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School vs. home: your child's two personas

Published on: September 27, 2007

When school and home behaviors don't matchWhen your child’s teacher describes his behavior at school, does it leave you wondering, whose kid is she talking about?

Maybe your child is the picture of perfection at home: He listens well, stays on task and respects authority. But now you hear he’s a hellion at school.

Or let’s say your daughter is practically incorrigible at home, with meltdowns, time-outs, shouting matches and plenty of sass. But at school? A model student.

What’s going on? It turns out a child’s school behavior can differ dramatically from his home behavior. “Children — especially younger kids — will often be more of a challenge in one situation than another,” says Jamila Reid, a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington.

In the grade-school years, kids often keep it together in school, but run out of steam at the end of the day, says Leslie Fields, a counselor at Redmond Elementary School. That leaves parents greeting frazzled and fatigued youngsters at the doorstep.

“Home is familiar — and a safer environment to misbehave in,” says Fields. Home also lacks the peer pressure, the boundaries and the incentives to behave that are typical in a classroom setting. “Students know what’s expected of them and what the consequences are for not following the rules,” she says.

Kids who act out primarily around their parents actually show healthy signs of attachment, says Katie Snyder, a Seattle-area elementary and preschool teacher. “It means they feel safe enough to let go around home,” says Snyder, who has two children. “When my daughter goes to someone’s house and comes back with a stellar report, that’s comforting to me.” And that holds true even she “throws a fit” the minute she arrives home, Snyder adds.

That scenario is not so different than Snyder’s own public vs. private demeanor. “Out in public, I present the best of myself,” she says. “At home, I can whine.”

The good news? When kids fare better at school than at home, it means they can control their behavior in one setting, says Reid. “If we work on changing the home dynamic, they have the ability to behave there, also.”

Easy at home, difficult at school
What about the child who does better at home? Maybe that child has had less experience in a school setting — or hasn’t figured out what’s expected of him, notes Reid. “Sometimes parents do a good job of meeting their child’s needs at home, but find there’s a mismatch at school.”

A parent who understands that her very active child has trouble focusing might vary activities and organize outings to keep that child engaged and interested. “Suddenly, at school he’s asked to sit for 20 minutes at circle time and be able to follow several directions at once,” Reid says.

Some kids find the schoolroom stressful, says Lynn Faherty, a parent education instructor at Bates Technical College in Tacoma. “The parent should question: Does the child feel like she is accepted and valued in her class? Is there any dissonance there?”

Say, for example, your kindergartener loves to draw, but her teacher doesn’t allow drawing in class.  She might think her teacher doesn’t like her, and she might decide she doesn’t like school. “That can happen the first day,” Faherty says.

Or maybe your child’s school friendships aren’t going well. “There could be a kid in the class who intimidates your child,” she says. “Young kids aren’t great at socialization.”

Kids with sensory, learning or attention problems present special challenges in the classroom, says Fields. They generally do better at home in a calmer environment where, she notes, “they’re much less agitated and less stimulated.”

When to take action
Whether your child is facing behavioral challenges at home or school, seek professional help if you feel the situation is getting worse, Fields advises. “If three months have gone by and there’s no improvement in sight, find a counselor,” she says. “Asking for help is not an admission of failure.”

And if your child is having problems in both arenas — at school and at home — alarm bells should be going off. “These are the kids who are testing a lot of different situations or struggling in them,” says Reid. “While it’s part of a kid’s job to test limits, if it’s extreme, or if parents are out of strategies, that’s problematic.”

Parents looking for support can investigate parenting classes, consult with a pediatrician, talk to their child’s teacher or contact the University of Washington Parenting Clinic. The clinic provides programs that promote children’s social competence and helps reduce behavior problems.

“Anytime parents feel they don’t have the resources to handle behaviors at home, they should be concerned,” says Reid. “It doesn’t mean the child is on a trajectory. There are lots of strategies. But if you are feeling you’re out of your league, it’s time to get help.”

Linda Morgan is the author of the book Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Academic Potential.

Suggestions for school and home behavior differences

Parent education instructor Lynn Faherty feels that many young children lack coping skills and need help making smooth, stress-free transitions between home and school. Here are some of her suggestions:

  • Start with the physical. Is your child getting enough sleep, exercise, and the right food?
  • Make sure your kids know you’re there for them — and that they can count on you no matter what.
  • Don’t overschedule or fit in “one more stop” on the way to or from school. Kids don’t do well with rushing.
  • Get into the mind of your child. What is it like for him during times of transition?
  • When a child meets a parent at the end of the school day, there is an expectation. The child is waiting for a special “reunification” time — a hug, a rub on the head, a routine of some sort.

Parents have their own schedules and agendas, and sometimes need to destress before picking up or meeting their child after school. So if you need to, stop, relax and pick up a cappuccino.

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