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Ask the Experts

What Can I Do About a Child Who Disrupts Class?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

Do you have any suggestions on what to do when there is a child in the classroom who has disruptive behavior two to five times a week? This child uses unacceptable language, screams and yells, throws objects, and takes things from other students while they are at center time. He does not demonstrate remorse for the language he uses or the behavior he displays.

Answer:

Disruptive students can negatively impact the entire class, eliciting fear, resentment or even imitation from others students. Teachers can become frustrated as their attention is repeatedly focused on the child who acts out, rather than the entire class. There are a few ways to approach this issue, depending on your level of involvement.

  • If you personally witnessed these behaviors (i.e. when volunteering in the classroom, assisting the teacher or participating in classroom activities) then a conversation with the classroom teacher to express your concerns seems in order. What has he noticed? How are the behaviors handled? What is the behavior plan for this child? Is there anything that you should do to help?
  • If you are a parent and your child is coming home and complaining about the disruptive child, then take some time to discern what your child is really upset about. Is he afraid that something bad will happen? In that case, it's a safety issue; provide reassurance and refer to the third option below. Is he annoyed because the disruptive child appears to get away with "bad" behavior? In that case, talk about the importance of following rules and treating others nicely.
  • If your child is afraid or has been harmed, don't hesitate to speak with the teacher and/or the school principal about your concerns. Safety is a primary concern in the school environment, and behaviors that put others at risk should not be tolerated.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/2/2010:
"You missed another group... What if YOUR child is the disruptive one? I'm very embarrassed, but I'm afraid that's the situation I'm in. Please add that as a bullet point."
10/21/2009:
"My 3yr.old, Grandson is allowed to play Wii, and I have noticed hime becoming very emotional and upset when he doesn't win."
03/19/2008:
"Could you provide some assitance for my Kindergratener who always has so much to share with his class. He is always so eager that he ends up talking out his thoughts, answers, and questions before raising his hand and or being called upon. His Kindergarten teacher is on the strict side and not accepting of this type of behaviors from a Kindergartener."
03/10/2008:
"I WORK WITH A CHILD AT SCHOOL WHO JUST DOESN'T CARE AND IS VERY SMART BUT DOESN'T SEEM TO FOLLOW DIRECTIONS WHEN THEY ARE GIVEN ALL THE INCENTIVES AND TELLING HER USE YOUR WORDS SHE CONTINUES TO WHINE AND SAY I HATE THIS SCHOOL AND I DON'T LIKE YOU I WISH YOU GO AWAY THIS IS SOMETHING NEW IT'S NEVER BEEN THIS WAY FROM BEGINNING OF SCHOOL ANY SUGGETIONS OR IDEAS OR INCETIVES THAT WILL NOT BORE HER A CHANGE I GUESS"
10/11/2007:
"I wish I had feedback, but the child you're almost discribing above is my son.He has a lot of difficulty controlling his talking, interrupting the teacher and others and using appropriate volume. He does not Keep his hands to himself.Witnesses have seen him pester others until they are upset by stepping on toes and pinching and messing with their hairand getting in their face.when asked to stop bothering others, he pouts and folds his arms and refuses to obey further instructions for awhile. he has trouble staying in his spot during lunch.His progress report is unsatisfactory regarding his behavior. his academics is fine, this behavior does not happen at home. please help. "
04/16/2007:
"I view behavior, as do most school psychologists, as a means of communication. What is this child trying to tell you with his behavior? Is the work too hard, is he on sensory overload.... Rather than staing that it is due to the child I believe that as educators we must search out why the behavior is occuring. It is our responsibility to provide an environment that supports positive behaviors. In doing so we must look beyond the child at focus our attention on what is occuring prior to the behavior, what is sustaining the behavior and ways that we can support positive replacement behaviors that serve the same communicative intent. These replcement behaviors must be taught to the child through an age appropriate teaching plan and reinforced through the use of incentives that are reinforcing to the child. This may require some simple data collection to ensure complete understanding of the child's behavior. Without looking at ALL aspects of the behavior including the envior! nment in which the behavior is occuring and the developmental level of the child, the effort that is place on changing the behavior may in fact increase its frequency. "
04/12/2007:
"This sounds a lot like my classroom, however, it happens more often with physically aggressive behavior. And I am the teacher. I have tried all year to get the administration to listen and take action but nothing has changed. The principal seems to think since they are young the behavior that prohibits me from teaching should be tolerated. It is so frustrating. I am a veteran teacher and would like some suggestions thank you"
04/12/2007:
