Does your child fit with his school?
Q. Our feisty 5 yo is not settling into school too well, and we have to attend meetings with the teacher due to his misbehaving ways. When asked why he acts out, ie: drawing on walls, running away from the class, ignoring instructions etc, he says, “because I felt like it”. This is quite concerning as he attends a Catholic School and is raised by a practising Catholic mother with very loving and devoted parents. He does not seem to understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s position. We are at a loss after trying to talk to him and discuss alternative ways of behaving with no positive results. Another concern is his lack of concentration as he has approx. 4 mins. of attentiveness before he loses interest and proceeds to do what he wants to do, sometimes ignoring instructions and/or consequences. I have been doing some research and strongly believe he may need some assistance with self-regulating. Do you have any suggestions as to how we can help our strong willed, stubborn child who is loved very much. We very much want him to enjoy school rather than say he hates school and doesn’t want to go?
A. Keep in mind that your son is only five and should not be expected to consider another’s position for several more years. This sounds like a misfit of child and environment. Our job as parents is to provide environments that meet our children’s needs, not the other way around. Your son sounds like a perfectly normal, active, distractible boy. His “misbehavior” shown as running off, not listening, drawing on walls indicates that he is being asked to do what he cannot do at this point. Teachers well versed in child development will know how to engage kids like this – he is by far not the only 5 year old who is not ready to settle down in a structured environment.
The structure of this school may be too restrictive for his needs. If his teacher has unrealistic expectations for him, he will not be able to meet them. They are calling it “misbehaving”, which tells me they must make him change. He will naturally act out in reaction to that. His response, “Because I felt like it” is quite logical. A 5 year old who feels pushed to do what he can’t will naturally find a way to do what he wants — until that aspect of him is punished enough that makes it not safe for him to do what he wants.
What you can be sure of is that he has a hard time sitting still and listening, so he uses his imagination to amuse himself. The problem comes when that doesn’t work in his environment. But isn’t that what we want for our children — to think creatively and imaginatively to solve problems. Of course he can’t do whatever he wants but imagine if his teacher put paper on the wall for him to draw on, other children as well, instead of getting yelled at, criticized, blamed, given consequences, all of which causes him to feel bad about himself, which exacerbates his behavior. When he learns he is bad, he will continue to behave badly. When appropriate expectations are held for him — that he can’t sit still yet like some of the other kids, he needs something to keep his body moving, etc. — then he will respond more cooperatively because he will feel heard and understood. If he cannot hold his attention longer than 4 min., put him in a school environment where that is okay, not one that forces him to be attentive longer than he can be. If his needs are met now, he will be able to regulate himself and follow rules as he gets older. You will have more success if you put him in an environment that accepts who he is rather than who you or the school wants him to be.
He may be loved very much but is he accepted? Do you and his school accept that he is a very busy, distractible, imaginative, 5 year old who cannot yet sit still and keep his attention focused for longer than 4 minutes? Or are you trying to get him to change and be calm, quiet, and attentive? I know you don’t want him to change, so find an environment that understands his perfectly normal, albeit hard to manage, temperament.
Disrespect at School
Q. My 9 year old son is smart, creative and very stubborn. He hates school, refuses to even try, disrespects the teachers and acts out in anger if they try to make him do his work. He is more than capable of getting As on tests but usually gets Ds because he just stares out the window instead of doing his test. He doesn’t do any of his school work during classtime so we have to spend a few hours with him every night catching up on his homework. He is well behaved and lovable when he’s doing something he enjoys but seems to think that if he’s bored, he doesn’t have to try. My husband and I have tried everything to help him realize that, even if he doesn’t enjoy school, he needs to still do his best. We praise him when he does well and try to acknowledge everything he is good at. We have also withheld privileges when he behaves inappropriately at school. Nothing works. He is now meeting weekly with a school social worker. Hopefully he will develop some coping skills. My problem is this – even though we are working very hard to help him be successful, I feel really judged by his teachers. They know he is meeting with the social worker (at their request) but they still phone me to complain about how difficult he is. I just want to burst into tears when I get those calls because I feel totally powerless. Can you give me any tips for how I can handle this?
A. I completely empathize with how powerless you feel when teachers call to complain. I imagine they feel powerless too since your son is not compliant with their wishes. Easy for me to say, but I think everyone needs to listen to what your son is trying to say. It sounds like he’s saying that this school is not the right place for him. Do you have any other options. (see the Q&A above about school fit.) Unfortunately many parents do not have options.
The problem with our mainstream parenting/teaching culture sees his resistance, defiant behavior as him being bad, doing it wrong. So we try behavioral techniques to change the behavior rather than looking to the inner emotional state that is causing the behavior. My guess is that he is responding disrespectfully to his teachers because he feels disrespected (unheard, unimportant) by them. If you feel judged by them, imagine how he feels.
He is smart and he is bored, and his nature will not comply with what offends him — he’s what I call an Integrity Child. But even when bored, children will work for someone who respects and believes in them. He is not happy nor engaged, and is being told that is not okay. When you withdraw privileges you are telling him “Don’t be yourself” and that your acceptance of him is conditional on doing something that his integrity cannot stomach. He will not respond well to that.
