Open letter to the 1st Grade Boy's Mom

Dear Mom,

I heard about your son last week - from other moms whose children were pushed or knocked down by your little boy.  I'm sure you are horrified.  I'm sure you have always taught your boy to keep his hands to himself and not to push other people. And I'm sure he understands the rules of the school. 

And yet, when the phone number on your caller ID is our school's number, your heart sinks. You may find yourself punishing him - because the school and other parents want to know that he is "held accountable" for what he's doing - so that he learns how to behave.  And for some reason, people believe that you must not be talking with him or holding him accountable for his behavior.  As if!

I've been there. It sucks. You don't know who to be more upset with - your child, your school, other parents, your partner. The stress in your home and your life is palpable.  You talk with your son.  You talk with the teacher.  You apologize to the other parents.  You are really agitated.

Call me. Write me. You are not alone.

6 or 7 year old boys are not sociopaths. In fact, a very small percentage of the population are actually sociopaths who enjoy causing other people pain.  Your son is not a sociopath.  But if you don't figure out what's upsetting him, he may not naturally (or forcefully by you) just figure out how to behave.

All children are born with an innate desire to learn and to please adults (although I'm told this desire reverses, as nature intended, upon reaching puberty).  Boys often like to please other boys - and being silly or physical is very entertaining. All children push limits - they are supposed to.  But continued incidents convey that your child is communicating with the adults in his life that SOMETHING IS WRONG in his environment.

He knows right from wrong, but he's not able to consider that before he acts.  

This is developmentally normal. Just like kids learn to walk and learn to read at different paces, they also develop self-control at different paces. Girls develop it years earlier than boys.

Its worth it to figure out what's exhausting or irritating him at school (and at home if it happens there - in our personal story, it was a school-only behavior problem).  There are some good resources our there like 4 goals of misbehavior explaining why your son is doing what he's doing. Some possibilities you might consider exploring: 

  • He is not inspired by his learning - possibly because he's very bright or the material doesn't speak to him. Hours (or minutes) of frustration while holding it together can lead to "release" when on the playground
  • He has a learning difference and he's not keeping up or not hearing directions clearly
  • He needs more structure so that he has fewer choices and more opportunity to be successful - many choices and no structure makes many children very anxious
  • The classroom (or playground or other environment) is too chaotic and he doesn't know what to expect from moment to moment - which makes him uncomfortable
  • He needs adults to supervise and redirect him when he no longer has the energy to make good choices - scaffolding him until he realizes that he can be successful anywhere, anytime
  • He has an attention development delay - and he needs more breaks during the day and other support to help him pay attention (be careful on this one - it's incredibly overdiagnosed - check out The Drugging of the American Boy)
  • He is lonely.  He wants a friend or to fit in.  And if there isn't anyone who fits him at his school - find another school
  • He needs to know that he is good.  He needs to be recognized every time he is good and following the rules - so much so that he realizes he gets 10x more attention when he is good. The results of the Nurtured Heart Approach are compelling and its very logical

Parents who never had a child with a learning or emotional development delay likely don't understand.  Justifyably, they are worried about their child's safety.  We live in an era where bumps and scrapes (don't even think about black eyes and bloody noses) are causes of great consternation.  Wish we didn't but that is our era and our community.  You won't get sympathy or support from those parents.  But you will from those of us who have traveled this road.  And there are a lot of those parents through Parents Education Network (PEN).

The first step is to insist upon A/B/C reports (source: Kansas Institute of Positive Behavior Support) - antecedent, behavior, consequence.  For every incident - and it must be completed by an adult who was there. This is about decoding the pattern to figure out what might be triggering your child. Frankly, the school should be collecting and analyzing this data, not you. But it's your child and you are their partner in understanding your son. 

From the A/B/C reports you'll likely have an idea of what's happening and can ask the adults to do something to support what you think is the problem. And you certainly can engage a behavioral expert to test and observe for more precise analysis of the situation.  We ultimately did that and the answers were simultaneously frustrating and fascinating.

I don't know who you are.  I could ask my 1st grade daughter which boy(s) are getting in trouble or having problems...but I don't want to teach her to gossip or pay attention to such things.  My boys are in 5th and 7th.  They are not perfect and neither is my daughter. They are children and even when they are adults, they will still be works in progress. They take steps forward and fall backwards too.  The journey is not easy - but there are teachers and camp counselors and coaches who will be the lights and will bring out the best of your boy. And there are parents who believe everyone develops at their own pace and teaching a child where he is, is best.  And that letting kids deal with the consequences of their behavior among themselves is often the fastest way to learn what is acceptable and what isn't.

Good luck.  Reach out.