Care and Feeding

My Son Is a Terror at School

This is not the sweet boy I know.

Photo illustration of a young boy crying into his hands while wearing a backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas

My 5-year-old son is a terror at school. Not your run-of-the-mill disruptive, obstinate student but an aggressive, violent, defiant little terror that is currently about to start his third kindergarten class. There is something about a classroom and learning that makes him act like he’s possessed by a demon. This began when he transitioned to 3-year-old pre-K. He did not like the structure of the classroom or the learning and frequently hit other students and the teacher, threw toys and furniture, and ran out of the room or down the hallway. We decided to put him with an in-home nanny instead. He excelled with a nanny and was ready for half-day pre-K last spring at a Montessori school. He did not do well but was generally not overly aggressive. When he started kindergarten at the same school this fall, I was optimistic. But it was clear within a few weeks that his teacher had no tools to get him to comply and pretty much just let him do whatever he wanted, whether that be climbing the walls or sitting in the hallway.

We decided he needed a more structured environment and chose a public school with a low student-to-teacher ratio. He lasted three weeks. In those three weeks he hit, kicked, threw items in the classroom, refused to participate, was disruptive, yelled, screamed, and at the very end, tried to harm the teacher with a pair of scissors and threatened to harm other students. On Monday, he starts at a new school that is bigger and sounds like it has more resources to help him. We are consulting with the special education office, but I was told it takes about three months to get him approved for special education. The school has said it would make as many accommodations as he needs during that time. I have spoken to the new principal, who has many ideas to help him, and I am cautiously optimistic.

But I am also terrified. The child they describe is not the charming, sweet, kind, helpful child I know. While he has difficulty dealing with emotions and sometimes throws temper tantrums, he is easy to diffuse most of the time. We started working with a therapist after the issues when he was 3, but stopped after he was put with the nanny. We started again this past fall when he started kindergarten. He has a history of abuse from a day care facility he attended when he was an infant, which the therapist thinks contributes to his behavior in school. We are working through the steps to get him tested for anything else that could be causing this behavior.

I’m at a loss, though. How do I support the teacher? I feel so bad that my son is making a teacher’s life hell and scaring all the other children. I’m especially sad that they don’t get to see what a charming, engaging, kind child he is outside of school. I feel like a cliché to say that my kid doesn’t behave this way but seriously, my kid doesn’t behave this way!

—My Sweet Boy Is Not the Devil


You are not the first parent to face a situation like this, and I know from having taught and observed students like yours. And based on what you’ve said here, I can tell you what a behavior specialist would say is the “cause” of your son’s aggression: It’s what we call instructional history. That’s a fancy term for your past learning experiences, and your son’s past learning experiences have taught him that if he escalates his behaviors, he gets one-on-one attention. He acted out in pre-K, and he got pulled from pre-K and put with a nanny who catered to his individual needs. At Montessori, he acted out, and he got put into a classroom with a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, which meant more one-on-one attention for him. And because his behaviors can be dangerous to other kids, I’m willing to bet that resulted in him gaining one-on-one with a behavior specialist, the teacher, or the administrators.

Now, pulling him out of those settings was not the wrong move—I lay that information out with no judgment. I’m just explaining why his behavior seems so drastically different to his behavior at home. Not every school knows how to handle kids like your son.

What to do? It can be tough to take the first step because the first time someone tries not to give in to those negative behaviors, they can get worse before they get better. My favorite example of this is sleep-training. Many parents use some form of sleep-training with their infants so that the infant can learn to self-soothe. Often, parents report that their baby cries a lot more than usual the first few nights. Babies do this because that behavior (crying) has always resulted in access to what they want (someone to come soothe them). Eventually, if parents hold out, most babies eventually stop crying and sleep through the night more independently and regularly. Behaviorists call this spike before a behavior stops an “extinction burst.” So, your son may go through (or be going through) an extinction burst. The trick, though, is to not give in. If you give in and then reinforce the behavior, the behavior never goes extinct. It continues, often in an escalated manner.

