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.'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.

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 at school. She's drawn on kids' tights, she's ripped other children'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 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 Their 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 behavior, without some positive molding, will surely cause more problems as they get 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 them out of real trouble. 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 their age, they will learn through appropriate structure and limits. Aim for a kind but firm approach that establishes rules with warmth via nurturing relationships and natural consequences.

While taking this balanced approach to their rebellious spirit, it's key to figure out the why behind these behaviors. Do a little digging to find out when, where, and why they are misbehaving. Once you understand the circumstances—and how your child is thinking and feeling at these times, they can be effectively guided toward positive growth, development, and behavior.

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 may their own ways. Alternatively, if the material exceeds their abilities and they feel overwhelmed, this feeling could also show up in their 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 and socio-emotional development.

Consider if your child needs more support around the big adjustment from preschool to kindergarten. Perhaps they are pushing against the increased structure that is typically part of this change. Although time-outs and going to the principal's office may be traditional responses to misbehavior, they are not effective with many children in actually changing behaviors.

It might be worth a discussion with the teacher and administrators about how to reframe discipline to teach positive behaviors instead of punishment. Punishment often escalates negative behaviors rather than solving underlying problems. But we have to understand those underlying problems first before positive progress can be made.

Look at Peer Relationships

It sounds like your child has found a feisty crew that is likely reinforcing their rebellion. If they feel liked and accepted by their pals when they act out, this sense of belonging, although misplaced, is enticing. The problem, however, is some of these behaviors are simultaneously alienating other peers as they are 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 your child to act against other children. Most likely the causes are rooted in emotions.

Acknowledge Family Factors

At this age, family changes like a new sister could influence your child's emotions and behaviors in ways that their 5-year-old brain cannot yet understand. Young children coping with blended families can express their feelings in a range of confusing, challenging ways. It would not be uncommon for them to experience big feelings about sharing their father's attention, but not acting out at home so as not to be rejected.

If they hold in the big feelings at home, they come out at school, where there is less to lose. They may need more one-on-one attention with each parent right now, and permission to express a range of emotions they may worry is "bad" (e.g., jealousy, anger). If you can coach them to identify and talk about these feelings, their classroom misbehavior may fade away with 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 their abilities and how they are performing at school, including if the work is too challenging or not challenging enough. This assessment will include how your child's behaviors compare to other children the same age.

Significant differences may indicate a diagnosis and/or intervention. For instance, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is estimated to affect 5% to 8% of children. This type of brain wiring could contribute to impulsive and aggressive behaviors, trouble paying attention if they're bored, and difficulties with emotional regulation. Sensory processing disorder, learning differences, and autism spectrum disorder can also play a role in a child's behavior.

Usually, these problems would also be observed at home, but if the home environment happens to be an especially good fit (like getting a fair amount of adult attention and stimulation) they may not be. These potential diagnoses are examples of how a professional evaluation could inform strategies to replace current punishments at school with responses that actually work to change their behavior.

The Bottom Line

As much as we do not want to squash a child's spirit, 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 their way of expressing a struggle adjusting to kindergarten, a new sister, or both. Or something else altogether.

They could also signal deeper issues that will only improve if uncovered and dealt with directly. Your child's 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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