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My Son's Behavior Has Gone Downhill

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

Up until this year my 10-year-old son has been an excellent student. Now for reasons unknown fourth grade has become a horror! He has been an all-A student since first grade, tested as one of the smartest kids in the school and is in a special class two hours each day. The problem is behavior, this year alone he has received five notes that go on file about talking, not doing class work and acting out on a class trip. There are no home-related problems. It has gotten to be a weekly thing to get a bad behavior note. He no longer enjoys going to school. Talking with him has gotten us nowhere. Also, this is the teacher's first year at the school. Could this be part of the problem? Please help.

Answer:

First, it is important to get both sides of the story when a child gets in trouble at school. If you have not yet scheduled a conference with your son's teacher, do so immediately. Get some specifics about the problem behaviors, including the situations in which they occur and the interventions that the teacher has attempted. Look for common denominators: Is he acting out when seated with particular peers? He could be showing off or entertaining his friends. During particular class times? He could be avoiding work that he finds boring or difficult. Right before lunch? He could be experiencing a drop in blood sugar, which can cause irritability.

A second possibility might have to do with his intellect. It's common for highly intelligent or gifted children to misbehave at school for a variety of reasons. They may feel isolated or different from others, bored by the activities enjoyed by most students. Or they may feel superior and unable to see why they should conform to the standards for their classmates.

At times, gifted children are given more rights or responsibilities than they are ready or able to handle, because their intelligence gives them pseudo-maturity. Keep these possibilities in mind as you explore the problems with your son's behavior.

Third, keep in mind the fact that at 10 years of age, your son may be starting to undergo the physiological and psychological changes of puberty. As adolescence begins, socializing takes on greater significance. Your son's misbehavior may be something as simple as the peers he sits next to in class, especially if he is trying to impress or perform for them.

Finally, you expressed concern about the fact that your son's teacher is new to the school. This shouldn't matter - your son needs to know that all teachers are authority figures and should be treated with equal respect. He is going to encounter lots of new authority figures in his lifetime, and it will serve him well to learn this lesson early.

Although your son's behavior may be a departure from his previous functioning, and it is understandable that you want to figure it out, it is more important to figure out how to get it to stop. You mentioned that talking with him has gotten you "nowhere," try talking less, and simply apply consequences at home any time he brings home a behavior note. Removing privileges such as video games or television, or enforcing an early bedtime can be a very effective deterrent.

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.