My Child Behaves at Home But Acts Out at School—What Can I Do?

The possible reasons for a child's misbehavior at school can be puzzling, but solvable, with some extra investigation and attention. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says it's important to remember young children are still learning, and often need help channeling their spirited nature in more positive ways.

An illustration of a child tearing up a picture.
Photo: Yeji Kim.

Kindergarten Chaos

My 5 year old relishes being naughty in school, and seems to have little care for the authority of the teachers. She keeps getting sent to the dean's office and put in time-out but she just doesn't seem to care or thinks it's funny. She likes to find "naughty" friends she rebels with in school. She's drawn on kids' tights, she's ripped other kid's drawings. She's not really like this at home and I wonder what we can do? For context, she spends equal time with her mom and dad, who co-parent and live in different houses. She does have a new sister with her dad. Her parents were the type of kids to never get sent to the principal's office, so this is unchartered territory for both of us. Help!

—Kindergarten Chaos

I usually hear from parents that their child acts like an angel at school and a little devil at home. It seems your rebel daughter has taken the opposite approach! As great as it is that she doesn't act like this at home, I share your concern about these behaviors at school, especially over the long term if not addressed soon. Since there is usually never one clear reason for a child's behavior concerns, we can explore a few possibilities, and what to do next.

Channel Her Rebellion

When it's not my child, I can admire the heart of a natural rebel. As a rigid rule follower myself, I envy the spirit of pushing against norms, which is not in itself a bad trait. Think of how many legendary figures did just this to change the course of history. At the same time, this current behavior without some positive molding will surely cause more problems as she gets older if not figured out and dealt with sooner than later.

The magic will come from preserving the spirit of rebellion by channeling it in a way that keeps her out of real trouble in a few years. For example, encourage the questioning of rules and norms, but practice how to do so in a respectful, curious way instead of disrespecting authority figures. Not unlike most children her age, she will learn through appropriate structure and limits, but delivered with warmth via nurturing relationships. While taking this balanced approach to her rebellious spirit, however, it's also key to figure out the why of these behaviors, so they can be most effectively shaped for positive growth and development.

Consider School Fit

It can seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the brightest kids act out from boredom. If the classroom environment does not stimulate them, they find their own ways. Alternatively, if the material exceeds her abilities and she feels overwhelmed, this could also show up in her behaviors. Unfortunately, both of these possibilities steer adult attention in the wrong direction of behavior correction instead of adjusting instruction to better meet a child's academic abilities.

Another consideration is that she needs more support around the big adjustment from preschool to kindergarten, and is pushing against the increased structure typically part of this change. Although time-outs and going to the dean's office may be traditional responses to misbehavior, they are not effective with many types of children in actually changing behaviors. It might be worth a discussion with the teacher and dean about how to enact discipline, which teaches positive behaviors, instead of punishment, which often escalates negative behaviors rather than solve underlying problems. But we have to understand those underlying problems first.

Look at Peer Relationships

It sounds like your daughter has found a feisty crew that is likely reinforcing her rebellion. If she feels liked and accepted by them when she acts out, this sense of belonging, although misplaced, is still belonging. The problem, however, is some of these behaviors are simultaneously alienating other peers as she is showing some aggressive interactions that can lead over time to being excluded and rejected. If I were meeting with your family in my office, I would want to uncover what might be driving her to act against other children, which is likely rooted in emotional reasons.

Acknowledge Family Factors

At this age, family changes like a new sister could influence her emotions and behaviors in ways that her 5-year-old brain cannot yet understand. Young children coping with blended families can express their struggle in a range of confusing, challenging ways. It would not be uncommon for her to experience big feelings about sharing her father's attention, but not acting out at home so as not to be rejected. If she holds in the big feelings at home, they come out at school, where there is less to lose. She may need more one-on-one attention with each parent right now, and permission to express a range of emotions she may worry are "bad" (e.g., jealousy, anger). If you can coach her to identify and talk about these feelings, this could fade away her classroom behaviors with some time.

When to Seek Professional Help

If the problems persist, a professional evaluation may not only give some clarity to what is going on, but what to do about it. A full psychological evaluation would include intelligence and academic testing to examine where there may be gaps between her abilities and how she is performing at school, including if the work is too challenging or not challenging enough. This evaluation would also assess how her behaviors compare to other children the same age to see if there are significant enough differences to indicate a diagnosis and/or intervention.

As Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is estimated to affect 5 to 8 percent of children, this type of brain wiring could contribute to impulsive and aggressive behaviors, trouble paying attention if she's bored, and difficulties with emotional regulation. Usually, these problems would also be observed at home, but not always if the home environment happens to be an especially good fit (like getting a fair amount of adult attention and stimulation). This potential diagnosis is one example of how a professional evaluation could inform strategies to replace current punishments at school with responses that actually work to change her behavior.

The Bottom Line

As much as we do not want to squash the spirit of a rebel who could change the world, we also want to ensure that every child learns how to interact with the world in ways that promote positive growth and development. At this young age, these naughty classroom behaviors could be her way of expressing a struggle adjusting to kindergarten, a new sister, or both. They could also signal deeper issues that will only improve if uncovered and dealt with directly. Her strong spirit is fortunate to have two families invested in figuring out this behavior puzzle, and who do not see a "naughty" kid, but a young child needing more help.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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