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ADHD: Young Kids Acting Out in School

by Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

If you're the parent of a young child who acts out at school, you've probably asked yourself, "If my child is out of control now, how will I be able to deal with him when he's ten - or a teenager?" Once a toddler or kindergartner becomes known as a child who "plays too rough" or "always has to have his way," parents often find that invitations to playdates and birthday parties begin to dry up. Instead of hoping your child will be well-liked at school, you might be saying to yourself, "If only Ben could find just one friend to play with - and maintain that friendship for longer than a day!"

Let me start by saying that many of the difficult behaviors your young child displays - including pushing, hitting, and refusing to share and take turns - are perfectly normal for their developmental level. While you still need to address those issues, I think it's helpful to understand that they are very common amongst young kids - and you are certainly not alone in what you are dealing with. I personally believe that one of the keys to helping your young child improve their behavior at school lies in having them work on this same behavior at home. The good news is that as a parent, you are in the best position to coach, teach and hold them accountable for their behavior.

In my experience, of all the issues parents have concerns about when it comes to young kids at school, these three tend to be the most common - and the ones parents worry about most:

My Child is Overly Aggressive

Nobody wants their child to hit, yell, or play too roughly with others, but it's important to realize that this is typical in young children - in part because most toddlers and kindergartners still lack adequate verbal skills to deal with their emotions. For a young child, reasoning through a situation when they are upset can be very challenging, if not altogether impossible. And for many kids, hitting, pushing and yelling are the best problem solving skills they have at their fingertips. This is not to say you should excuse aggressive behavior, or that you can't coach your child to behave appropriately on their own eventually. While it's important to recognize that what your child is doing is normal, you also need to use rules and consequences to clearly teach them how to stop behaving too aggressively.

What Parents Can Do:

It's up to you to let your child know that their actions will no longer be tolerated. When things are calm, get down on their level, look them in the eye and say, "Hitting, biting, kicking and pushing are wrong and they hurt people." Be sure to tell them what their consequence will be: "If I see you hurting anyone, or if the teacher tells me you hit someone again at pre-school today, your consequence will be no television when you get home." Keep the consequences short term and give them to your child as soon as possible after they have behaved inappropriately. Try to have your child spend time with someone close to his age. Watch them closely so that you can see when your child is starting to become upset and coach him in that moment to use his words. Consequences alone will not change his behavior--but using consequences to require your child to practice the skills he needs to develop will change behaviors.

I also believe it's important to coach your little one to find his voice instead of lashing out at others. Keep in mind that this will require practice and lots of repetition. You can start by teaching your toddler, pre-schooler or kindergartner a saying to use at school or home when they are angry and frustrated. In place of pushing, for example, tell your child to say something like, "I don't like that!" or "I'm not going to play with you if you take my toys!" Another good thing to do is show your child how to walk away when he is angry or upset. Be sure to role play this with him, and switch roles so he can see how each side might react.

I also recommend that parents work with their child's teachers as much as possible: let them know you are doing your best to curb aggressive behavior at home. Oftentimes, the teacher will have helpful suggestions for you to try, as well. The important thing is that you get on the same page and try to work together with the school as much as possible.

My Child Won't Share or Take Turns

Ahhh, sharing. This is one of the toughest things you'll deal with when it comes to young kids, both at home and at school. It's important for you to remember that your child is at a developmental level that makes sharing extremely difficult. Since sharing with others and taking turns is not a behavior that comes naturally to young children, it's your job to teach your kids why it is so important. After all, learning how to share is central to a child's ability to make and keep friends. Keep in mind that you can't force your kids to share any more than you can force them to eat their broccoli - but through practice, they can learn to do it.

What Parents Can Do:

Bear in mind that there are some things your child will not want to (and shouldn't have to) share: A special treat given to them by their Grandma; a new toy from their birthday party; their favorite stuffed animal or security blanket. It's okay to say, "I know that's special to you and you don't want to share it." And after all, you probably wouldn't want to "share" the ring your parents gave you when you graduated from high school, or that brand new pair of dress shoes you just bought.

