The disruptive child

Phyllis Farias

Akshay comes home from school and hesitatingly says, “Mum, there is a note from my teacher in my diary.” The wheels in mum’s mind begin to turn: ‘Oh! Oh! Not again!’ Her heart beats faster; her hands get clammy. Will it be another complaint, another summons to the principal’s office?

For some parents, the most dreaded book in their child’s bag is the diary – to them it’s a “Complaint book”. Yes, in many cases it is just that, the complaints could be for lack of participation in class or an array of examples of disruptive behaviour. Some children enjoy acting the clown. Some display aggressive behaviour while others may have fun at another’s expense through pranks and mischief. Slow completion of work due to day dreaming or incessant talking, walking around the class, all of which disrupt the productivity of the class.

How does a school usually react to the disruptive behaviour of children? At first, they may try to correct the behaviour by punishing, preaching or nagging. The child may even be made an example of in front of the class and sometimes the assembly. When all else fails, the diary comes to the rescue. Well, now the ball is in the parents’ court.

How do parents usually react? Typically, parents feel ashamed, angry, bewildered and may react in any of the following ways:

  • Scold, beat and punish the child for ‘making them look bad’; or
  • Plunge right in (particularly these days), go to the school and rescue and protect the child from the consequences; or
  • Go to the school, listen meekly, quietly and sometimes tearfully, and promise that it will never happen again and that the child will behave well in future.

Now, why does the school contact the home? They genuinely believe that they are ‘bridging the home-school communication gap’ and alerting the parent to a potential concern. BUT, whose responsibility is it to make the child behave well at ‘school’?

Phyllis-Farias How should parents respond to the school?
Parents need to understand the difference between involvement and enmeshment. The idea is to love and accept the child unconditionally, regardless of what’s going on at school. At the same time parents have to learn to be separate from the child and allow the child to be separate from them. This enables parents to provide the support the child needs while also teaching them responsibility and problem solving. This is definitely a challenge and yet may be the only way to resolve a conflict between a child and the school.

During a meeting with the parents, the Principal/Teacher would do well to keep a few points in mind:

  • The focus is to help the child. Do not make judgments about the worth of the child.
  • Do not attack the parenting styles of parents. They do not have to prove their competence as a parent to you.
  • Do not shame parents into hurting the child. Attack the problem, not the child.
  • Parents cannot be expected to discipline or assume responsibility for changing the behaviour of the child for something that happened at school. A combination of factors could be playing a role in the behaviour of the child at school. The meeting is to keep the parents informed.
  • Provide specific facts about what exactly the child is doing. How often has the behaviour occurred? Mention the consequences for this type of behaviour.
  • Ask parents to contribute their observations, needs or personal experiences to enable the school to help and motivate the child.
  • Find out if there is a parallel between the child’s behaviour at home and at school. If yes, this could be a red light that the behavioural problem may need deeper attention. Mutually decide on a time frame to observe changes, for if the disruption/misbehaviour continues, then counselling and assessment may be necessary.
  • Above all, LISTEN. Listen with your whole self to the whole body of the parents. Shaky hands and sweating forehead are a giveaway of the vulnerability of the parent.

And now a few thoughts for teachers to ponder upon:
Question yourself as a teacher, why do I wish to get the parents involved? Dr. Thomas Gordon in his book ‘Teacher Effectiveness Training’ brings out the concept of “teacher-owned” problems and “student-owned” problems. Teachers should learn to identify problems they “own”. Does the behaviour of the child affect your feelings and interfere with your needs? For e.g. is your own success tied to your student’s behaviour and performance? If yes, then you as the teacher own the problem. You now have three choices before you:
1. Change the student.
2. Change the environment.
3. Change yourself.

If you decide to change the student, then please do not order, command, warn, threaten or ridicule the child. Getting rid of the child or suggesting to the parents that they withdraw the child from school is definitely not the solution. Perhaps, a better way would be to convey to the child, how the behaviour makes you feel. Use the ‘I message’, for e.g. ‘I feel angry when you act the clown in class and disturb my flow of thought’. This will bring in honesty and transparency into the teacher-student relationship. In the long run it will foster a rapport. A little affection and love shown can bring about a miraculous change in the child’s behaviour. If the problem is ‘student owned’ then do not indulge the child. Help the child to own the problem and face the consequences of the disruptive behaviour. And above all build a partnership with parents. Use the diary – not only as a “complaint book” but also as a means to communicate positive messages about the child to the parents.

Wherever possible find creative ways to change the environment. Generally, the education system tends to make everybody like everybody else. This could be one of the causes for misbehaviour as the same fit does not fit all. Every teacher and every student is unique and therefore the system should be dynamic, constantly evolving and changing.

A few points on ‘change yourself’.

Let me share a thought that I picked up from a book entitled, ‘Living, Loving and Learning’ by Leo F. Buscaglia, Ph.D. He asks, ‘Should you be a loving teacher or a loving human being? He goes on to say that children identify with people, with human beings. They have great difficulty identifying with a teacher for most of the time the teacher is playing a role. We have to be MORE than a loving teacher.

Let us also learn from the younger generation. They are our best teachers. Through their behaviour they are giving us messages on how they want to be treated. Ask yourself whether you model being a learner, constantly updating your knowledge and sharing your joy of learning. Look at the quality of your teaching and the preparation that goes into your teaching. Teachers who are knowledgeable, have the right attitudes, are organized, behave confidently and have things under their control are less likely to face aggression or disruption. The teacher who is open to the thoughts of others can, and generally will control the outcome of any interaction. Students do perceive the teacher’s efforts. Respect earned and commanded is the greatest antidote to disruptive behaviour.

In conclusion let me share a 3-line poem written by a student in the U.S.A.

‘I am me!
And I am good!!
‘Coz God don’t make no junk!!!’

Indeed God don’t make no junk! Every child is unique, be it the docile, obedient child or the disruptive child.

The author is an educational consultant and counsellor. She can be reached at

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