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HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Changing Children's Behavior in School

Some kids with learning difficulties develop behavior problems that increase their risk of failure. Learn how you can help.

By Diana Browning Wright, M.S.

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!


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/9/2012:
"Great article. We have developed a system to improve kids behavior that incorporates tickets, saving, and rewards called the Ticket Store Game that readers may find helpful. Kids earn tickets for good behavior, save their tickets in their banks, and use the tickets to "buy" rewards from the ticket store game board. You can see more about the game and it's benefits by going to www.ticketstoregame.com . "
12/13/2011:
"We have developed a children's behavioral game designed to improve behavior in kids age 4 to 11. The concept is that kids earn tickets for good behavior, save the tickets and use them to "buy" rewards from the ticket store game board. The game incorprates core values such as anti bullying, acts of kindness and community service, in addition to routine tasks of every day life. The game could be a real help to both parents and teachers. You can see more about the game at our website: www.ticketstoregame.com . "
10/31/2011:
"I am raising my grandson who is now 9. He is getting ready to be expelled from school for his horrible behavoir. He has a BIP IEP and a FBA. Nothing is working. Is there any help out there? So far I have not found any. "
09/26/2011:
"I need help with my son his behavior is really bad at school and home,I need help please. "
02/16/2011:
"I have a 5 year old son, in kindigarden. He has a lot of problems in school not so much at home. I can read to him for 1 hour with out a problem. Sometimes i have problems with him when i comes to writeing. But with comming up what is next is no problem. The problem starts in school. I have been working with the school sence the start. He started with being sent home almost every weak for behavior. I have tried to get the school to take away recess for punishment because that is what he realy likes. But the problem might also be the strucher that they have in the class. He is the type of kid that will run over a soft spoken person. He also like to push his boundrys and what he has found out is the school does not real him in untill he is past a certan point. We are at our wits end with the school and do not know how to help him. thank you Amber"
10/4/2010:
"My name is dipsy and I have a six year old son who is in Kindergarten. He shows sings of disriptive behavior at home and school. I am taking him to get evaluated for adhd. He shows alot of agression. He can't seem to stay focased on one thing or sit still for very long. He gets mad at me easily when I say the no word. I try to make compromises with him and that never works. He is such a loving and smart little boy. He does excellent with his school work so his will to learn doesn't concern me . he can be very mean I have try everything to help him listen but evryday is a constent struggle with him. I love my son very much I just want him to listen, stay focased and show me the same respect I show him.'"
05/21/2009:
" My name is Darlene and I have a six year old son who is in Kindergarten. He shows sings of disriptive behavior at home and school. I am taking him to get evaluated for adhd. He shows alot of agression. He can't seem to stay focased on one thing or sit still for very long. He gets mad at me easily when I say the no word. I try to make compromises with him and that never works. He is such a loving and smart little boy. He does excellent with his school work so his will to learn doesn't concern me . he can be very mean I have try everything to help him listenbut evryday is a constent struggle with him. Ilove my son very much I just want him to listen, stay focased and show me the same respect I show him."
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