Ask An Expert / Behavior Problems

My 6-year-old son is in trouble for being defiant in school, but we don’t see any of this behavior at home. What can I do?

Working with the teacher on a reward plan may improve his behavior at school

Matthew H. Rouse, PhD, MSW
Matthew H. Rouse, PhD, MSW

Clinical Psychologist, ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

My six-year-old son is having a lot of difficulty in school. He has been suspended for two days, had to be picked up, and is now in in school suspension. He is defiant, gets mad, and loses it by throwing things, hitting, and refusing to listen. He does not do this at home. He argues a little and sometimes, when first told to do something, he may say he doesn't want to, but quickly does it after. We have never seen him hit a kid. I have sat in the classroom and never seen him do this. The school is fed up and wants me to "fix him." I have tried punishing him, signing him up for counseling, taking away toys, rewarding good behavior, and nothing is working at school. The problem is the things he does at school he doesn't do at home so I can't teach him. I will take any advice I can get.

This seems like a difficult situation. It’s unfortunate that you’re feeling pressure from the school without the offer of much support. Overall, it sounds like your instincts towards rewarding his positive behaviors and getting him connected with mental health are spot on. There’s evidence that your parenting skills are effective, because he’s behaving well at home. That’s great!

In order to extend the good thing you’ve got going at home into his behavior at school, you first want to make sure that these behaviors don’t have something to do with an underlying learning issue. Sometimes kids with undiagnosed learning problems become so frustrated that they lash out or melt down. Sometimes they act out to avoid having to finish something difficult, or to get out of a class or activity that’s particularly hard for them. You want to make sure a learning problem is not what’s driving your son’s behavior.

Second, it would be great to talk his teachers about implementing some kind of coordinated reward plan contingent on his behavior in school. Focus on only a couple of specific behaviors you would like to see, for example “Staying in seat during class.” Ask teachers for feedback on how well he’s doing these behaviors throughout the day in school. Each success earns points towards some kind reward that is meaningful to him, whether it’s time on the computer or something else that you and he agree on. Also, don’t take away points for misbehavior; stay focused on the positive behaviors. With this kind of system in place, you will get a good idea what’s going on every day and he will be motivated to improve his behavior in school. The frequent communication with his teachers, will show them that you’re actively trying to do something about his behavior. They’re likely to be a lot more understanding and take some of the pressure off you to “fix” him.

Finally, you might also investigate whether there is a mental health professional at the school, a social worker or a psychologist, who could assess your son’s behavior, consult with his teachers, and assist with ongoing tailoring of the behavioral plan as his behavior improves. Since you can’t be there to observe firsthand, a professional in the school could be your eyes and ears and advocate for your son to make sure that he’s getting the kind of praise and reinforcement for good behavior he needs from his teachers.

These strategies are very effective, so I would encourage you to trust your instincts, be patient, and stay the course!