HomeHealth & BehaviorSocial Skills

Ask the Experts

How Can I Help My Fourth-Grader Communicate Better?

By Dr. Lisa Hunter, Child Psychologist


I am a single mother of a 9-year-old. My major concern for him is his showing expression, or rather lack of communication. If he doesn't get his way, he cries. His bad attitude has gotten progressively worse over the years. Do you have any suggestions as far as how I can solve this?


I would suggest establishing clear expectations for your son's behavior at home. Take some time to think carefully about what type of behavior you find acceptable and not acceptable at home, and then decide upon three to five home rules. The rules should be short, clearly stated and focus on what you want your son to do. In addition, identify how you will reward your son for following the rules and what consequences he will face for breaking rules. Once you have identified your home rules, rewards and consequences, discuss them with your son, making sure he understands the rules and is capable of following them.

Now comes the hard part - consistently enforcing the rules and following through with rewards and consequences! When you first start enforcing the rules, your son may not respond favorably and test you to see if you will stick with them. Don't be discouraged! This type of behavior is quite common when children are faced with new behavioral expectations. Chances are if you consistently enforce the rules, reward your son when he follows them and apply appropriate consequences when he does not, his behavior will improve. If it does not, consider seeking additional assistance from a child psychologist or other mental health professional.

Dr. Lisa Hunter is an assistant professor in the department of child psychiatry at Columbia University and the director of school-based mental health programs at Columbia University's Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health. Her research focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of school-based mental health and prevention programs. In addition she is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in cognitive behavioral treatment for children and adolescents.


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 readers

"Most of the children in this age group are somewhat on the edge of puberty. They are certain about their home environment whether it is dysfunctional or not, if one child within the home is receiving more kisses/hugs, and if they receive more punishment than others and maybe perceived as being a difficult child. My suggestion would be STOP, at the time the child is being difficult (in your opinion) and ask yourself am I being fair, (again am I being fair, say it in your head twice)release all the tension for your facial features and mental thoughts. Proceed to look at the child with admiration for the beauty they posess while bending down to the childs eye level and say I wonder why you seem so emotional when school is mentioned? Once you get an answer continue by stating first I love you ( or just smile) and want you to like school or get better grades. Therefore, we will work on school assignments everyday for 20 minutes per assignment even if we do not finish the chapter! , it can be resume the next day or following one. Parents- You can create your own school work for home or get a booklet. Have it layed out on their desk or table after they have gotten their after school snack. Tell them to complete it and call you with any questions. You may show them (not enable them) how to find the answer (try your best not to give the answer to them)they have to become independent and this maybe their problem at school which in turn makes them feel dumb or an under achiever that in turn makes their self esteem drop. Do this for a week with out hostility, a sturn face, anger, confinement or punishment. If they seem stresssed out at the moment. STOP, let them do a fun activity and resume home work an hour later. Remember, you are doing this for a child that does not like school so you have to cave in and bite your teeth for the moment. You are doing all of this ground work to build up their self esteem not tear it down with punishments or riducule. If ! the above is not working you may want to find out their cognit! ive and perceptual abilities. It can be found out by tests within your local school system. You can set up a meeting with the principal and teacher and ask that your childs IQ, cognitive and perceptual behaviors tested. You may have to start with subtraction in math if your child is not understaind division. Sometimes teachers do not notice a child is not doing good with subtraction if they are doing well with addition and multiplication or Vice Versa. Soemtimes we have to start at the very beginning to get to the core of the issue at hand. I hope this works, it did for me."
"So, what happens when they act like this at school and the school let's them? My 10 y/o is so emotional and the more they get after him for eveything the more emotional he gets and the more out of control things get at home. I have a meeting to talk about interventions that can be used at school but all they want to use is me. They are not willing to be responsible for some things they can change. I get confused and I over compensate and end up not addressing the issues. I am a single mom and the school certainly knows how to get me into the mess of things. I don't accept my son's behavior, but I don't want him to feel isolated. I am getting him into couseling now and I would like to know how to define being supportive and still holding him accountable without him feeling like the world is on his shoulders? "
"My child has always been an 'A' student but received her first 'C' in Language/Arts this progress report. She feels very discouraged. I give her a lot of love and support. What else can I do to help her in terms of improving her grades? "
"My soon to be stepson is living with us and often shows these same behaviors, I have done the same as suggested in this article and he does in fact test to see if I will follow through. The problem I run into in this situation is his father, when I set rules and boundries he goes to his father and talks his way out of the situation. I love him dearly but I can't seem to get anywhere in this situation. Any suggestions would be helpful."
"My daughter stresses everyday hw much she hates school. She declares this anytime she is corrected about responsibilities and expectations as it relates to her education. During homework time sometimes she declares how much she hated school with a passion and if only she could run away. I am begining to suspect she is experiencing somethin at school that she is not communicating. Is this reaction a sign I should be worried about?"