This week’s question is from Gina and Matt,
“Our 7-year-old son doesn’t have a diagnosed condition but has always struggled with his attention and focus, is very active, and sometimes has trouble managing his behaviors. He struggles with his behavior at school and sometimes gets angry and lashes out when he feels frustrated and overwhelmed. It could be pushing or hitting another child, tearing up his papers, or running and hiding in the bathroom.
This year, we’ve had an issue with the school calling us when these things happen and insisting that we come to pick him up. He has been suspended multiple times, as they request that we keep him home when this happens.
We don’t feel like being sent home from school for bad behavior is solving the problem, and in some ways, it’s teaching him that when he does these things he gets to come home. It’s also very frustrating for us because we are busy in our work settings and have to drop everything to come and get him from school. We feel like there must be a better way to manage this but aren’t sure how to address it or if we even have a say in the matter. Please help.”
In this episode, I will address considerations for disruptive behavior at school and how to work collaboratively with your child’s school to come up with solutions. Being sent home from school for bad behavior is not a viable long-term solution however there are ways you can work with the school to better support the child. I will also discuss the types of support programs that are commonly available, within most schools, to help your child.
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What the parents and teachers notice
- Their child seems to misbehave at school beyond what the school can manage
- This results in being sent home from school for bad behavior
- Sending the child home sends the wrong message to the child and is not an appropriate long-term solution
Why do children act out, misbehave, etc.?
- Children don’t act bad intentionally
- It’s more likely they need to develop an ability to regulate their emotions and their behavior
- When school professionals send the message that a child needs to be sent home for their behavior, it conveys to the child that there’s a lack of support for the child and it damages the trust in the relationship
How to communicate with school professionals
- Reach out to the teacher or administrator who makes the decisions regarding your child
- Approach them with empathy and willingness to collaborate
- Set up a meeting
- Share some things you find effective at home when it comes to your child’s behavior or triggers
What causes challenging behaviors in classroom situations?
- The academic expectations are not appropriate for the level that the child is at
- Sensory overload – a classroom environment can be overwhelming for some children
Strategies to support behavior regulation
- Request that they have a quiet, safe space for the child to go when they are feeling overwhelmed
- Ask their teacher to check in with them more frequently
- They could develop a discrete signal for when the child starts to feel overwhelmed
- Scheduling breaks throughout the day can be a great proactive strategy
What to do if your child’s school staff is being unsupportive
- Inquire about the school’s support plans for example:
- Response to Intervention
- Child Study Process
- 504 Plan that’s under the Americans With Disabilities Act
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Regulate emotions … 00:03:27
How to communicate with your school … 00:05:50
Underlying issues to consider … 00:09:05
Teamwork with school isn’t working … 00:12:20
Episode Wrap up … 00:18:50
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, I am answering a question from a listener. I get so many questions each week, and this is a great way to provide answers that many of you may find helpful. If you have a question you’d like me to consider answering on a future episode, email it to email@example.com and you just might hear it on an upcoming show.
Now, onto today’s question. This question is from Gina and Matt, who write: “Our 7-year-old son doesn’t have any diagnosed condition but has always struggled with his attention and focus, is very active, and sometimes has trouble managing his behaviors. He struggles with his behavior at school and sometimes gets angry and lashes out when he feels frustrated and overwhelmed. It could be pushing or hitting another child, tearing up his papers, or running and hiding in the bathroom. This year, we’ve had an issue with the school calling us when these things happen and insisting that we come to pick him up. He has been suspended multiple times, as they request that we keep him home when this happens.
We don’t feel like this is solving the problem, and in some ways, it’s teaching him that when he does these things he gets to come home. It’s also very frustrating for us because we are busy in our work settings and have to drop everything to come and get him from school. We feel like there must be a better way to manage this but aren’t sure how to address it or if we even have a say in the matter. Please help.”
Well, Gina and Matt, great things that you’ve brought up here and I know that many of our listeners can relate to this experience of your child having some behavioral outbursts or challenges in school and then receiving a phone call about the situation, including potentially coming to pick the child up. So you are certainly not alone in this issue.
