Care and Feeding

What Can I Do to Stop My Child’s Classroom Meltdowns?

A 9-year-old girl crumples a piece of paper angrily.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash and LENblR/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

My 9-year-old’s teacher contacted me to let me know she has seen an increase in defiance from child—centered around when they’re asked to redo assignments due to illegible handwriting, but also when they’re generally corrected as well. My child is exhibiting behaviors like crumpling up papers, tearing worksheets out of the book so roughly they tear in half, slamming books around desk, and general harumphing. Nothing involving other students or anything I would consider “violent” but still not acceptable.

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We have been working on the handwriting situation—my child wants to just be DONE with assignments and flies through them, writing illegibly at times. When they take their time, handwriting is perfectly fine and quality of writing is good to excellent. A rewards system is in place for writing well the first time, or completing a re-write at home without fuss.

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How can I help my child curb the unacceptable behaviors at school? Do you have any strategies I could mention to the teacher and/or that we can also use at home to create continuity? If they’re stomping around or crumpling things at home, I have them sit on our steps—both as a “time out” and as a way to give them space to calm down, but obviously that isn’t feasible at school.

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—Flaring Tempers

Dear Flaring Tempers,

I’m sorry to hear your child is struggling with managing their emotions around handwriting. While this is a common frustration for children their age, you’re right to be concerned about impact it’s having on their behaviors in class. I see the problem as two-fold, and I recommend two separate approaches to help resolve the issue.

In my opinion, the primary issue here is teaching your child to self-regulate. Even if your child is frustrated with redoing the assignment, they must learn to express and handle that frustration in more productive ways. I find two curriculums, Second Step and Kelso’s Choices, helpful in teaching parents (and teachers) about how to support a child to develop better self-regulation strategies.

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The secondary issue is helping your child to develop handwriting stamina. From what you describe, your child is very capable of producing good handwriting, but they simply do not have the patience for it. While handwriting stamina typically increases over time, it may be a good idea to add in some targeted practice. It will be important to refrain from making them redo the additional handwriting practice, even if it’s illegible. The goal here is for them to build up the stamina needed to complete their work without becoming frustrated in the process.

As you mention, it’s a great idea to look for strategies that can be implemented both at school and home. I always aim for positive reinforcements as opposed to negative consequences like a time out. Positive reinforcement will be much easier to implement at both school and home. It will also give your child the encouragement they need to build their stamina. Sticker charts can work wonders—they’re a reward-based system where, quite simply, every time they complete an assignment with legible handwriting, they receive a sticker on a chart. Once they’ve received a predetermined amount of stickers, they receive a small reward or treat. Good luck.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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My son is almost four and has been in a high quality, full-time day care since infancy. As a result he is already “school ready” in many ways, both the academic and behavioral aspects. However, his birthday is in early October so he wouldn’t be able to enter most kindergarten programs (public or private) until he is almost 5. I worry that he will be reading by then and will find kindergarten incredibly boring. What can/should be done in a situation like this? Is enrichment at home enough?

—Ready to Go

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Dear Ready,

It sounds like your son is doing very well! While your concerns are very thoughtful, I wouldn’t interrupt your son’s academic growth for fear of him finding a future kindergarten program boring. In the meantime, the key is to prioritize fostering a love for learning. If he continues to enjoy growing academically, you should encourage and support that growth and address any potential academic engagement issues if they arise (and they very well may not!). Kindergarten teachers are extremely adept at teaching to many, many different levels of understanding and ability.

Fostering a love for learning is possible through home enrichment—in fact, it’s possible through everyday life. You can use this time until he begins kindergarten  to hone what he’s learned in daycare. Nurture a love of books and reading. Engage with nature and the outdoors to help him learn independence, assessing risks, science, and the world around him. You can also help him develop interests and hobbies such as music or sports. All of this will help round out his experiences.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

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Thanks to the pandemic, my 3-year-old began school this year for the first time and after a few months, their transition to life away from home seems to be getting increasingly worse. The first few weeks (a few full days per week) were initially met with enthusiasm but several prolonged quarantine periods meant the flow kept getting interrupted. They report being “scared” of one of the teachers at some times and excited to share a new toy or book with the same teacher at other times. This specific teacher is experienced and well-liked by the other kids and parents, but I also get the sense there’s a disconnect of some kind. My child also doesn’t seem as connected with the other children as those kids are with each other, although they love being around other kids of any age at home.

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There’s nothing unusual going on at home, outside of a global pandemic and more screen time than I’d like. The school activities seem interesting—lots of arts and crafts, handiwork, and even cooking, all stuff they love at home—so I don’t think they’re bored, experiencing more separation anxiety than is normal, or too immature for preschool (they started as a young three but not that young).

Everyone at the school assures me that everything is fine and this is normal. But my kid seems miserable about half the days we go to school and almost all of the time after I pick them up. I can’t observe because of the pandemic, and I can’t get much information from them without them telling me they don’t want to talk about it, except that they don’t have friends at school or like playing outside (they love playing outside when not at school).

