Life Mothers & Babies

Friday 22 August 2014

Family Life: My four-year-old son has been misbehaving in school

David Coleman

Published 01/11/2010 | 05:00

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Q I have a four-and-a-half-year-old son who has just started school.

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We also have another son who is seven months old. On the second day of school the teacher informed us that our eldest son was not doing what he was told. For example, he was not standing in line. She said that she would have to get firmer with him and we agreed with her. Our son is very highly strung and has been since he was a baby. When he gets excited he gets hyper and he does not seem to listen to anyone. We try to be strong on discipline at home and we make sure that he is in bed before 8pm and if he misbehaves there is a consequence. For example, we might lock his playroom or he is not allowed to watch cartoons until his behaviour improves. We now dread bringing him to school and are at our wits' end as there always seems to be some sort of misbehaviour by him in school. We try to explain to him that he should be a good boy in school and do what the teacher says. Maybe we are doing something wrong? Is there anything that we can do that will improve his behaviour?

A Your son sounds, to me, like a very typical four-year-old. Like so many other young children it is hard for him to settle in to the demands of primary school. He is still very small and it is a lot to expect him to be fully in charge of his behaviour for a full school day.

Four-year-olds rely on us adults to help them regulate their feelings and their behaviour. We use varying degrees of praise, reward, distraction and punishment to keep them on the right track. Essentially, we are taking the responsibility for their behaviour and trying to keep it in check.

Similarly with feelings, small children are not yet able to cope with the intensity of their own feelings and so they typically react in a physical or behavioural way to the frustrations, disappointments, sadness, excitement and joy of their daily interactions with people and situations.

It is not surprising to me that he gets 'hyper' when he gets excited. Physiologically, excitement releases adrenalin and the effects of adrenalin are to raise the heart rate, tense up the muscles and to focus our thinking on a single issue and to ignore extraneous information.

When he gets excited, then, he is fully living in the moment of what is exciting him and that is all he is interested by and focused on. So, naturally, he is not going to be listening to anyone else!

Nonetheless, even though his behaviour sounds completely understandable and quite normal, he still has to survive within the school structure and rules and so he needs your help and his teacher's help to achieve this.

However punishment and getting 'firmer' with him may not be the way to go. Punishment, such as you describe you use with him, is generally best used when a bold behaviour is deliberately acted out.

If there is some intent to act boldly, or if a child is in control of that bold behaviour, then punishment can be very effective to remind them that they need to make other behavioural choices or face the consequences.

When a child acts unconsciously, or reacts physiologically, then they don't need to be punished. Rather they need to be guided with their behaviour and helped to calm down.

For example, your son is probably quite hyper after the excitement of running around at break time. Naturally it is hard then for him to stand quietly in a line to go back into class. He doesn't need to be punished for not being calm after the excitement of break; he just needs help to calm down and regular gentle reminders of where he needs to stand and how he needs to stand.

Discipline is all about directing, regulating and guiding children's emotions and their behaviour, not just punishing them. They do need clear messages about what behaviours are okay and what behaviours are not okay. We do need to discipline our children but we don't have to be punitive to achieve this.

I think that you and his teacher need to be careful not to label your son and give him a reputation for being bold that he could be stuck with for the rest of his educational career. Both you and the teacher might have more effect if you concentrate on catching him being good rather than focusing on his giddiness.

Your son needs to be distracted, or empathised with, when he starts to get excited so that the intensity of that excitement doesn't build up to the point where he acts without thinking.

He needs lots of praise and acknowledgment of his good behaviour so that he notices it himself and learns that this is also the kind of behaviour that everyone else welcomes too.

Irish Independent

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