10 Tips: How to Address Behavior Problems at School

Challenging Behaviors at School

How do you handle behavior problems at school?  A kid who doesn’t listen, who yells out and who can’t seem to follow the rules? 

What about a kid who seems to disrespect peers and adults?  And a kid who can’t seem to get along with anyone?

As a pediatric OT, I’ve attended many meetings for kids who misbehave in school.  These kids tend to be labeled as “behavioral problems” or “disruptive.” 

Parents, behavioral specialists, psychologists, administrators, educators, therapists are brought together to discuss behavior problems. 

Data is collected, plans are made to get rid of the negative behaviors.  The team meets repeatedly…  What’s working?  What’s not?

Personally, some of my favorite students over the years have been kids who might have been labelled as “bad” and “problematic.” 

Why are they my favorites? 

One, I love the challenge of finding out why they’re acting the way they are.

Two, I love letting them know that I care about them…  letting them know the things I like about them… making sure they know I respect them for who they are.

Three, it’s so incredibly rewarding watching their behavior change! 

Behavior in the classroom, bad behavior

Why Do Kids Have Behavior Problems at School?

I’m not the type of professional to label a kid as “bad.” 

When I see a “behavior problem” at school, I look at it as a child’s way of communicating. 

No kiddo wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to be really bad today.  Hopefully I get into a lot of trouble.”

Their brains are still developing.  They don’t have the skills to handle every situation.  Most of the time, they can’t control it.

They’re acting (or reacting) in a certain way to say: 

  • “This is hard.”
  • “I can’t handle this.”
  • “I’m overwhelmed.”
  • “I hurt.”
  • “I’m sad.”
  • “I’m having some trouble.”
  • “I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
  • “I’m having a bad day.”
  • “My stomach hurts. I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

My experiences working in the homes has opened my eyes to many situations.  I completely understand why some kids struggle to behave well each day.

Some live in survival mode.  Others aren’t treated very well. 

Some experience pain or emptiness which is confusing for them. 

Many have experienced trauma that we couldn’t even begin to understand.  

How Can You Help a Kid Who Has Behavior Problems at School?

Whether you’re dealing with a large group, a small group or one on one time with a kiddo, behavior problems pop up in any situation. 

Kids have a hard time controlling their bodies and emotions.  Disruptions will happen!

Kids will misbehave in school!

The biggest challenge is with the kiddo who seems to be a repeat offender.  One who has frequent behavior problems at school.

There are ways to be proactive with behavior (check out classroom management on Edutopia).  Setting the tone and creating expectations from the beginning can help prevent unwanted behaviors.

Similarly, reacting consistently can prevent repeated unwanted behaviors.

The following 10 tips use proactive and reactive strategies. 

Bad behavior, behavior in the classroom

10 Tips for Dealing with a Kid Who Has Behavior Problems at School

1. Start with Kindness and Compassion

Letting kids know that you care about them is a great starting point.  A warm smile and kind words can go a long way.

Kids who tend to act out need to know that someone is on their side.  They need to know that the world is not against them and that they matter… 

That they have value…  they’re important. 

2. Find Out What A Child Likes & Make a Connection with Them

Kids love talking about their interests.  You can use what they love to motivate them. 

Additionally, you can use their interests to make a connection.

Maybe you also like lizards.  Or you’ve watched the same movie they love.

Or, you share the same obsession with hot sauce on popcorn!

There are millions of ways to connect with a kiddo!  Just make sure you’re being genuine.  Kids can sniff out phoniness!

3. Role Model Desired Behavior

As the adult, you can set the tone for what behaviors you desire from those around you. 

Raising your voice, yelling and becoming upset can only further increase the stress in the kiddo exhibiting a negative behavior. 

It causes them to react defensively before a discussion can even begin.  This increases the chance that the behavior will continue to happen.  They’ll put the defense shield up and the boxing gloves on.  They’ll be ready to battle you each time.

So, don’t let your emotions transfer to the kiddo.    

Try to remain as calm as possible.  Be patient.  Let them feel respected as you listen to them.

4. Speak to the Child in Private Regarding Their Misbehavior or Behavior Problems

Try not to discipline a child publicly.  I know this is hard!  But it can be so embarrassing to the child.  Especially if they simply lost control for a second. 

Instead, pull them aside to discuss their unacceptable behavior. 

Listen to what they have to say regarding the situation.  Acknowledge that it may be hard to control behavior and emotions all of the time. 

Most kids have limited impulse control… the brain can’t respond in a mature way when stressed or upset!

Their nervous systems react with a fight or flight response.  (Or sometimes a fright or freeze response.)

