Behavior & Development • Oct 02, 2014

When the Back-to-School Honeymoon is over: Handling problems in the classroom

Most children are now four to six weeks into the new school year.  The initial weeks of school often are filled with excitement Classroom1about new faces, classes, and experiences as well as nervousness while getting to know the “lay of the land.” This “honeymoon” phase of school often promotes children’s best behavior in the classroom.  Over time, children become more comfortable with their new teachers, peers, and classrooms, which can result in testing of limits of teachers’ rules and increased behavior problems in the classroom. In other words, the honeymoon ends and the reality of a looming, long school year sets in!

This scenario played out at our home in recent weeks when my husband reported at the dinner table that our son’s preschool teacher was concerned he was having too many “rambunctious days” in the classroom.  While I have observed our son’s rambunctious behavior at home on more occasions that I can count, reports of his classroom behavior during his first year of preschool and the early weeks of his second year indicated that he was somewhat shy and quiet. Needless to say, I was surprised by the news that he was having behavior difficulties in the classroom.  My feelings as a mother ranged from embarrassment and shame (“His teacher must think I am a terrible mother!”) to anger (“There must not be enough structure in the classroom!”). My psychologist mind was racing with thoughts of developing the ideal behavior support plan for the classroom. In the end, my (somewhat dramatic) emotions and (somewhat obsessive) thoughts about the situation were unnecessary.  After discussion, we deduced that he might not be getting enough sleep and adjusted his bedtime accordingly. His behavior has settled down, and everything appears to be going more smoothly for him at school.

This experience of receiving feedback from school about my child’s behavior prompted me to think about the best strategies for how to approach a child’s teacher when problems develop. I think that this situation often can turn into an “us against the teacher” scenario or a situation in which parents are reluctant to speak up for fear of alienating their child’s teacher. My hope is that the strategies listed below will help to make these types of meetings more productive and collaborative, which will serve what should be the ultimate goal of helping a child have a positive experience in the classroom.

Strategies for talking with your child’s teacher when a problem arises:

1. Set up a specific time to talk

a.  If a parent approaches a teacher or vice versa at an unexpected time, the other party may be caught off guard and, therefore, may be more likely to be on the defensive.  Setting up a specific time to talk about a particular problem ensures that all involved are aware of the situation and have had time to collect their thoughts.

b. It may be helpful to set up a time outside of school hours. Teachers may be distracted by other duties during arrival and dismissal time or between classes. Parents also may not be able to focus if they are attending to younger siblings or thinking about dashing off to work. Setting aside a specific, quiet time when neither the parent nor educator has other duties to attend to ensures that all parties can focus on the task at hand. A phone call or Skype session might work well if meeting at school is challenging.

c If age appropriate, include the child in the conversation in order for him or her to present his or her side of the story. The child also will be more able to focus when speaking during a quiet time without other distractions.

2.  Acknowledge each person’s areas of expertise

a. Parents are “experts” on their particular child, including the child’s personality and situations that likely are difficult for the child.  These are important factors to consider when trying to get to the root of why a problem may be occurring in the classroom.

b.  Teachers typically have experience working with tens to hundreds of children of a certain age such that they often are “experts” in what is typical behavior for a child of a certain age.  This knowledge is useful for helping parents appreciate what types of behavior are “typical” for a child at certain ages and what types of behaviors are less common. Teachers also have a wealth of knowledge about learning strategies and classroom management techniques that help to guide interventions.

c.    A child is an “expert” on him or herself.  If age-appropriate, it may be helpful to ask the child what he or she thinks is contributing to the problem.

d.  Thinking about this type of meeting as a collaborative problem-solving effort among experts gives the meeting an air of cooperation, energy, and hopefulness.

3.  Ask for specifics

a. Ask the teacher to provide specific examples of times when the problem behavior has occurred.  It can be difficult to talk with your child about a problem behavior in the classroom if you are uncertain of precisely what the behavior is and when it is most likely to occur.  For example, talking with my son’s teacher revealed that he often was poking his neighbor during circle time.  It was much easier for us to talk with him about “poking his neighbor” and “keeping his hands to himself” than talking to him about being “rambunctious.”

b.  These specifics also may help to highlight potential causes and solutions to a problem. For example, a child who often is disrespectful to a teacher first thing in the morning may not be eating breakfast before school, which “sets the stage” for the child to be irritable.

4.   Develop a mutually agreeable, specific goal

a. This type of meeting should focus not only on identifying the problem but also on coming up with a goal for what behavior the parent and teacher would like to happen instead. This goal should be specific.  For example, a goal that states “Johnny will have a better attitude in the morning at school” is difficult to measure, because it is unclear what constitutes a “better attitude.” An alternative goal might be “Johnny will give his teacher and peers a polite greeting in the morning.” This allows the child, parent, and teacher to know what specific behavior is being measured to determine if the child is making progress.

b. It is important that the goal not expect perfection. The goal should expect a small amount of change from the child’s current performance to an improved level of performance.  For example, if a child frequently forgets to raise her hand before speaking in class, the goal might be “Jane will raise her hand before speaking in class with three or fewer reminders.” This gives the child room to make a mistake and still achieve the goal.  Over time, the expectation for the improved behavior can be increased (e.g., “Jane will raise her hand before speaking in class with one or no reminders”).

c.  Parents and the child should receive regular feedback regarding the child’s progress towards the goal.  For example, the teacher might send a note or email home at the end of the week indicating the child’s progress.  Parents and the child should talk about progress, and it is important for parents to praise the child’s effort to improve.

5.   Set up a specific time to check-in again

a. The parent, child, and teacher should set up a specific time to talk again in order to assess progress and refine the goal as needed.

b.  This check-in time provides a great opportunity to recognize the child’s progress in improving his or her behavior at school.

Hopefully, using these types of steps will allow that “honeymoon” excitement about school to return for the child, parent, and teacher!