The first step is to access special sducation resources, which it sounds like you’re already doing. Great work! When you get to a meeting for his special education program or IEP, advocate for two things if they’re not already a part of the conversation. The first is a Behavior Intervention Plan: A BIP is a formal plan that dictates how everyone who interacts with your child is going to address his behavior. Usually, they come with information on how to prevent the behavior using positive behavior modification (rewards systems, special jobs, in-class accommodations, etc.), as well as what to do if the behavior arises. This is important because it ensures that everyone is addressing the behavior consistently, and it gives you the power to advocate for your son accordingly: You can simply say, “Please do it this way; it’s on his BIP.” The second thing you should advocate for is some kind of therapy to address his emotional regulation directly—play therapy or counseling are my two go-to options. It sounds like he’s had some therapy before, but if it’s added to his IEP, the state will pay for it (and therapy is expensive, y’all!). And that person can coordinate with the rest of his education team to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Beyond adding a special education program, communicate with his teachers. A lot of us in special ed have a soft spot for kids that other schools have deemed “too difficult” or “too problematic.” Those of us who do this work do it for a reason, and it’s not the glory or the money. We know when we sign up for special education that sometimes we’re going to have biters, or chair-throwers, or scratchers, etc. But we go in to work the next day and start over, completely fresh, because it’s a new day and those kids deserve the best education we can give them. I know it’s cheesy, but I strongly believe that, and in my experience, most special education teachers do too. As long as you give his new teachers a chance to get to know him, you trust them, and you talk to them about your concerns in a real, sincere way, they will learn to see the boy you get to see at home. And he will learn to show that side of himself at school. Everyone just needs to work together to get there.

—Ms. Sarnell

We live in a small town that is not at all diverse. My 8-year-old granddaughter, who was adopted as an infant, is one of two black students at her K–4 elementary school. Both her moms are white, and her older sister is white. She does have a younger brother who has the same color skin as her. I can see that my granddaughter feels different from her classmates and most of her family members, and I am worried that it is negatively impacting her self-esteem. She speaks wistfully of her classmates with “blond hair and blue eyes.” Every time she enters a function, I can see her look around at all the people. I can only guess she is searching for someone she can relate to, someone with skin as beautiful as hers. She used to tell us that her friends would touch and comment on her hair, especially when her mom re-styled it.

My daughter has spoken with the principal, who is now the superintendent, about the lack of resources and lack of apparent understanding from staff about issues faced by minority students. I know we cannot change the makeup of the student population, short of attending a different school. However, I’d like to see inclusion training for staff, racial representation in print, and a general sense of appreciation for the everyday hurdles these kids face living in a small New England community. How can I help my granddaughter? How can I help the school system in my town implement the varied and excellent resources available on this issue?

—Worried Grandma

Hi there WG,

I feel for your granddaughter. My fiancée is also a black woman who was adopted by white parents, and she had a very similar experience. It’s never easy being a kid of color in predominantly white spaces, but there are some things you can do to help make her experience a little better. I think an important first step is to get a clear understanding of your granddaughter’s feelings. Even though she’s only 8, you’ll find kids have a remarkable ability to express these complex thoughts. I’d spend some quiet time alone with her and ask how she’s feeling about school. You can get specific: Has she noticed any differences between herself and the people she sees at school (teachers or friends)? If so, how do those differences make her feel? If you don’t feel confident asking your granddaughter these types of questions, you could talk to your daughter, and mention that it might be helpful for your granddaughter to talk to a counselor about these issues? Therapy could be a great way for your granddaughter to express her feelings in a safe space.

I would also take some time to think about your role in her life. While it’s important to think about what you can do for your granddaughter as her grandmother, try to also think of what it means for you to be a white ally for her. One big struggle adopted kids of color face is the environments their parents create. For instance, do you read your granddaughter stories that feature African-American children? Is there African-American art or imagery hanging in your home? Do you watch television shows with mostly African-American casts? I’m sure your granddaughter is growing up in a healthy, loving home, but mixed-race families can always learn more about what inclusivity is and how to create space for conversations on culture. I’d recommend reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Anti-Racist.

