Success in school involves being able to complete work, stay organized, get along with kids and adults, be positive about your own abilities and school, follow rules, and do your best work. But some kids with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) also may develop behavior problems that add to the risk of failure. Here are a few warning signs:

  • Your child has trouble following directions or getting along with other kids.
  • She’s discouraged or says she “hates school.”
  • She’s frequently “in trouble” in school or sent to the principa’s office.
  • None of the usual techniques – rewards, consequences, home-school communication, behavior contracts – seem to help.

What Do Kids Need?

Before we can understand children’s behavior, we must understand their needs. In addition to their physical needs – food, clothing, shelter – kids need fun, freedom, power, and a sense of belonging. If these needs aren’t met in positive ways, problems develop. In some classrooms, kids have to sit quietly and listen for long periods of time, and this can be hard for them. Sometimes, you’ll find your child just hasn’t learned age-appropriate social skills. Here are some quotes that reflect how a child might express her needs through her behavior:

  • Freedom: If I don’t get some choice in the way I work or what I learn, I won’t work at all.
  • Fun: If my teacher never cracks jokes, seems to enjoy teaching, or thinks up interesting lessons, I’ll make my own fun.
  • Belonging: If I don’t feel I’m a one of the smart kids, I’ll be one of the kids who has problems and show I don’t care.
  • Power: If I can’t be a class leader, know a lot in a class discussion, or do an assignment well, I’ll be the class clown and get noticed.

Why Do Behavior Problems Develop?

Kids with LD and/or AD/HD may not pick up on cues around them. They may not understand what teachers or other kids expect from them or how to bargain with others. They may have a hard time waiting for the teacher to call on them. They may have a problem concentrating on things that aren’t interesting to them. They may not have learned skills to be a good group member – taking turns, giving and accepting feedback, getting agreement, and compromising.

If your child with LD and/or AD/HD also has these problems, she may decide, “I’d rather be bad than stupid!” She’s figured out if she doesn’t try hard or turn in assignments, others won’t know just how difficult the work really is for her.

How Do You Find the Cause?

Think of behavior as an attempt to get something or complain about something. Since behavior is a form of communication, you’ll need to figure out your child’s message. Is she trying to gain something – attention, an opportunity to move around? Is she trying escape or avoid something – doing an assignment she doesn’t understand, sitting next to a child who annoys her? Once you understand what her behavior communicates about her needs, you can help her learn more appropriate behaviors.

What Happens Next?

After you’ve figured out the “why” of your child’s behavior, these questions will help you develop a plan of action.

  • What new skill – behavior – should your child learn to replace the problem behavior?
  • How will she learn the new behavior? Who will model (show her how to do it) – you, another child, the teacher? Where will she role play (practice) it? Who will cue (remind) her to use it?
  • What changes need to be made in the child’s environment – time of day, space, materials, interactions?
  • What reinforcer will help her use the new behavior – stickers, a special activity or privelege, praise? How often should it be given? Who should give it?
  • How should problem behavior be handled if it happens again? Are there specific words, cues, or consequences that should be used to stop the behavior quickly?
  • How will everyone (parents, teachers, and child) involved work together? How often should they communicate?

Who Should Be Involved?

When parents, teachers, kids, administrators, and other school staff develop a behavior plan together, success is more likely. Each person needs to understand his role and communicate with others involved.

Everyone, not just your child, needs rewards to keep a plan going. Send thank you notes to your child’s teacher or principal commenting on the improvements you see. Let them know they’re making a difference and you appreciate their efforts!

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