"What are your suggestions for a 13 yo (boy) who behaves well enough at home, but is in constant trouble at school for arguing and fighting with some of the other students?"
There are all sorts of reasons why kids misbehave in school. By the time a child is reacting with violence, it's too late to institute a quick fix. Newspaper articles about kids whose behavior problems have turned tragic often talk about missed opportunities and why nobody helped. Here are five ways to start dealing with problems or potential problems early, when there is still time to work with teachers and administrators to make school a tolerable place for your youngster.
1. Be realistic about your youngster's abilities— Pushing and motivating and holding high expectations can drive some kids to be all they can be, but it can drive others straight into anxiety and depression. Would you want to work at a job, day in and day out, where you always had to be at the top of your abilities, handling things you weren't quite on top of and hoping things turn out alright? Children can't quit, and they have very little recourse in terms of demanding better working conditions, but they can find all sorts of ways to act out their anger and despair. Be honest and compassionate when considering what sort of classroom your son will learn best in and what sorts of supports he will require. Academics are important, and it's not wrong to make them your biggest concern, but emotional support and feelings of mastery are important, too.
2. Be respectful of authority yourself— We all know how important it is to fight for our kids and be strong, effective advocates. That struggle may lead us to conclude that some teachers and some administrators are not worthy of our respect, and their judgment is subject to doubt. But be very, very careful how you communicate that to your youngster. You may think the message you're giving is that grown-ups can be wrong, and you will always stick up for him, and he should value himself even when others criticize. The message your youngster receives, though, may be that it's okay to be disrespectful to teachers, the rules don't apply to him, and you will clean up every mess he makes. That's an attitude that's sure to cause major problems at school, and beyond. If you teach a kid to question authority, sooner or later he's going to question yours.
3. Listen when your youngster talks— Children don't answer the question "How was school?" because they know moms and dads only want to hear good news. Moms and dads need to reconnect with what it really feels like to be in school -- the uncomfortable desks, the stuffy classrooms, the disengaged teachers, the work that is either too easy or too hard. Think about what it really feels like to be your youngster at school. Ask questions about feelings, and really listen to what he says. Don't be quick with a pep talk and a pat on the back. Having someone to listen, without judging, can help defuse some of the frustration that might later erupt in dangerous behavior. And if you listen closely, you may be able to figure out other ways to lessen your son's emotional burden.
4. Request an FBA— If the school is sending home complaints about your youngster's behavior -- and expecting you to do something about it -- put the ball back in their court by requesting a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). This will force school personnel to really think about your youngster's behavior, not just react to it. An FBA examines what comes before bad behavior and what the consequences are for it, what possible function the behavior could serve for the youngster, and what sorts of things could be setting him off. If a youngster finds class work too hard or a classroom too oppressive, for example, getting sent to the hallway or the principal or home could become a reward, not a punishment. Conducting an FBA and writing a behavior plan based on it is probably the best way to head off discipline problems. If teachers and administrators refuse to go along with it, you might need to do a little behavior analysis on them.
5. Volunteer at your youngster's school— Being a presence at your son's school -- whether you volunteer at the library or help in the lunchroom, serve as class parent, or staff special events -- pays numerous dividends. It gets you known by the administration in a non-adversarial context. It lets your youngster know that school is important to you and a place you want to be. It gives you an opportunity to observe what goes on in that building, from the conduct of the children to the morale of the teachers. If you can't spare the time to volunteer during the school day, attend every Home and School Association meeting you can, and be sure to show up for Back to School nights and teacher conferences. When school personnel get to know you as an involved and interested parent, they're more likely to be your ally when problems come up.
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