Unfortunately, a lot of what you are asking for at the school level, like inclusion training, often has to be collectively bargained by your teacher’s education association or be a directive from the district. While it’s the right thing to do, if there is not a push for it by teachers or the community at large, it’s unlikely to materialize. I’d also be cautious because even with culturally competent curriculum, kids of color in white spaces can also feel even more “othered” if the teacher isn’t well-versed in how to deliver the curriculum, or can’t properly facilitate the conversations that come after a lesson. You could build a coalition around the issue if you think there are other families who would join, or you could help to find your granddaughter a mentor through an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters (check with your daughter on this first).

Mentorship played a huge role in both my fiancé’s and my childhood, and it’s never too early to begin. A mentor could be an older high school kid or a young adult. In my case, I had both. My mentors helped me work through a lot of the anxieties I had as a child, and your granddaughter could have a similar positive experience.

—Mr. Hersey

I’m hoping you can offer some advice on handling a couple of girls in my choir club. It’s a group of about 20 kids between the ages of 7 and 11. I see them on a Friday after school for a half-hour.
It’s an optional extracurricular club, so I’m pretty relaxed in general, and I focus on making it fun and satisfying for the children.

They all love it, but two 8- or 9-year-old girls seem to want to push my buttons constantly. They stand up and dance when I want the group to sing sitting down; they sing the quietest line of a song as loudly as possible; they fall dramatically, resulting in an “injury” that necessitates a trip to the nurse; or blatantly chat to each other under my nose while everyone else is singing. You get the idea. Sometimes two or three other girls will also go along with these behaviors. While it’s nothing I’d call bad behavior in this relaxed environment, it makes the other children anxious, and it gets on my nerves.

If I ignore it, it escalates. If I call them on it firmly, it spoils the atmosphere horribly and I know other children get upset. I feel like I could spend more than half my effort and attention constantly asking these girls to just sing and behave like the rest of the group!

I’m not a classroom teacher, and I have no training for this environment. I find myself dreading the class. I’m trying to avoid bringing in the head teacher, if possible (she’s very supportive, but I worry she’d come down like a ton of bricks on these kids). I desperately don’t want the girls to be kicked out of the group, but I’m fed up with them ruining things for the other 18 who, by and large, are angels.

I would be delighted to receive any advice you have on handling the little darlings.

—Why Won’t They Just Sing?

Dear Why Won’t They Just Sing?

You need to lay down the law!

I get it: Being the bad guy is no fun. But clearly this behavior is impacting the class, so you need to address it. I appreciate that you’re trying to solve it yourself before you go to the head teacher, so here are some ideas:

1. Make a seating chart. Seat these girls as far away from one another as possible, ideally in such a way that they can’t see one other. The key is you have to enforce this each week—they will try to move back together. Don’t let them. It will work better if you assign seats for all the girls, but since the rest are behaving fine, you can keep them where they generally like to be.

2. Have a private discussion with each girl separately. Let them know that you’re so excited to share your love of music with them, and you need to see some changes moving forward so that everyone can get the most out of your time together. Be specific about the behaviors you need to see and the ones that need to stop.

3. These girls have leadership skills, but they’re using them for evil. Try to harness this energy for good. Can they pass out sheet music or help you pick a song to sing? Once when I had a student like this I put her in charge of choosing vocabulary words for the week. I’d give her a list of 15 to 20 words, and she’d pick out ten to write on the board. She loved it, and she was 15 years old. It didn’t change her behavior 100 percent, but it went a long way to improving her presence in class.

4. Call their parents. Explain the problem behavior and what changes you need to see. Thank them for their support and make sure you say at least one nice thing about each girl.

5. Bring in the big guns: Ask the head teacher for help. You don’t have to put up with shenanigans for the entire session! You can offer one warning and then boot them out for the remaining time.

Finally, do these girls want to be in choir? It’s possible they are trying to get kicked out. If that’s the case, perhaps their parents need to find them something else to do after school on Fridays that would be a better fit.

Classroom management is not the fun part of teaching, but it’s absolutely necessary. Good luck! You can do this.

—Ms. Holbrook

My son is in pre-K in an inclusion class for kids with developmental disabilities. He was in a 3-year-old program last year for kids with delays, and he progressed well enough to be put in the inclusion class this year. Yay! At his parent-teacher conference, however, his teacher mentioned that he won’t be in an inclusion class next year, as the school does not have any beyond pre-K.

