Behavior Problems at School: A Complete Problem-Solving Guide for Parents
Is your child experiencing behavior problems at school? Use this step-by-step guide – from setting up a brainstorming session with the school to tracking progress and troubleshooting setbacks – to address and remediate behaviors that are interfering with your child’s education.
The phone rings. It’s the school — again. Your child is exhibiting problem behaviors; they are having a difficult day. Your gut response might be one of panic, frustration, confusion, and/or overwhelm. What now?
The school may have ideas for managing your child’s behaviors. But management alone is not enough. To truly and effectively help a child with school behavior problems, you must teach them new skills to ultimately reduce interfering behaviors. You cannot punish the problem away.
Parents play an important role in driving the conversation and the problem-solving process. From requesting school meetings to brainstorming behavioral strategies and monitoring progress, here’s a detailed step-by-step guide for working with educators to improve your child’s classroom behavior.
How to Help a Child with Behavior Problems at School
Step 1: Connect with the School
- Assume this isn’t the first time. It’s not easy to receive the dreaded school phone call or email about your child’s behaviors. You may be tempted to push back. But schools often contact parents only after observing a pattern of behaviors. That doesn’t mean your child is demonstrating these behaviors every day, or at the same intensity each time.
- Request a meeting with the teacher to investigate what’s really going on. Ideally, the meeting should occur within a week after the incident. Make the request via email; written records are important.
- If your child has an IEP or a 504 Plan, invite the case manager, other teachers who encounter the challenging behaviors, and anyone else who can provide valuable insights about your child’s behavior, like a therapist or a related service provider, to the meeting.
- Avoid problem-solving over email or phone. It’s almost impossible to do so effectively. Plus, you and the school will need time to gather questions and information.
Sample Outreach Email
Thank you for contacting us today about _____. It is clear we need to meet as a team as soon as possible to discuss in more detail what is happening and how to help. We are formally requesting we meet with yourself, principal ___, and ___ as soon as possible. Please ensure their availability for a meeting. See below for dates and times we are available within the next week. Thank you again; we look forward to problem solving together.
- Be professional, clear, and strong in your request
- Include other caregivers in the email chain
Step 2: Prepare for the Meeting
Set an Agenda
Agendas are often overlooked by all parties, but they provide structure and give parents some control over the discussion. Create and provide an agenda via email to the school team once a meeting date and time are set. Recommended agenda:
- Parents will provide further information about [child’s name] to the school team. The purpose of this step is to remind every person in the meeting that your child is more than their interfering behaviors.
- Hobbies and interests may help teachers bond with your child and figure out creative ways to engage them
- Strengths and dislikes may also help teachers determine how to best work with your child
- If your child has a disability, describe how it impacts them
- School will describe the interfering behaviors and answer parent questions (sample questions in step three below)
- Ask the school to provide data or written reports regarding the behavior ahead of the meeting
- Collaborate on potential strategies to reduce target behaviors, teach new skills, and prevent other interfering behaviors
- Create an action plan that the school will implement and monitor to change interfering behaviors
- Develop a communication plan
- Set a follow-up meeting in one month to discuss progress
Remember that the point of the meeting is not to hear about how difficult your child is, but to discuss what teachers have observed and to share ideas for moving forward. Parents should not passively listen with minimal participation. What the school has to say is important, but you can offer a lot in the process.
Step 3: Meeting Day
These questions yield clarifying answers that allow the school to go beyond generic behavior solutions and develop individualized ones for your child.
1. Can you tell me more about my child’s behaviors? Describe the latest incident.
- Make sure you understand the problem behaviors exactly. Vague words like “defiant,” “bad,” or “difficult” do nothing to describe the actual behavior. Ask teachers to list specific actions, like yelling, leaving their seat, and so on. (Literally, what is your child doing in these moments?)
2. What do you expect students to be doing during that time?
- The answer will give you a sense of classroom expectations and your child’s ability to meet them (or not).