Of course, there are times when your child needs to share: if they're hoarding a package of crayons while their best friend is sitting empty-handed, for example, it's time to intervene. Teach a little empathy by saying, "Jamie, how would you feel if Sarah had all the crayons and wouldn't give you any? Can you think of how to share your crayons?" Some kids may realize this seems selfish, while others may hold on to those crayons all the more tightly! Feel free to give your child a choice here: "Jamie, you can give Sarah five crayons." If your child refuses to let go of the crayons, tell her that you will give her ten seconds to release the crayons or you will put her in time-out. The same thinking applies when it's time to take turns. "Jamie, it's Sarah's turn to pick a video next. You chose last time." If a tantrum ensues, your child should face a consequence such as a time-out - or you can leave the play date altogether.

If you hear that your child is having a tough time sharing or taking turns at school, again, let your child's teacher know that you are working on this specific issue at home, and ask for advice. By the way, I would not give your child a consequence for this when they come home - let the teacher handle it in the classroom. What I would suggest is that you talk to your child in a calm moment about sharing and taking turns. You can say something like, "You know, part of being a good friend is learning how to share. Sometimes it's a hard thing to do, but taking turns is a big part of playing with someone else and making new friends." You might also tell them about a time when you had a difficult time taking turns as a child, and how you learned to deal with it. Kids love to hear stories about their parents when they were kids; I've found that telling them about your experiences can be very effective in helping them understand the situation and improve their behavior.

I also cannot stress this enough: when you see your child sharing or taking turns nicely, be sure to compliment them and reinforce why it's important: "I noticed how nicely you were sharing with Connor the other day. It shows that you're really trying hard to be a good friend. I'm really proud of you." That positive reinforcement makes all the difference in the world - especially with young kids.

My Child has a Hard Time Making - and Keeping - Friends

Many parents tell me that their kids have difficulties making and keeping friends. Sadly, a child who is demanding or argumentative with other kids often finds himself feeling isolated as a result. And that's really the natural consequence for this type of behavior - soon, other children just won't want to play with him anymore.

Kids are aggressive or bossy for many reasons: some get anxious when in groups, while others have not learned proper boundaries or social skills at home. In either case, it's a good idea to step in and help your child change their behavior as soon as possible.

What Parents Can Do:

Start by being honest about what social skills your child lacks, and then make a commitment to help them work through those issues. Many parents tell me that their child observes few boundaries with other kids at school: their child will jump into the middle of games and try to take over, knock down the other students' Lego buildings, or grab toys from classmates. While again, this type of behavior is normal for this age group, it's not something you want to go unchecked.

I believe this problem can be resolved in large part by creating better boundaries at home. What that means is, try not to give in if your child whines or pleads, and set firm rules for them. When your child takes over a family dinner conversation or their sibling's game, remind them that someone else was talking, or that now it's their brother's turn to do the puzzle. And follow through on the consequences you have laid out for them. You can say, "You know the consequence for ruining your sister's game when she has a friend over. You need to go to your room for a time-out and stay there for five minutes."

I know that parents can become exhausted when dealing with young kids who act out; let's face it, it's hard work! But I want to be clear here: it may seem like a small thing in the moment when you fail to be consistent, but consider this: each time you give in when your child acts out, you are setting the stage for future acting out throughout their development. And when you don't expect them to behave properly within their own relationships at home, the truth is that you are also hindering their ability to act appropriately with their friends at school.