Let’s talk about several things around this, with the big picture being that you are absolutely right, there are better ways to manage this, and sending a child home from school, having the parents come and pick the child up and bring them home is not a good long-term strategy. I understand that occasionally that may need to happen if it’s something that’s really out of the blue, unforeseen, and the school needs a bit of time to figure out how to manage a situation differently, but in general, calling the parent to come and pick the child up and suspending the child, meaning-making the child stay at home, not a helpful strategy. There are much better things that can and should be done. So in the big picture, this type of way of handling it doesn’t address the root causes of the behavior. So if a child is struggling, like you mentioned, that your son is getting frustrated, feeling overwhelmed, getting angry, whatever the case may be, and he is struggling to manage those emotions and so he is lashing out, that is something that needs skill development. Your child needs to develop an ability to regulate those emotions better and then regulate his behavior around that. And there are lots of effective ways for doing that. So sending a child home doesn’t address the root causes of the behavior. It also sends the message that the people at school can’t or won’t support the child in handling this. Now, that’s not a message that I think most schools intend to send to the child or to the parents, but really, that’s the message that’s being sent, right? I mean parents feel it. Parents will say to me, “Look, I feel like they just can’t handle my kid or they don’t want to, and so they’re sending them home.” And children pick up on that too, “Oh my goodness. I start to have big feelings, I start to fall apart, struggle with managing myself, and whoa, these people around me at school, they can’t handle my feelings or my behaviors either, and so they send me out of here.” That is very problematic on a number of levels. That is not a message that we want to be sent. It really weakens the relationships between the child and school personnel, be that the teacher, the teacher’s aid, other people in the environment, and the thing is we need to strengthen that relationship because ultimately, it’s the relationship between the child and the other adults who are present with them in the classroom or school setting that is going to support the child to be able to regulate themselves more effectively in challenging situations. So we need to strengthen and grow that relationship, not weaken it or break it by saying “We can’t handle this/We won’t handle this” or whatever, “so we’re sending the child home.”
And also, as Gina and Matt point out in the question they sent, this may unintentionally perpetuate the behavior. If a child is feeling really overwhelmed, if the expectations and the demands in the school environment are feeling like too much to them, if they’re feeling a lack of support, of course they’re going to want to avoid that, and so it can happen then that a child who is sent home every time something happens, that becomes a learned pattern then that “Oh, when I act out in this way, I get to go home, which is a more comfortable and safe environment for me.” So those are lots of reasons why this is really not an approach, not a strategy that we want schools to be using, at least not on a regular basis.
So here are some specific ways that I would recommend for Gina and Matt to approach this, and for any of you who are dealing with this. First, it’s important to communicate the concerns to the people involved at school. This could be the classroom teacher, it may be the principal or assistant principal, it may be a guidance counselor, it may be whoever it is at the school that is implementing this approach, who is making the phone call to send the child home, whoever is involved with it, that’s who you want to start out by communicating with, and express your concerns about this situation, empathize with them that you understand that your child’s behavior can feel frustrating or can be disruptive at times, but also express that there need to be some different, more effective solutions and that you want to collaborate with them on finding solutions. So we always want to assume the best in the school and in the school personnel, just like we always want to assume the best about our kids, that the intentions are in the right place, we want to assume that with the school personnel as well. And assume that they want to find effective ways to handle this and that they want to collaborate. So we want to start out in that vein, “Hey, we get that this is challenging, we understand. We need to find some more effective ways to handle this and we want to work with you to find better solutions.” And request a meeting. Right now, that may still be virtual. If it can be in person, that’s great. But set up a meeting with the people involved to talk about what’s going on, to share, maybe, some things that you have found effective in the home environment, to share your observations of what’s going on. Often, parents have some really good insights into what may be triggering these things in the classroom, or what might be going on. So to provide those insights and to really talk about what they’re seeing at school and come up with something that may be more effective. So that’s an important starting point.
