HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Ask the Experts

My Son's Behavior Has Gone Downhill

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist


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.


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.

Comments from readers

"Children of this age usually go through a transformation: try to fit in, are bored, or have difficulty with the work. Set up a conference with the teacher, a school leader, and your son. You have to find out what is causing this behavior and how you, the teacher, and support faculty can help him to be successful in school. You must alos let your son know that you are there for him and he must respect the adults in the school building. Try the empathy game with him: How would you fell if Ms._________ did this to you? "
"Teacher reactions and behaviors play a major role in a child's behavioral changes in class. When you have exhausted all other possibilities to account for changes in your son's behavior--lack of sleep, problems at home, doesn't understand school lessons, is falling behind--it's time to ask specific questions of the 'new' teacher. Questions that will give you insight into what the problems may be, like--what did your son do that was considered bad behavior? Under what circumstances did he do it? What was happening in class at the time? How did the teacher handle the situation and address your son? How is he being graded? What kinds of conversations or comments has the teacher made to your child? Ask your child open-ended questions about what goes in in his classroom and listen carefully to his answers. Since your child has had no problem in school thus far, it is a strong possibility that there may be a personality conflict between him and the teacher. It may be as simple as she is not moving as fast as he needs to move and he is getting in trouble because he is bored and the teacher is too green and insecure to realize your child needs more of a challenge. Boys rarely talk about day to day activities in class. Talk to your child. It doesn't sound like he is the problem here. Good luck, Prof Mom "
"The fact that a child should treat adults in any capacity with respect is crucial, and I agree should be taught, however, maybe moving him to another teacher would be best. I really get tired of people stating that kids need to adjust to whatever comes their way. A years worth of learning problems, based on anything that is avoidable should be, well, avoided. I am not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that everytime your son has a problem to move him, but there are different learning styles, and different teaching styles. I have seen this many times. It is quite possible that the teacher and the student just don't mix. What is upsetting to me is that kids are forced to try to make things work when clearly they aren't going to, and quite frankly, as an adult if I know I don't mesh with someone's personality, I don't go have lunch with them, hang out at their home, or play with them at recess. And yet, repeatedly we require our children to endure such torture! s; immature youngsters, not even adults, forced to 'get along' with others that we ourselves would avoid. I would first, find out from the principal if this teacher has a problem controlling students in the classroom, in general. If the answer is no, then go hang out there, and see for yourself. Speaking from experience, I am an educator, I have been disgusted at the way some teachers treat the kids they are teaching, and that these things went on while I was in the room. Demeaning students, ridiculous expectations, and all from a woman that has no children of her own. Please be clear, I am not suggesting that students be left to run wild. I am emphasizing that sometimes it really is the match of student vs teacher, and this is important. A year lost to this has impacts on this student for later. Possible learning deficiencies and emotional negative perceptions towards school in general. Just as an example, my youngest brother was put in a kindergarten that allowed spanking. When he didn't do his homework, he was paddled. My mother was unaware of this, as the school stated she signed a waiver. When they went to pull the waiver it clearly stated that my brother was NOT to be put in this class. No, my mother didn't sue but the resulting effect was that my brother never wanted to attend school again. This was a boy that was over joyed to go, and be like his brother and sister and goto class. It became increasingly problematic to send him. Please don't let this go. Figure out what is happening, sooner rather than later, whatever it! is, even if the problem is your child. "
"I wish that the Dr. Bunning had elaborated on solutions (or suggestions) to the possible problems above. She discussed possible reasons for the downturn in behaviour but only offered punishment as a solution to him not responding to talking. While I agree that punishment may be helpful, I wish that Dr. Bunning had offered solutions to acting out in front of peers or low blood sugar before lunch when most school policies don't allow for eating in the classroom prior to lunch time. Solutions is what parents are most interested in."