When the name of my children's elementary school popped up on my caller ID, I panicked. I thought that one of my kids had gotten sick, but as it turns out I might have preferred a fever. When I picked up the telephone, the principal was on the line. "It's not an emergency," he assured me. "But I do need to speak to you about your daughter's aggressive behavior on the bus."
Estelle, 7, had never done anything to warrant a note from the teacher, much less a call from the principal. I listened, practically in disbelief, as he explained that she had hit a girl with her backpack. "Trouble at school often catches moms and dads off guard," explains Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of No More Misbehavin?. "At ages 7 and 8, children are exposed to a lot of new situations, and misbehavior becomes more common, even among kids who have never had discipline problems before." Now that I know I'll probably find myself in the same boat again, I have to develop a strategy. See what smart advice experts gave me.
At first, I was embarrassed about the backpack incident, and then I became angry at Estelle for putting me in that situation. Although these are typical reactions, experts say there are more productive ways to deal. "At this point, you just need to gather facts," says Dr. Borba. "Don't defend your child or throw him under the bus." Instead, she suggests simply saying, "Now that I'm aware of your concerns, let's arrange a time to discuss them."
You'll want your child to weigh in, but don't start off by telling her how upset you are. Say something like, "Mrs. Roberts called me today and said that you have been talking in class even after getting a couple of warnings. Do you want to tell me what happened?" From there, encourage your child to tell the story as if she were watching it in a TV show or a movie, suggests Brad Sachs, Ph.D., a psychologist in Columbia, Maryland. "Recounting the details in this way will give you a better idea of the circumstances that led up to the problem," he says. In my case, I learned that Estelle had asked the other girl to sit with her on the bus, but she refused. Estelle huffed out of the seat and hit the girl with her backpack by accident.
Once you have both sides of the story, work on a solution with your child to prevent the problem from happening again. If he lashed out because his feelings were hurt, for instance, talk to him about better reactions such as confiding in a teacher or simply walking away to play with another friend. Julia Fasano, of Montclair, New Jersey, had a heart-to-heart conversation with her son Cole after she received a call from his first-grade teacher saying he was fooling around with a friend during class. "My husband and I told him why it was important to pay attention to the teacher and how his behavior was disruptive," says Fasano. She didn't punish Cole at that point, but she told him that if his behavior didn't improve, she would have to take away his Star Wars toys. "In your plan, include an acceptable replacement for the inappropriate behavior so your child knows how to act and is less likely to repeat the offense," adds Dr. Borba.
Tell your child that you're going to fill in her teacher or principal on what you discussed. "Once she realizes that everyone is on the same page, she'll be less likely to repeat the bad behavior, knowing she can't get away with it," says Dr. Sachs. Also ask the teacher if she has any suggestions that could help improve your child's behavior. For instance, if your son is prone to talking in class, she might move him next to a quieter classmate.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Parents magazine.