Is My Kid the Worst Kid in Class?

Published on 
September 30, 2016

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Written by Stephanie Marcy, PhD, psychologist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles

chla-stephanie-marcy-square.jpgSchool is back in session after a long summer break.  You drop your angel off, bid him a good day, tell him to behave, and exhale. The flyer comes home for back to school night, and you anticipate the regular drill—meeting of the teacher, touring the classroom, and signing up for PTA. You are the first one to shake the teacher’s hand and introduce yourself: “Hi, I’m Andy’s mom!” And then it happens. The teacher looks at you in a scrutinizing way. “Oh, you’re Andy’s mom. He really has a lot of energy, doesn’t he?” And then it hits you. What if your kid is the worst kid in the class?

So, what do you do when your child is having a difficult time in the classroom? It is not an uncommon problem, and may be nothing other than an adjustment issue. However, it can be very difficult as a parent to determine how serious the problem is, how to respond, and how best to support your child. As daunting as it may be, parents are a big part of the solution, and can do a great deal to help. I spoke with a few of my teacher friends to get their perspective on the subject, and insight on what parents should and shouldn’t do when their child is struggling.

  1. Don’t panic. Many children are sensitive to transition and change, and can experience dysregulation at the beginning of the school year which passes as they become more familiar and comfortable with the change. Overreacting will make them more anxious and exacerbate the problem.
  2. Be proactive. If you have become aware that your child is struggling, don’t hold your breath and hope that the teacher doesn’t contact you. Reach out to the teacher, let them know that you are aware that your child is having a difficult time and that you want to be part of the solution. Ask them what they would like for you to do, if anything.
  3. Show up. If your child’s teacher asks you to come in for a meeting, make it a priority to be there, even if you know that your child’s behavior is going to be the topic.
  4. Schedule a time to talk. While drop off and pick up may be the most convenient times for you to speak with the teacher, remember that teachers are responsible for multiple other children, and periods of transition are not the best times to get their attention. Rather than assuming that they are ignoring or avoiding you if they don’t respond to you in the moment, schedule a special time to speak with them in person or by phone that is convenient for them and for you, so they can really give the issue the attention it deserves.
  5. Give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. Says one teacher, “Teachers are less judgmental than parents think.” Parental guilt when their child is having a tough time cannot be overestimated. However, teachers are much more focused on trying to remedy the problem, not judging your parenting or placing blame.
  6. Do not make your child the messenger. Don’t tell your child to “tell the teacher … ” Find other, more appropriate ways to communicate with your child’s teacher, such as asking for their email, or communicating through a daily parent-teacher journal.
  7. Don’t believe everything your child tells you, and the teachers won’t believe everything they tell them. Kids are not always the most accurate reporters, and sometimes the facts can get twisted, confused or embellished. Make sure to check facts with the teacher before overreacting or blaming.
  8. Be attentive. Find times when you and your child are calm to inquire about their day. Ask them how things are going in school. Encourage them to talk about what they enjoy, what is hard for them, who they play with, and how they feel about their teacher. Perhaps there is something that the teacher is unaware of that is contributing to difficulties that can be addressed immediately.
  9. Don’t be defensive. Making excuses or blaming the teacher or other children is not going to help the problem. You are only going to model bad behavior for your child, and enable them to continue to engage in negative behaviors, expecting impunity.
  10. Come up with a plan. If things do not improve, ask to meet with your child’s teacher, and come up with either an informal or formal plan. Informal plans would be primarily between you, your child and the teacher, and may include things like a behavior chart, communication log, increased monitoring in class or a seating adjustment. Formal interventions include an SST (student study team) meeting,  a 504 plan, or an IEP (individualized education plan) where specific eligibilities and interventions are discussed, documented, enforced, monitored and reviewed regularly.
  11. Do not undermine the teacher. According to teachers, one of the worst things parents can do is undermine the teacher by criticizing, blaming or sabotaging their in-class interventions.  Teachers rely on parents to reinforce their interventions, and need parents to be consistent at home by addressing target behaviors there as well. “Follow through and be consistent,” says one experienced kindergarten teacher.
  12. Focus on your child’s effort, even if the outcome is not perfect. If your child is trying hard and still not meeting expectations, provide encouragement and reinforce even small gains while continuing to problem solve and build skills. Consider providing them with rewards attached to meeting incremental goals, and emphasize experiences and privileges rather than “things.”
  13. For other children, this may be sign of something more enduring, for example attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a learning disability. If this is the case, still, don’t panic. There are plenty of evidence-based interventions that can help your child in the academic setting so that they can thrive.

* Special thanks to the teachers who provided their expert advice on this topic.