My husband and I are upset and confused, as we thought the goal for our son was to get him ready for regular class with some IEPs to bridge the gap. According to his teacher, the plan in kindergarten is to put him in a special education class and go to the regular class as appropriate. We are already planning to set up a meeting with the teacher to get more information. We are even prepared to move schools if the staff doesn’t seem open to trying to help our son mainstream.

For some background about his disabilities: Two years ago, he tested as delayed in speech, social, and cognitive, but we’ve seen massive improvements in his abilities since. We also feel that with a more “tough love” approach than he is getting now, he might advance more in some of his underperforming areas.

Are we out of touch? Are special education classes nothing to worry about? Our fear is that once he is in them it will be harder for him to get out, especially if he isn’t pushed hard and allowed to coast because of his delays. He knows the material but has a “Why should I do this? I did it yesterday,” kind of attitude right now.

—My Kid is Special

Dear My Kid is Special,

My first reaction to reading your story was that, truthfully, you could be a parent at my school (I don’t think you are, but if so, please come say hi?). It was a shock for me as well, going from grade school, where I knew the standard for integration, to preschool, where the rules are very different. If it shocked me, someone who is supposed to know all of the ins and outs of the field, then I hardly think it’s fair to call you out of touch when most parents are left on their own to find resources and learn about the special education system. You’re not out of touch—just a little out of the loop, unfortunately.

So here’s the inside scoop: The school district may have put your son in an integrated class because he was ready for integrated preschool, but he may not be ready for integrated kindergarten. The demands placed on preschoolers are different than kindergarteners. The academics in kindergarten are a huge change from the pre-academic skills that we work on in preschool. We work very hard on school readiness skills in preschool, but the purpose is to make those skills rote so that kids can learn much more cognitively challenging things. A child who is able to keep up with the pace of instruction during pre-academics while practicing school readiness skills may not be ready for the pace of instruction of academic skills. This is especially true for children with receptive language skill delays, who will require further breakdowns of lessons compared to developmentally typical peers.

All of which is to say that, in all likelihood, the school made the choice to put him into an integrated classroom for preschool based on his skills, abilities, and needs in social areas, without regard for whether he’d be able to carry that through to grade school. One of the benefits of the easier academic load in preschool is that it allows children who may not be successful in an integrated academic setting to spend a larger portion of their time learning social skills alongside typical peers. Arguably the main reason I integrate kids out of my self-contained classroom is that I want them to have a chance to learn social skills that my more restrictive environment can’t provide. When I do this, I know there’s a chance the students will be self-contained again in kindergarten, and that may disappoint parents. But to me, the worse outcome is denying a child a chance to learn something they could otherwise learn. So I have to stomach that disappointment when parents have brought it to me. It stinks, but it’s the best I can offer their child.

On the bright side, self-contained classrooms are always improving. When I was a child, if a student was put in a self-contained room, generally, they did not mainstream out. Nowadays, the vast majority of school districts are working to integrate kids out of self-contained rooms whenever possible—it’s the law, mainstreaming is cost-effective, and it’s the goal for most students and families. If a parent asks about integrated opportunities and a school district is disinterested, it’s typically because they’re not sure the child is ready.

So, if the plan is to start with self-contained class with push-in opportunities for now, all you need to do is advocate for your child. Ask about integrated opportunities, and make it clear to your case manager or CSE representative (that’s the person in charge of special education services) that mainstreaming is a priority for you. They are legally required to place your son in the least restrictive environment for him, so if/when he is ready to learn in an integrated classroom, the state has to provide one—for free, as public option—even if it means busing him to another district, which is something I see all the time. His teachers will know when he is ready for that, but knowing that it matters to you does tend to mean that the administrators will move more quickly. In the meantime, hopefully you will be able to work with special education teachers in a self-contained setting who are able to give him some tools to be successful when he gets there.

—Ms. Sarnell

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My son is 6. Among other things, he loves fairies, unicorns, stories about girls, and the color pink. Good for him, right? My son and my daughter have both been brought up to know that everything is for everyone. Only trouble is the other kids haven’t been brought up that way. Should I keep asking his teacher to try to teach these kids that gender doesn’t have to determine what you like?