6 Tips for Talking to Kids About Bad Behavior in School

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Each week parenting expert Annie Fox will share her wit and wisdom for teaching kids to be good people and strong learners.

We want our kids to act responsibly when we’re not around. That's why it’s so gratifying to hear a good report from your child’s teacher or from another parent. At those times there’s nothing a proud Mom or Dad has to do except bask in the compliment and say, “That’s so nice to hear!” But what do you do when you get a negative report from school? That’s what this parent wanted to know when she emailed me yesterday:

I just received a dreaded phone call from my 9-year-old's teacher saying that he is goofing off during class time and not staying focused. How can I show him there are consequences for him acting that way in school?

Here are some tips on how to discuss out-of-line behavior with your child so s/he gets a clear message yet still feels loved and supported:

1.  Get the facts. Before talking with your child, talk with the teacher. Find out exactly what’s going on and how it has been handled so far. Find out if other students are involved. The more information you have for your upcoming discussion with your child, the better.

More: What Every Parent Should Know: How to Help Your Kids Deal With Peer Conflicts at School

2.   Talk with your co-parent. Teaching kids to do the right thing should involve both parents. Whether you are co-parenting under the same roof, or not, getting both parents on the same page adds twice the reinforcement for the course correction your child needs. Being on different pages (or in different books!) sends mixed messages. Suppose one parent says, “Emma, when you’re in class your job is to be the good student I know you can be. That means showing your teacher respect by paying attention.” And the other parent chuckles and says, “Fooling around in class? That’s my girl! I gave my teachers a hard time, too.” Obviously, no responsible parent would ever say that, but you get the idea why staying on message is so important.

3.   Talk with your child. Call a family meeting. Present the information you have. Stay calm as you ask, “What’s true about your behavior in class?” Your child will likely deny the teacher’s report, to which you might reply, “If it’s not accurate, why do you think s/he said it?” You might hear, “The teacher hates me.” Or “I dunno.” Don’t buy it. Dig deeper. At this point your child may walk back the denial. “I might have been fooling around a little, but I wasn’t the only one.” Or, “I’d pay more attention if Mr. __ wasn’t so boring!” These are justifications for bad behavior. Acknowledge them calmly, but don’t invest any money. Simply repeat the question, “What’s true about your behavior in class?” At this point, your child may confess, “I guess sometimes I talk while the teacher is talking.” Now we’re getting somewhere!

4.  Help your child take responsibility. We control our own behavior. Sure, other people may influence our choices, but ultimately our decisions (to act out in class, to blow off a homework assignment, to spread a nasty rumor, etc.) are our own. Teach your children well. This one’s an important life lesson.

5.  Move forward.  Work with your child to create some new strategies for being a more attentive student. That includes new ways to respond to distractions in class, when the focus ought to be on the teacher, or at home, when the focus ought to be on homework.

6.  Follow up. Work together to set realistic short-term goals and hold your child accountable. If s/he has been failing to turn in daily homework, set up a goal for the next 1-2 weeks that all homework will be completed (to the best of his/her ability) and turned in on time. Let your child share his/her progress with you. Acknowledge progress! If you need to, stay on top of things (without hovering).

In all of this, your long-term parenting objective is helping your child understand that negative feedback can be a valuable opportunity to make positive changes in school and in life.

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ANNIE FOX, M.Ed. is the award-winning author of eight books. An online advisor to teens and parents, she is also a respected character educator. Annie’s award-winning books include: Teaching Kids to Be Good People and the groundbreaking Middle School Confidential book and app series. Learn more about Annie at her website