Empathize with them.  No one is perfect. 

We all have moments and make mistakes.  But we can learn from our mistakes.

Be sure to talk about other choices they could have made that might have been better.  Give them a chance to self-reflect and grow from the moment.

5. Avoid Shaming, Listen Respectfully

Avoid shaming a kiddo for their behavior problem at school.  Instead of “I can’t believe you said that to him!” or “That’s terrible of you” try “Let’s talk about what happened?”

Take the time to fully listen to a child’s explanation for their behavior. 

The reason might not be directly related to the moment the behavior happened.  There may have been a series of challenges the kid was experiencing leading up to that moment. 

Allow them to express their emotions and how they feel.  Acknowledge their emotions with a neutral tone.  “So you’re angry because ____.” 

Identifying, expressing and managing emotions is important for kids.  It takes time and practice for some.

6. Avoid Labels

If a kid keeps hearing that they’re bad and they’re a behavior problem, chances are, they’re going to continue. 

This starts when kids are very little.  She’s shy.  He’s a picky eater.  She’s a wild child!  He’s mean.

When they continue to hear adults label them, they start to think that’s who they truly are.  They begin to act this way more frequently.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

Teachers and parents often warn each other… “Good luck with that one!”  or “You’ll have your hands full with her.” or “His older brother was so disrespectful.”

This sets the kiddo up for failure.  It denies them of having a fresh start, or an unbiased opinion. 

7. Catch Them Being Good

Instead of pointing out the negative, unwanted behavior that’s problematic- catch kids being good!  Point out the positive things they do. 

Make them feel involved and included.

Point out and emphasize the behaviors you want repeated. 

  • “Megan, I like how you ___.  Thank you.” 
  • “Johnny, that was great when you ____. High 5!” 

Make sure the positive behaviors are being communicated to parents, friends, family members and the child!

Instead of giving warnings for a behavior problem kiddo, teachers and parents can focus on a strength… share positive attributes…  Only the positive ones!

8. Assess the Environment Where You See the Problem Behavior

Step back and look at the overall environment surrounding the kid. 

Are they overstimulated with sensory input? Do they need a movement break or a brain break with proprioceptive input

Or, are they being stimulated enough?  I’ve watched kids who are bored act out frequently. 

On the other hand, kids who are being challenged too much also act out.  Are the demands too high?  Could they be anxious? Do they need a calming deep pressure brain break?

I’ve had many kids whom I worked with look at me with such great relief when I ask, “This is pretty tricky for you, isn’t it?”  (They were used to hearing “We went over this yesterday.”)

I had a kiddo nearly tackle me with a hug during an evaluation when I acknowledged how hard he was working to write a sentence.  Finally, someone saw his struggle. 

Sometimes the environment check can be simple: Are they just having a bad day?  Do they need a good laugh and a little fun?

9. Assess Your Own Mood

As adults, we misbehave if WE are having a bad day!  The stressors upon us are endless.  Some days are worse than others.  

I’m guilty of this one as a mom! 

I’ve told my kids to “stop being so loud” many times when they’re just being kids – laughing and being silly- and not doing anything wrong.  What has been wrong in the moment is that I’m stressed and want the room to be quiet!   

Make sure that you’re not habitually getting frustrated with a specific behavior.  The actions might just annoy you, and not necessarily be disruptive to all.

And as stated previously, don’t let your emotions transfer to the kids.

There are several ways to say the same thing.  Tone is very powerful.

10. Be Sensitive to Their Struggles, Inside or Outside of School

Try to understand where their behavior is coming from with an unbiased, nonjudgmental perspective. 

One perspective that I’ve gained from working in homes is seeing every walk of life. 

Seeing and hearing many differences. 

I’ve been in small homes that some people would consider gross and dirty.  But they were full of love and compassion.

I’ve been in large homes full of beauty, luxury and every toy and game imaginable.  But they were cold and empty feeling. 

And I’ve been around kids who are the happiest and sweetest – but they’ve come from so much trauma.

No matter where a kiddo is coming from, pain and struggles are everywhere.

Kids who try to make others feel bad, often don’t feel that great inside.   

When we parent kids and work with kids, it’s important to acknowledge that every difficulty is real. 

Some problems are big and others are very small.  But they’re all real to the person experiencing them.

Be aware that the child’s behavior is an attempt to communicate something.  Maybe it’s not your job to find out exactly the reason. 

But you have the ability to let them know that you truly care about them.

All kids are special in their own unique way… it’s why we work with them! 🙂

Share this! It could help more adults… help more kids… to decrease behavior problems at school or home!

Additional Posts for Your Reference:

School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 22 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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