Now, if the people at the school seem to be really at a loss or don’t have a lot of ideas to contribute when you first start discussing this with them, then you can request involvement from people on the school team who may be better suited to help provide some solutions. So in some schools, that might be the guidance counselor, it might be a school psychologist, it might be a social worker, it might be somebody on a support team, there are all different titles and people who provide these kinds of support and services, but you want to request that they be involved so that they can perhaps do some observation in the classroom of what’s going on, to help put a plan together, to be more proactive. They can provide some strategies, maybe even provide some additional support to the child, support to the classroom staff. So you’re asking who else can be involved here that can provide some skill-building for the child, that can give the staff some strategies that they can utilize here. So kind of rally the resources that are already involved in the school environment.
Now from the standpoint of strategies that can be helpful, there are so many options and it really depends on the child, on the environment, and what’s going down at the root of it. I will say from a lot of years of experience now with challenging behaviors in classroom situations, typically there are a couple of underlying things. The expectations either with the classroom expectations or the academic expectations are not appropriate for the level that the child is at, that can be one big underlying cause of challenging behavior in the school environment, it can be purely just overwhelming, even from a sensory standpoint. Classroom environments, school environments can feel very overwhelming to some kids and that can be triggering. So those are some of the big ones that come up because in general, I find that when children are in school settings that have appropriate expectations where the academic expectations and work that’s being provided, the expectations for managing in the classroom are on par with where they are developmentally and skill-wise, they do quite well, and when it’s not an overwhelming environment for them. So those are the things that you want to be looking at. How can we support those pieces? Is it possible to put more strategies into this particular classroom environment or is a different environment needed? These are some of the things that you’re going to be wrestling with and talking about, but again, from a strategy standpoint, it can be simple things like a quiet, safe space for the child to go when they are feeling overwhelmed. Or often, the child may not be able to identify it, but the adults in the environment can be proactive and sort of identify those warning signs and have the child take some quiet time to themselves or do something that’s going to be regulating for them before they blow up. So again, noticing the stress building, noticing the cues from the child of what’s happening that indicates that they are struggling to regulate themselves with their emotions and their behaviors, and trying to proactively intervene.
Something as simple as scheduling breaks throughout the day can be a great proactive strategy. Maybe it’s a signal that you develop between the child and the teacher. If it’s a child who can start to notice for themselves when they’re starting to feel overwhelmed when things are getting more frustrating, or whatever it might be then they can handle, that they can give a signal to the teacher, that they don’t have to embarrass themselves by going up and talking to the teacher or any of that but they can just give a signal to indicate how they’re feeling or what they might need. Maybe it’s a strategy like having the teacher or other staff in the classroom check in more frequently with the child. Ask them how they’re doing, provide positive feedback, “Wow, look at what a great job you’re doing with that!” Those more frequent check-ins can help keep a child on track better, can help kind of fill their emotional bucket with some positive experiences, and can help identify some of those warning signs and those problems before they become big issues. So those are some of the initial strategies that you might consider that are very appropriate for a child who is a general education child, who doesn’t have any diagnoses but is just having some struggles with emotional and behavioral regulation in the classroom, those are some very basic first-line strategies and tools that can be tried.
