Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

My 5-year-old is being disruptive towards the end of the school day. What can I do to help him?

Positive reinforcement for good behavior is key

Samantha P. Miller, PhD

My five-year-old started kindergarten this fall. He had a wonderful first month and now he's being disruptive, towards the end of the day. His teacher says that when she asks him to do things such as "join the rest of the class for reading" that he's yelling "no!!" and doing things like pounding on the table or stomping his feet. He eventually does join the class but it's on his own terms. His teacher has tried pulling him out of the class and talking to him in the hall and redirecting him, to no avail. On the class's reward chart, once his pin has moved down he will either give up and continue his behaviors or do one or two good things and expect his pin to move up. Now, I have tried discipline with timeouts and withdrawing privileges and things like that. What else can I do to help him?

The fact that your son doesn’t have oppositional behavior at other times of the day is a great sign and something to build on.

Many schools prefer to assign the bulk of the day’s academic work in the morning because that’s when many kids can concentrate best. It’s possible that your son might be feeling very tired after lunch and that’s why teachers are noting more difficult behavior during that time of day. For some children in this age range it can take a lot of stamina to keep going. They are getting used to a daily schedule without naps or significant rest periods.

The first thing I would recommend is to leave any punishing of school behavior to your son’s teacher. Reacting to a disruptive behavior several hours after it occurs is unlikely to improve it, but it will make the home environment seem more negative. Punishments aren’t motivating by nature, and I would recommend a strategy that focuses more on prevention, cheerleading, rewards and incentives to help keep him going throughout the school day.

Some kids feel empowered by having a responsibility or a special job. Talk to his teacher—maybe she could make him her special helper, especially during the after-lunch-slump. For example, he could be in charge of bringing all the books to the rug during reading time or maybe he could be the one who sits right next to her and is the first one to talk about the picture. I encourage a dialogue with the teacher to brainstorm ways to incentivize participation and good behavior.

Carefully designed reward charts (which clinicians call “Daily Report Cards”) used during a specific challenging time, like the afternoon, are helpful because they are designed to increase motivation and focus on specific behavioral targets. Assessing his overall behavior (rather than a specific target behavior like “keeping hands to self”) might be too vague for a child of your son’s age. Chart systems work best when children understand the specific behaviors the teacher is looking for. If he knows his pin will move up if he comes to the rug quietly, he’ll have more of an incentive to do that.

Also, seeing his pin going down could be very discouraging. It would be better if the teacher focused on cheerleading specific behaviors at a specific time of day using a reward-based system (one where he earns prizes or privileges rather than loosing pin height on the wall). This would increase his motivation and make him feel good when he starts seeing his pin move up in the afternoons, instead of always down.

Finally, stay calm and try to be open minded about what your son is telling you he needs at the end of the day. He is still very young. Teachers willing to work with kids on these issues can prevent a child from loosing interest in school or specific academic subjects, like reading. Also, keep in mind that these little adjustments in schedule or reward systems don’t need to continue forever. Once a child is motivated and confident, positive behavior often becomes self-motivating, and then no extra encouragement is necessary.