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Living with Children: Behavior problem mystifies parents

| Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 8:09 p.m.

Question: Our son started full-day kindergarten in September. For the first three months, he had no problem with his behavior at school, but for the past few weeks, he has gotten in trouble for talking and not listening, and he spit at a child at school today.

Taking away privileges hasn't made a difference in his behavior. He was always such a well-behaved child, so we are at our wits end as far as what to do. Any suggestions for punishment would be appreciated.

Answer: Sometimes, punishment is the answer for a classroom-behavior problem; sometimes it isn't. In this case, I am reluctant to recommend punishment (but I'll go ahead and describe an approach that might work) because your son's problems began rather suddenly after three initial months of good behavior. That's certainly puzzling. It suggests that something happened — and is still happening — at school to cause this sea change in your son's attitude. That intuition is strengthened by the fact that he's never been a discipline problem.

Is the teacher young or inexperienced? Did some incident occur — an embarrassing one perhaps — in class or on the playground that might have caused the other children to change their attitude toward your son? Is he being teased by his classmates? Did his best classroom friend suddenly decide to abandon him in favor of some other child?

You first need to do a certain amount of detective work in order to determine whether such an incident did occur. The fact that taking privileges away hasn't worked to set your son back on the right path leads me to think there's more going on here than meets the eye.

Sometimes, a seemingly small event can rapidly cascade into a major problem. If so, then it might be that things have gone downhill to the point where a change of teacher, even a change of school, is called for — a fresh start, in other words.

When it can be determined that a classroom-behavior problem is nothing more and nothing less than a classroom-behavior problem, I generally recommend a consequence-based approach involving loss of privileges on “bad” school days. This requires that the teacher provide daily feedback concerning the child's behavior. She can, for example, email a brief daily report to the parents at the end of every school day.

At-home privileges depend on a good report. The best results are obtained when the daily report involves no shades of gray. In other words, the child was either incident-free or not — and exactly what constitutes an incident must be defined clearly in advance. One such event results in the child losing all privileges — including television, all other electronic entertainment, and after-school activities. In addition, his bedtime is moved back at least one hour. Two bad days through the school week result in loss of privileges on the weekend.

The combination of daily and weekend consequences usually proves to be enough of a “persuader.” Sometimes, improvement is seen almost immediately; sometimes, it takes a few weeks. The secret, as always when the issue is discipline, is consistency on the part of both parent and teacher.

Contact family psychologist John Rosemond:

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