How to Address Behavior Issues with Children

How to Address Behavior Issues with Children: A Shout-Out to Parents and Teachers!

Do you have kids? I do. Sometimes I feel bad for my kids because their dad is a therapist. I’m always asking about their feelings, and frankly, I bet they find this annoying. One thing I’ve had to realize in this profession, is that I cannot always practice what I preach when it comes to parenting my children. However, I do stand by the practice of being curious about how kids are feeling—whether they are my own children or children I see in my office.

Emotional health is a focus of talk therapy with teens and adults. When it comes to working with children, behavior issues seem to be the primary reason parents and/or teachers will recommend counseling. How do you address behavior issues with children—specifically in relation to school performance?

This time of year can be especially stressful for kids who struggle in school. When children experience stress, behaviors can range from passive resistance (shut-down mode) to active resistance (hitting, kicking, yelling, or running out of the classroom to escape stress).

When children come to school, they bring all the joys and sorrows of life at home with them. Then they get confronted with all the joys and sorrows of peer relationships. These are relationships that are often difficult for children to describe. For elementary schoolers, these are the years when friendships shift rapidly. Often these center around classmates or school mates who may share outside activities like team sports, music and dance classes, or boy/girl scout troops. Some families are large and include cousins of similar ages. Some families live in neighborhoods with children of similar ages. These situations often increase opportunities for social learning and a sense of belonging.

In New Hampshire, there are lots of homes without neighbors. There are children in every class who don’t have siblings or cousins. There are kids who come from families who may be struggling to create social opportunities outside of school. For these students, school is THE place they get to have some social time outside of what may be a stressful home. Divorces, deaths, job losses, siblings or parents with drug and alcohol issues or other health issues are some of the issues children bring to school. I know I’m being a downer here. I am really encouraging both parents and teachers to think twice before labeling students as “lazy” or “defiant” or a “problem.”

School can be enjoyable for some students who face family challenges. Children sometimes see school as a relief from stress at home. As students begin the pre-teen years, school is increasingly seen as “boring” and homework loads get bigger right when hormone levels rise. Here is my plug for more recess and plenty of outside time. And, if you can, keep your pre-teens busy with non-screen time social activities to balance out the Instagram and YouTube time (they’ll sneak plenty of it when you’re sleeping anyway…)!

I can see how teachers and parents become confused about who succeeds in school and who does not. Here are a few tips on HOW we can help students feel better about their school experience.

1. Don’t take it personally. Don’t get hooked when kids complain about school or say they’re bored. Ask yourself, “Is my adult job always fun?” School, especially as kids grow older, is a job.

2. No double jeopardy. When a student/your child gets a consequence at school (ejected from class, spends time with guidance counselor, detention, etc.), don’t give them another consequence at home. Unless that consequence is making them do their homework with you or taking a walk with your child to REALLY be curious about what’s going on. Motivating children/students/people is about relationship building. Kids already know the relationships with teachers and peers are suffering after a tough day, AND they already dealt with consequences at school that fit the crime (hopefully).

3. Be firm and kind. We can be firm, have reasonable expectations, encourage discipline, AND BE KIND. I’ve never talked to a kid who heard you better when you yelled or “raised your voice.” Your children/students need structure, clarity in boundaries, and most of all: CONSISTENCY.

4. Consistency. This is difficult. I can’t even make it to the gym regularly because I’m too busy driving my kids around. Being a good parent is indeed about sacrificing our own time. We signed up for parenting and it is a full-time job. The CONSISTENT parent job is not fun. It’s similar to middle school math (from what I hear anyway…).

I hope this message can be a reminder of how difficult school might have been for all of us, or, for the situations we may have been exposed to growing up. If it wasn’t us, we knew a classmate who was always in the principal’s office. It’s important to remember that everyone learns at different speeds and in different ways. There are academic, social and emotional lessons being learned simultaneously.

The next time you feel overwhelmed as a parent, do what I tell the students I work with to do: slow down and take a breath. Just because your children don’t have to go to work, it doesn’t mean that what they are asked to do everyday isn’t really difficult for them.

Pete Afflerbach, MA LCMHC is a licensed mental health counselor. Pete works with all ages and has particular specialties in parenting and school success. Pete is enthusiastic about helping people break down the challenges they face into smaller, more manageable pieces.

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