3. Can you give more context around these behaviors?
- Times of day
- Classroom setup (Is it during lecture or independent work? In small or large groups? What else is happening in the room?)
- Who is around when the behavior occurs?
4. What happens directly after the challenging behaviors?
- How do teachers and peers react?
- Any environmental changes?
- Is the assignment taken away? Is your child sent to the hallway or principal’s office?
5. What seems to make the behaviors worse?
6. What do you think would make the behaviors better?
- Here’s an opportunity to jump in and suggest ideas.
- Bring a notebook or computer to take notes.
- Pay close attention to the language the school team uses to describe your child’s behaviors. Ask for specifics.
- Be prepared to hear about a child that you might not recognize. It is not uncommon for children to behave very differently at home and at school.
Brainstorm behavioral strategies around these categories.
- Antecedent adaptations may address triggers that lead to the interfering behavior. They can include:
- Environmental adaptations (e.g., changes to seating, grouping)
- Changes to the task presentation or requirements (e.g., fewer questions or worksheets, frequent breaks). If your child has the skills to do the task, but isn’t doing it, a tweak in this step may help
- Change how adults or peers interact with your child (e.g. tone, proximity, kneeling down versus standing over, private redirection versus public)
- Building behaviors that allow your child to learn new skills – in communication, self-regulation, organization, self-management, etc. – and change the interfering behavior. (Example: A student who refuses to do classwork may need to build appropriate ways to ask for help or for a break- and then learn how to build tolerance for doing classwork). Think about areas to build based on answers from the school team.
- Constructive consequences include immediate reinforcement of desired behaviors, and alternative responses to reduce or redirect interfering behaviors.
- Reinforcements should align with the presumed “why” behind the behavior
Then, discuss how the school will implement these strategies, including which teachers will introduce a strategy, how and when they’ll do it, and how they’ll monitor progress. Outline all these points before the meeting ends. (Example: The student will learn to ask for help by putting a sticky note on their desk. The teacher will model the process in class and use a data sheet to note frequency.)
Remember that this action plan is not a behavior intervention plan, an IEP, a 504 Plan, or any other formal system, but an opportunity to test-run strategies.
Home-School Communication Plan
Check-ins can be daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or as needed (and in any medium) to discuss your child’s progress and whether the strategies are working. The more you communicate with the school, the better the results will be for your child.
Most schools will have a communication log to track behaviors (including the use of new skills across the day) and provide feedback on progress.
Step 4: Test-Driving and Troubleshooting
The school should implement the action plan over several weeks, monitor progress, and then reconvene with you to discuss next steps. If the test-drive is successful, formalize the behavioral supports into an IEP or 504 Plan, if applicable.
But what if the strategies in the action plan don’t work? Or what if the team can’t agree on strategies at all? What if your child’s behaviors are so disruptive that a test-run isn’t feasible?
- Provide a written request for a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). An FBA will examine the interfering behaviors and provide suggestions for reducing or replacing them. FBAs often result in a formal behavior intervention plan (BIP) or at least additional behavior strategies. (You can ask for an FBA even if the school is test-driving strategies.) Ask if a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) can conduct the FBA. As assessment is underway…
- Advocate for other supports, like antecedent strategies, to reduce the interfering behaviors.
- If your child is still struggling with behaviors, even after an FBA and BIP, remember that you can ask for a new FBA to restart the process.
No matter the outcome, continue to communicate with the school about your child’s behaviors, needs, and progress.
The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar, “A Parent’s Guide to Problem-Solving School Behavior Struggles” [Video Replay & Podcast #379] with Rachel Schwartz, PhD, BCBA-D, which was broadcast live on November 10, 2021.
How To Help a Child with Behavior Problems at School: Next Steps
- Free Download: 6 Ways to Develop Emotional Control at School
- Learn: How to Solve 8 Common Behavior Problems in the Classroom
- Read: Managing My Child’s School Behavior Problems
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