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Some of their educational skills, which aren’t my primary concern at this point, seem to have regressed. When I ask the staff about these things, I keep being told my child is fine, and the teachers are not seeing problems. Except my kid’s not fine, and I want to wait a few years before I’m telling them they have to suck it up. The school isn’t insanely rigorous, and I tried to pick one that played to their strengths, but I am now leaning toward finding them another school to get a fresh start. At this point, due to the staff’s earlier responses, I feel like further discussions with the school will result in more reassurances without a resolution or an increased focus on my kid’s emotional state to their detriment.

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Is moving them the right thing? If so, what can I do to make the transition a better match this time? And if moving to a new school is not a good idea, what do I do to help my child recover their emotional equilibrium? They’re a good kid, but I think they may actually be a little depressed from all of this. I don’t need a genius or a Pollyanna, and I don’t expect school to be an amusement park, but I do want my kid to know that the thing they’ll be doing for the next fifteen more years can be at least minimally enjoyable.

—We’re Not Ok

Dear We’re Not OK,

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I think you can do two things at once here. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea to look for another school, and while you do so, communicate with your school more. Tell them outright that your kid seems really unhappy, and see how they respond if you are more blunt (polite, but blunt) about what’s worrying you. If the school starts to respond more actively to your concerns and things get better, that’s a win. Stay where you are and work with them to address your concerns. If not, you’ll know with greater certainty that you should leave because they aren’t listening to you.

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In this round of reaching out, I’d request a meeting rather than trying to discuss this via email. I’d also ask for the school counselor or whoever guides their social-emotional learning programs to be present, so you can have a semi-outside perspective, rather than just you and the classroom teachers.

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If you continue to experience pushback, just move. Kids are resilient. Your child probably won’t even remember. As far as making the transition better? I find transparency is key—with the other school, with your child, with everyone involved. Tell the next school about your experience and your concerns, specifically about your child’s regression and about what that looks like from the outside—that your child is showing depressive symptoms.

Meanwhile, tell your child that they’re moving schools. Pre-set them about when the change will occur, and how their new morning might be different. Ask the new school if they can assign your child a buddy, so that there’s at least one peer connection firmly in place.

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I doubt this will have a lasting impact on their education regardless. Many children do not remember their experiences in preschool all that well. Of course, you want him to be happy at school, but that is the responsibility of the teachers, and if this school isn’t a good fit, and you’ve exhausted your options there to make it fit better, trying somewhere else won’t hurt your child.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

My 7-year-old has had a number of behavior problems since the start of the pandemic. Progress has been in fits and starts—two steps forward, three steps back. It took us seven months to find a therapist, which we only managed through pure luck, but we’ve been having trouble landing on the right medication.

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In the last two weeks, he was kicked out of his after-school program and had three major meltdowns in school, one resulting in him being held in the principal’s office all day and another resulting in a formal one-day suspension. He physically attacked teachers, threatened to vomit on purpose, and lifted furniture.

We had not had a formal 504 plan or IEP because the school was doing almost everything they’d do with a formal plan in place. I think we need one now to protect him and us, now that he’s facing severe punishment for his behavior. I wish we’d done it earlier.

I’m at a total loss for what to do. While I get why he’s a danger, I cannot fathom how a suspension is useful. What works is medicine, but his medicine isn’t working now and, after talking to his psychiatrist, I think we may have a month until we get into a stable state with his current medicine.

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My son is a wonderful, delightful child 99 percent of the time and I had really thought he
was doing better and we were all going to get our lives back on track.

What should we ask for or look for in the IEP? His therapist suggested possibly doing virtual school, but our experience with virtual school last year was an unmitigated disaster. His therapist also suggested half days, which would be painful but would at least cut his probability of getting in trouble by half, but only because he’d only be in school half the time.

What documentation should we make sure to keep in case the school fails
to provide adequate accommodations? What do we look for in an effective IEP?

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—At the End of My Rope

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Dear At the End of My Rope,

Yes, I would ask for a PPT (Planning and Placement Team) meeting immediately. This is a meeting between yourself, the school principal, the classroom teacher, the school nurse, the school psychologist, and special education teachers. It’s clear that there Is something going on with your child that needs to be addressed in a more planned, thoughtful, and specific way.

By law, you must be granted a PPT when requested. If an IEP is needed, it will be determined through the PPT process.

I would also secure the services of an educational advocate to assist you. These are people who have worked through the bureaucracy of the school system already and will be able to guide you to finding the best course of action for your child. These professionals can be hired but are also often provided free of charge from local counseling centers and family advocacy organizations. If you know families in the school district, you might see if you can find parents who have been through the process already for advice.

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It’s hard to know what accommodations are most appropriate until you identify the root cause of the problem. Ideally, the PPT will determine what testing and observation might be required in order to identify the cause of your child’s struggles.

I would also contact your pediatrician if you haven’t already and schedule an appointment, too. There may be issues beyond the expertise of educators that your doctor may be able to address, too.

I hope you find answers soon. This must be incredibly challenging for both you and your child. My heart goes out to you.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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