"To the parent noticing a child with very disruptive behavior: Trust me, the teacher has noticed all of it - and is very much working to rid the child of the behavior. Often a teacher 'ignores' the behavior, meaning of course that it is noticed, but she doesn't want to warrant extra attention for negative behavior and is waiting for an opportunity to praise positive behavior. This is called positive reinforcement. It may also be a situation of mainstreamed, fully included, or still unidentified special education at work. In this case, the behavior is handled according to the child's Individual Education Plan (IEP). A child may seem to be treated with a special set of rules because, legally, this child DOES have a special set of rules. All of this information may not be available to you, as you are not the misbehaving child's parent. It does not mean that noting is being done, and I assure you the teacher is not thrilled about what such a situation sometimes does to the! class as a whole. However, the nature of public education is that every child has a right to it, and as much as you (and I) would like your child to be in a class of 90-100% well-behaved children, oftentimes this is not a realistic possibility. One other thing - if you feel that the education of the class is truly affected in a negative way by this child, by all means talk to the teacher FIRST. If she tells you something to the effect that it is out of her hands, then you know something larger is at work, such as special education. Talking to the school counselor or principal, to let them know that the situation is as bad as the teacher has probably told them, may give the teacher the support of a second voice to help get some additional help to the child, and indirectly, the class."
04/12/2007:
"Great article....needs to be sent home with all parents at begining of school year! And be a required reminder for all principals to read and follow through with the statement 'behaviors that put others at risk should not be tolerated'. In the adult world behavoirs that put others at risk carry fines maybe that would be an incentive to get the child to behaive for those parents of bad behavior children..... and the money raised from this could go to pay for counciling of parents how to raise a responsible and respectful child."
04/12/2007:
"One thing that should be kept in mind when looking at another child's behavior is whether or not the child has some form of medical condition that contributes to his or her behavior. Autism,Aspergers, ADHD etc. I have a child with a special need and even though the intelligence level is somewhat in the range for my child's age; the emotional level is a few years below. This has an impact on the behavior that is represented in the classroom. There is a lot of good behavior but then there are the days when my child has meltdowns, outbursts, and is defiant. It is hard for everyone including my child. Things trigger him, it can be many things (people, places, things.) I worry about him when he is in school. Can you imagine feeling anxiety, sadness, anger, confusion,obsessiveness,hyperness, racing thoughts, or lack of focusing all in one day and at times coming at you at once? As an adult we learn to identify things and cope as best as we can when having moments such as... even w! ith medication it is still hard at times. If your a child, think about how scary all of this can be. Do you think the child understands why and how to recognize it? Like I said earlier I know that when my child goes into these unappropriate behavior patterns that it is a distraction to the class, frustrating for the teacher and the other students feel many different ways reguarding this issue. I think it is important to see what all the factors are concerning the disruptive child and if there are special needs involved maybe explain to the class that it is up to all us to show and example good behavior,express to the student nicely that you wish they would stop acting in that way and why and maybe just be a friend and ask them whats wrong? Can I help? This helps a lot. Not always but it helps. Some days he just works better when it is one on one and has to be taken from the classroom. Unfortunately he is acting acordinally for the age/emotional level that he displays even t! hough in physical appearance and age he is a few years older.W! hat can I say it is hit and miss and I just do the best that I can to try to recognize whether he is truly having a 'moment' or is he manipulating me? That is hard because sometimes you just don't have all the time in the world to spend on why and whats wrong you just know that the behavior is undesirable and cramping your style and you just want it fixed right then. I do everything from redirection, stressing consequences for bad behavior, benefits from good behavior, empathy, sympathy, and patience and god knows sometimes I could use a little more! Couldn't we all? I fully understand all of the parents out there that have to hear their child complain about a uncooperative student. Really. I have a daughter that is 13 months younger than my son and it is hard because even though she is quite good for the most part, I have to go over with her why it is important for her to continue being good when she witnesses her brother acting up and displaying un apppropriate behavior. I guess i! t all goes back to what our mothers have told us for years: Well! 'If so-n-so jump off a bridge would you jump too? :)One more thing to add I think education for teachers, parents, and students reguarding special needs is important and also if your student is having trouble in school do your part as a parent to have your child maybe put in a smaller class size, or up to the front of the class, maybe find out about them having a teacher aide to help them etc. Every little bit helps. "
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