So unless a child is already in balance or will do what you want to get the prize, the behavior management trick will not work; at least not for long.
Another principle in my book is, “All children want to be successful”. This means all children are born intrinsically motivated to please the most important people in their lives and to do the right thing—no matter what. Rewards and punishments ask them to ignore their natural, intrinsic motivation and shift focus to external motivators because we don’t have the patience for or the understanding of their developmental and temperamental needs. We simply ask the child to ignore his needs to meet ours. Hence we set them up to be unsuccessful.
In order for success in school:
- Be considerate of the match between your child and the school environment—don’t force square pegs into round holes. Sometimes changing the environment and its expectations can strongly affect the child’s behavior.
- Advocate. If your child cannot be placed in the ideal environment, these two principles can keep you focused on how to lobby for your child’s best chance at success.
- Remember that children do well when they can. Don’t get stuck in the traditional perception that disruptive behavior is on purpose, disrespectful, and oppositional. If your child is not doing well, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to, it means she can’t. Her behavior will tell you.
- Set expectations considerate of your child’s temperamental, neurological, and developmental needs. Do not assume you can change your child’s innate biology to suit you or the school.
- Do not use or endorse external motivators. Manipulating behavior encourages children to answer to extrinsic cues—you may get behavior you want but only as long as the cue is present and feared or desired. Punishment increases internal, unmet needs, and rewards work only as long as the external cue is desirable. After awhile the child loses trust in her own internal cues.
School behavior problems often stem from a child’s conflict between their own intrinsic regulators and the expectations of the setting the child is placed in. A child needing activity and stimulation does not do well where he is expected to sit still for long periods of time. An introvert who needs solitude and calm has a hard time in a roomful of rambunctious children. Not to mention the expectations of a child who learns differently from 90% of his class.
Nothing makes a child happier than to perform well and meet expectations. Make sure those expectations are set for success and are not a setup for failure.