Kristin Bieber, Ph.D.
Parents frequently have questions about how to discipline their children at home for misbehavior that occurs at school. They usually want to address this behavior for two reasons:
Conversations at home about behavior at school can be difficult for children and parents. Children may dread talking to their parents after they have received a consequence for their behavior at school. Parents may struggle to find a balance between communicating that what the child did at school was not acceptable and preventing a single incident at school from affecting the child’s entire evening at home. Fortunately, it is possible to address school behavior at home in a way that accomplishes the goals described above.
When deciding on a strategy for addressing school misbehavior, it is important to keep the developmental level of your child in mind. Younger children (preschool through early elementary) tend to have difficulties applying information discussed several hours ago to their ongoing behavior in a way that causes change. This is especially likely when they experience a strong emotion, such as anger, frustration or excitement. In general, it is the “events in the moment” that have the biggest influence on the behavior of young children.
In most cases, there are school- or classroom-wide discipline strategies in place for dealing with misbehavior. Common school discipline strategies include losing recess for the day, having your name on the board, etc. The majority of these programs work by removing or limiting a child’s access to privileges or by signaling to the child that he or she needs to change the behavior or more severe consequences will follow.
Most teachers also have a policy of notifying parents when a child breaks a school rule. After being notified of their child’s misbehavior, it is natural for parents to want to talk to their children about the issue or remove privileges at home. In many instances, the assumption behind this strategy is that children will learn: “When I break a rule at school, I am punished at home; therefore, I don’t want to break rules at school.” While this makes sense in theory, because children have a difficult time applying their experiences in one setting to change their behavior in a different setting, punishment and lectures at home for behavior at school often only create opportunities for negative communication between parents and children. Furthermore, repeatedly taking away privileges at home for misbehavior at school may reduce a child’s motivation to follow rules because there is little left to use to promote appropriate behavior.
Before addressing the issue with your child, make sure you have all the information from your child’s school.
Once you have the information you need to understand what happened and how it occurred, thank your child’s teacher or administrator for communicating with you, and let him or her know how you intend to address it with your child.
If the misbehavior appears to be an isolated incident involving a minor infraction (e.g., talking out of turn, forgetting homework, not sharing, calling another student a name, etc.), tell your child in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, “Your teacher let me know that ______ happened at school today and that your consequence was ______. I am disappointed that this happened, and I hope that you have a better day at school tomorrow.” If relevant, you and your child might brainstorm ways to avoid similar incidents in the future, but keep this discussion brief and to the point.
If the misbehavior has happened two or three times before, you may want to develop a system for managing this behavior at home and school. Establish a procedure for communicating with your child’s teacher.
When your child displays positive behavior throughout the school day, praise your child’s behavior at home and offer a set of special rewards that he or she can choose from when certain expectations are met at school. Examples might be go to the park with mom or dad, play on the iPad, pick a special dessert, etc. Make sure that every time your child has a good day at school, he or she is able to select a reward.
When your child does not have a good day, no reward is selected. Briefly discuss the reasoning with your child saying, “I see you did not meet your goal at school today. You do not get to pick a reward. Let’s try again tomorrow to have a good day.” You may have a brief conversation about what your child needs to do to have a good day, but keep it short and sweet!
Encourage your child to go about his or her typical after-school routine and continue to play with him or her as you normally would. However, special privileges, such as the iPad or park, should not be options.