What he needs is to know that you hear him and that you want to work together to find a way for him to deal with this school that you know is not meeting his needs. When you tell him that “even though…he still needs to do his best”, you are not listening. You need to start where he is. “You hate your school experience and that must truly suck.” There is no “but” about it. He’s a smart kid and sees through your attempts to tell him what he needs to do. He hears you saying, You have to do it our way. True empathy is seeing his experience through his eyes.
Share your frustration that you feel judged as well. When you show compassion for his problem, and acknowledge the disrespect he feels at school for who he is without trying to change him, then you can talk about the importance of showing respect even for people we don’t like. A different school or home schooling has the potential of making the difference for all three of you—not always an option. Let him know that you find yourself in a predicament with the school that does not feel helpful or supportive and that you have been trying to get him to be compliant to help you with that predicament, and you see that is not helping him.
Then give it time for him to trust that you care more about him than the school. In the meantime, let his teachers know how judged you feel and that you are switching your focus to understand him better rather than pushing for compliance.
Q. Do you have suggestions for my 10-year old daughter who has panic attacks during tests/exams? She is generally a happy, outgoing person but tends to flounder faced with adversity and has self-esteem issues. She specifically has panic attacks during assessments at school, which obviously affect her performance. Although she is very able and should in principle do well, during tests she freezes when she cannot immediately answer a question, gets stressed when others are faster than her, and stops functioning altogether. Can you suggest coping techniques she could practice?
A.Wow this sounds like me! Many children do well in school and panic when it comes to testing. Your daughter will only have self-esteem issues if she believes she is wrong or dumb for being the way she is. The best you can do for her is to assure her she’s perfectly normal. I’m not saying you do this, but DO NOT try to reassure her that “everything will be fine, and she will do well if she just relaxes”. That sends the message that you don’t get it, and she is alone in her worry, which exacerbates the panic.
Point out to her that FEELINGS of anxiety stem from her THOUGHTS. When she thinks, Here it comes, I’m going to fail on this test, she will naturally panic and then clutch. Help her identify the thoughts she has at the time panic hits and how she has control over her thoughts. For instance, “I’m going to fail this test” could change to “I’m feeling really nervous right now.” “Everybody’s going to beat me” could reframe to “I tend to be slower than some of the others. That’s okay.” She must keep it truthful and factual – something she can believe, rather than “I’m going to do just fine.”
The goal is to take the edge off, not to be completely confident going into an exam. Panic can change to nervous. And everybody feels nervous. She could write some reframed thoughts down and read them at the time. You can make suggestions but don’t tell her what she should do and don’t expect her worry to disappear.
Your job is to understand her, not make it go away. Don’t take her pain personally. It’s important for you to know that this is her problem, not yours. If you are upset about it, your upset makes her problem worse. Then she has your upset to deal with too. Your job is to understand her dilemma and to give her support — a non-judgmental, non-advice-giving shoulder to cry on, a compassionate sounding board to unload on. Every time she gets through it, she builds resilience. You must trust that for her.
You might also point out that the reason she gets panicky is because of the high expectations she holds for herself. She cares very much about how she does. Point out the obvious positives — she will never settle for mediocre, she will always strive to be better — and then add the downside — she will be very hard on herself — something she can work on over time.
Mindfulness meditation practices can help. The two of you could practice together a few minutes a day.
Of interest – 12 Ways to Encourage School Motivation
Getting your kids out the door in the morning is enough to ruin your day. Remember these 8 points:
- Get yourself up in enough time to be relaxed and mostly focused on the kids.
- If you wake your kids, allow time for hugs and an easy transition from sleep to awake.
- Do not expect your child to WANT to leave home. Many children have difficulty with transitions. Fine after they get there. Difficult getting there.
- Talk with your child about all the things she needs to get done in the morning. i.e. brushing teeth, playing, eat breakfast, etc. Make a list out of order. Let her put them in the order she chooses. You can object but let her take the lead. Then list them on a dry erase board with a check box next to each that she can check off as accomplished.
- Do as much the night before as possible — set out clothes, gather everything for the backpack, put sports equipment by the door, make lunches.
- Do the best you can to not RUSH. Kids hate to be rushed.
- When they dawdle, resist temptation to criticize and nag. Getting out the door on time is your agenda, rarely their’s (altho some are hyper-sensitive to being on time – if so, you don’t have a problem here!). They need motivation to help you out with YOUR agenda.
- For kids who have an especially hard time leaving, about 5 min. before hand, ask your child, “What is one more thing you’d like to do before we have to leave?” “Is there something you’d like to get to take with you today?” Giving them a choice gives a bit of control to a child who feels powerless to do what he wants.
To submit a question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your short question and I will answer you within a few days. It may appear in the newsletter at a later date.
The When Your Kids Push Your Buttons Audio Course
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why did I DO that??”
Wish you knew what else to do?
- Understand your reactions and gain control of them
- Interpret your child’s behavior
- Set appropriate expectations
- Defuse your buttons