Coaching Your Young Child toward Better Behavior

If you have a young child who acts out at school, realize that he may need some extra coaching as he tries to change his behavior. I recommend that you start by explaining to him what type of behavior you expect him to have. In a calm moment, you can say, "I expect that when you are here at home or with friends at school you will practice sharing, you will not hit, and you will not be bossy." Rewarding your child for good behavior is also key. I always suggest that parents use a chart at home when they are trying to help improve their child's behavior, because it is an excellent motivator. The chart might have sections at the top that say, "Plays Nicely with Little Sister"; "Shares and Takes Turns" or "Uses an Inside Voice." Sit down with your child and show the chart to him - you can even create it together. Be sure to tell him, "If you can do these things, you will get a sticker for your chart each day. When you reach 10 stickers, you'll get a special surprise." When your child is able to accomplish these goals, make sure you tell him what a great job he did. Point out specifics like, "I really liked watching you and Gracie take turns with the paints. It seems like you are working hard!" Kids love it when you are aware that they are attempting to change their behavior, and they will try all the harder if they know you're watching.

If your young child continues to act out with kids at school, let him experience the consequences the teacher doles out, but continue to coach him at home in ways to be less aggressive or bossy. You can also ask his teacher to maintain a "good school behavior chart" -you can even give your child extra points on his chart at home for good behavior there.

Finally, many parents tell me that they often feel their child has been labeled "difficult" by the school which can make the whole family feel like outcasts. If this is your experience, know that it's never too late to try to improve the situation. Call a meeting with your child's teacher and state what you are doing for him at home. Let the school know about any outside help your child may be receiving, such as counseling or tutoring. While you can't control what a teacher thinks of your child, you can at least feel good knowing you are doing everything in your power to help the situation; in my experience that makes all the difference. As a parent, it's not always easy to help our young children change their behavior, but I believe it's one of the most important and worthwhile things we will ever do.

When Challenging Behavior Becomes a Problem: Some Guidelines on When to Seek Help

While it is normal for aggressive behavior, bossiness, or refusing to share or take turns to creep into your young child's life at some point, it is also important to know when to seek outside help. The main criteria for contacting your pediatrician or child mental health expert are:

  • When your child's behavior chronically interferes with the order of the classroom or family to the point of daily disruptions. Is your child's teacher continually calling you to talk about behavior issues, or asking you to come to school and talk? This would include serious infractions at school, such as punching, kicking, or pushing other kids repeatedly and destroying school property. If the teacher is unable to do his or her job because they are dealing with your child's behavior issues, it is time to seek outside help.
  • When the behavior interferes with your child's ability to maintain friends. I am not suggesting an inability to be popular or have loads of buddies, but rather, when your child is actively disliked by their peer group or has no connections with other children to the point of isolation. This is a cause for concern which you need to address immediately.
  • When the behavior interferes with your child's ability to understand or grasp schoolwork. Again, I'm not suggesting that struggling with learning to read or being bored with a project in kindergarten means there's a problem. If, however, your child finds it so hard to concentrate that he or she can't understand the basic concepts appropriate for their developmental level, talk to his or her pediatrician.
  • If you feel you have set all the appropriate limits on your child and they still do not respond. When you set limits, use consequences, coach and teach your child on how to behave and nothing seems to be working, it's time to seek outside help.

Sometimes anxiety, learning disabilities or other issues are the reason that your child has trouble with other kids at school. While it's true that children with those issues might lack appropriate boundaries, in my opinion that's all the more reason for you to work on this with them. It's vital that they learn to develop these skills, or make no mistake, they will grow up without really understanding how to interact socially. If your child has been diagnosed with a disorder such ADHD or ODD, for example, use it as an incentive for you as a parent to work harder at helping them develop proper boundaries.

Young Kids Acting Out in School: The Top 3 Issues Parents Worry about Most reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit the Empowering Parents website.

Author: Joan Simeo Munson has a PhD in Counseling Psychology and is the co-author of the forthcoming 50 Plus One Great Life Lessons to Teach Your Children. Over the years, Dr. Munson has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson received her PhD from The University of Denver, her Master of Arts degree in Community Counseling from George Washington University, and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the University of Illinois. Dr. Munson lives in the Boulder area with her husband and three children.

Page last modified or reviewed on January 24, 2014