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How parents can team up with teachers to take on your child’s behavior issues

Whether it’s disobedience, aggression towards other children, or potty problems, hearing that your child is having a behavioral issue at school can spark a mix of strong, negative emotions in a parent: embarrassment, disbelief, sadness, and anger — even when you know deep down that no child is perfect. However, parents need to remember two things: that every child displays challenging behavior at some point, and that positive change can be made when parents and teachers team up.

Though all children and situations are different, some general do’s and don’ts can help you to make the most of your greatest resource and ally: your child’s teacher.

Don’t try to start a conversation during dropoff or pickup

You may want to speak with the teacher as soon as you can when you get a note or text about behavior problems at school, but Neta Raz Studnitski, a Los Angeles-based Early Childhood Education (ECE) mentor and preschool teacher with Wonderschool, says that teacher attention needs to be on all the kids during dropoff and pickup hours. “That’s never a good time to bring up a serious conversation,” she says. “Try to schedule a time in advance when you can sit down comfortably and not have to rush to have a conversation,” says Studnitski.

Don’t feel bad

“This is part of the game of teaching,” says Maeve Donnelly, Ph.D., a BACB (Behavior Analyst Certification Board) supervisor in Longmeadow, MA. Teachers work with parents on discipline a lot, and they are trained to do so. “Teaching and learning is making mistakes and doing the wrong thing in order to learn the right thing,” she says. As the mother of three children herself, she says she’s familiar with the terrible feeling that comes with hearing your child may be disruptive at school. “The teacher isn’t assigning blame to you. Kids try things out. It happens.” She says it’s important for parents to remember that negative behavior is changeable. “In my work I’ve seen the most challenging behavior — children hurting themselves severely — that can be changed. It’s not part of your diagnosis. It’s not fixed.”

Do establish an open channel of communication with your child’s teacher before issues arise

If you foster an honest, open-minded relationship between school and home from the beginning, it will be easier to communicate when behavior issues arise. “Share your child’s strengths with the teacher. Tell the teacher what’s happening at home,” says Studnitski. Above all, if a respectful and honest relationship is established, a parent won’t have any issue asking a teacher, “I tried that tip that you gave me and it didn’t work. What am I doing wrong? Is it really working for you in the classroom?” If parents and teachers don’t feel comfortable talking to each other, Studnitski says, “The person who loses is that child.”

Do take the lead

Don’t assume your teacher will handle it all on their own, recommends Studnitski, and don’t attempt to handle it all alone at home. Also keep in mind that your child has a totally different environment at home versus at school, with different expectations and levels of attention, so it’s natural that a child may behave one way for a teacher and a different way at home.

Do make sure you’re on the same page about classroom rules and age appropriate behavior

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between disruptive and typical child behavior. When in doubt, start with your pediatrician, who can identify typical behavior patterns for your child’s age range as well as speech and hearing issues, which can lead to communication challenges and subsequent behavior issues. You can also simply ask your child’s teacher which assessment tools they use and even administer your own at home as well. “There are assessment tools that are geared towards parents—like ASQ—that we use at Wonderschool,” says Studnitski. Assessing the child both at home and at school can paint a bigger picture of a child’s behavior issues.

Do prioritize consistency

Especially for little kids who don’t have a huge range of understanding nuanced language, it’s important, whether your child is taking a toy or stealing a snack at school, to use the same terminology and consequences around that situation at home. “Ask what you and the teacher can do, at home and at school respectively to create a behavioral plan that will be consistent,” says Studnitski. You are most likely to see improvements at home when both parents and teachers use the same language, strategies and tools.

Do prepare for it to get a little bit worse before it gets better

“The way kids learn to behave is by trying things out,” says Donnelly. If a child, for instance, has been getting laughs from his friends at school by pulling down their pants, and a teacher sets new consequences that deprives him of that fun, he will continue to try to seek that initial response. “They’re testing out the contingencies—‘What if I just touch these pants?’” says Donnelly. Behavior may get momentarily worse, she says, but actually, “that’s a good sign that whatever you did, it’s working.” It won’t be fun at first, she says, but “You have to just to stay strong and be consistent. It’s the hard part about parenting.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Donnelly says that if your child doesn’t respond to consistent redirection or brief time outs, or problems are so severe that someone is getting physically hurt, or your child is not participating with class, there are more resources for you.

Ask your pediatrician about local intervention agency options, which are free and useful. “With early intervention you get professionals who come to your house and do a lot of different assessments. They’re usually very friendly and like doing this. They’re not coming in to judge you, but to see how they can help your child,” says Donnelly. An interventionist will either let you know whether your child needs any extra services, which are private do not go on a child’s record.  “It’s free, and I would encourage everybody—everybody—to reach out to their local agency.” says Donnelly.

The most important thing to remember is that all children are figuring out how to exist and interact in the world, and you are not alone in helping them succeed.

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Claire Zulkey

Claire Zulkey is a writer in Evanston, IL. She has reported on children, families and education for publications like the New York Times, Parents, and the University of Chicago Magazine