Now if you are working through this process with the school team and you’re finding that maybe these strategies are helping a little bit but there still are a lot of issues, or if you are working with a team who is really unsupportive and unresponsive, the school administration or the teachers are just really unwilling to work with you, unwilling to talk about possible solutions, then the next step is to look to the processes that are built-in in every public school system at least, and many private schools have something resembling these systems as well, but for sure every public school does. Sometimes it’s called Response To Intervention, that’s a term that’s used, there’s also something called the Child Study Process, these are processes that are already in place and designed to identify kids who are struggling, whether it’s academically or behaviorally, and put support plans in place. So if you feel like the school is kind of blowing you off and saying “No, we’re not going to work with you on this/No we don’t have any solutions to try”, you want to specifically request, “Well, I want then to go through perhaps the Child Study Process or starting with the Response To Intervention. Can I talk to the Response To Intervention team? Can my child be put on the list to be talked about at that team?” Because their goal is to identify kids who are struggling and put support plans in place. You want to ask about those, what are the options? What do they call them at your child’s school? And use those processes. That would be the next step. Sometimes those processes can lead to a special education referral if that’s needed. Not necessarily. Sometimes parents are afraid to request those processes or to collaborate with the school on these things because they’re worried that it’s going to automatically lead to their child being labeled or put in special education. That’s not the case. The response to intervention system is designed to try to keep kids from going on to special education to try to provide the support and the interventions that are needed before that level of intervention. Child Study, same thing, to identify, are there ways that we can meet this child’s needs in the school setting with some support plans? Without needing to go to the level of special education. And even if the team decides or the parents decide that that would be appropriate or necessary to move forward through those processes and request a special education evaluation or a referral to special education, even that doesn’t mean that your child is automatically going to be labeled and placed in some kind of special education environment. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about those processes and about what they mean. So just to know that that would be the next step looking at the Response to Intervention process that they have in place with the child, and/or the Child Study Process. Now another option if, again, you are working with the team and implementing strategies but your child is really still continuing to struggle, or if the school is not willing to work with you and be supportive around these issues, another route that can work for some kids and families is for a child to receive a medical diagnosis of, for example, ADHD or some other condition if that’s appropriate. I don’t know this particular child, and in some cases, it is absolutely not appropriate. But sometimes it is and it’s important for parents to know that if your child has received a medical diagnosis of something like ADHD or some other type of condition, that you can approach the school about something called the Section 504 Plan that’s under the Americans With Disabilities Act that allows for some accommodations and a support plan within the school setting. Or you can also request a special education evaluation for your child. Now that doesn’t mean that because your child has received an outside diagnosis, a diagnosis medically outside of the school from either a psychologist or a medical practitioner, that they will qualify for special education, but it is something that you can request, particularly if you have now gotten this outside professional’s opinion on what’s going on and your child is really struggling in the school setting and the school is not being supportive, then making this request for a special education evaluation or possibly a Section 504 Plan can be appropriate. These provide you more leverage under the law in school settings because it is a formal plan that an administrator or someone at the school is required to follow, so that can be helpful. The system and the process are a bit different for private schools versus public schools, but even private schools have to honor some version of the 504 Plan. IEPs, Individualized Education Plans or Programs for special education, that operate differently in private schools versus public schools, but still, private schools have processes for these things, so it’s important for you to be aware of what the options are if your child is continuing to struggle. And again, bearing in mind that the goal here is for there to be some appropriate supports in place so that the current solution of calling the parents to send the kid home every time there is a challenging behavior so that that is not happening, right? That’s our goal, that’s the issue that we’re getting at with this particular question that was asked. But really, communication and collaboration are the bottom line here. In my experience, most of the time schools are open and willing to work with parents. You want to set the tone of being collaborative, working with them, talking about the challenges, how can we get this working better and what solutions can we find that doesn’t involve sending the child home? That is a very reasonable request to make. And you want to be collaborative and communicative, but then also now that if you are in a situation, and unfortunately this does sometimes happen where the school is not supportive of helpful, where they are dismissive, where they continue to utilize inappropriate, unhelpful strategies for managing behavior, that then you do have options for getting your child support, for moving forward, for requesting some other things because ultimately you want to find the educational environment that is most suited and supportive for your child, and that can change from year to year depending on what’s happening, but that’s really every parent’s goal: For their child to be supported in a way that allows them to be successful in that school environment.
So I hope that this is some helpful information and tips for Gina and Matt and for any of you who are trying to deal with a situation where your child is struggling with behavior at school, particularly if you’re getting regularly occurring phone calls to come and pick them up. Remember, if you have a question you would like to hear answered on a future show, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “Podcast Question” in the subject line, that will help us out. Thank you as always for listening. I will catch you back here next time.