Why Your Child Misbehaves at School (and Not at Home)

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
April 16, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.


At home, Mason was well-behaved. He listened to his parents, did his chores, and got along with his younger sister. 

At school, Mason’s behaviour was very different. He was repeatedly caught fighting with his classmates on the playground – pushing, shoving and swearing. 

After months of acting out, Mason was sent to the school social worker to assess the source of his behaviour.  

The school social worker discovered that Mason was being excluded by his classmates. When they excluded him, he acted out because he couldn’t cope with the hurt. When he acted out, he got in trouble. This became a pattern and made Mason appear to be a “troublemaker.” Mason overheard teachers, parents, and some of his classmates use this label to describe him. Hearing this hurt him even more. 

This is just one story that illustrates why children behave at home but act out at school. There are many other reasons for the difference in behaviour, and this blog aims to address three common explanations for why a child misbehaves at school, as well as strategies for promoting more positive behaviour. 

Reason 1: Environment & Temperament Influence

It’s important to get curious about a child’s unique temperament and how the environment at their school complements or conflicts with their unique needs. Here are a few examples: 

The school environment can be overstimulating for highly sensitive kids 

Highly sensitive kids have a heightened emotional response and sensitivity to the sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and textures in their environment. 

Some children misbehave at school because the environment is too stimulating; they’re overwhelmed by the expectations, noises, smells and sounds in the classroom. 

At home, you may have noticed that your child becomes more withdrawn and irritable as the day progresses. The same thing can happen at school and begin even earlier in the day. It might look like your child is “misbehaving” when, in reality, their nervous system is overloaded. 

When children don’t have the skills to ask for a break or cope with dysregulation, it can manifest as challenging behaviours at school. 

The school environment can feel restrictive for active kids

Kids with an active temperament enjoy being physical and tend to act more impulsively because of all the energy in their bodies. 

So, sitting for prolonged periods of time can be really challenging for children with a more active temperament. These kids may struggle to control the impulse to move their bodies after a prolonged time indoors. You might notice these kids struggling to use their indoor voices, sit still or keep their hands to themselves. 

The school environment can make strong-willed kids feel helpless

Strong-willed kids often appear confident, assertive and decisive – they know what they want and work really hard to let their caregivers know. 

This can make the school environment, rules and structures feel too confining. They might struggle to listen or behave because they feel they have no autonomy. These kids often push back, argue or resist the instructions of their authority figures as a defensive reaction to feeling controlled. 

Related Post: Understanding Tantrums in Highly Sensitive Kids

Reason 2: Authority Figure Influence

How children are instructed and disciplined plays a significant role in their behaviour. Here are two examples.

Authority figure = High in control and low in warmth

Kids can misbehave at school when the authority figure is high in control and low in warmth. When a teacher is in a position of authority and has yet to build a relationship with their students, it can result in challenging behaviours and dynamics. This happens because children often struggle to trust people they are not closely attached to.

A child being repeatedly threatened or punished for their behaviour can reinforce a power struggle between the two parties. This is a child’s instinct – children will often resist, protest or push back when they feel like the adults in charge don’t see them, hear them or have their best interests at heart. 

Authority figure: Too passive or inconsistent

Kids can misbehave at school when the authority figure is too passive or inconsistent. When children don’t feel like the rules are clear or consistent, it can result in challenging behaviour dynamics. This dynamic is reinforced when a teacher or authority figure doesn’t follow through with discipline or consequences. It is especially difficult for children to cooperate when they don’t trust the boundaries. Passive styles of classroom management or playground supervision can often make students act out from a place of anxiety or wanting to test boundaries (testing boundaries is developmentally normal!). 

Reason 3: Peer Influence

Children misbehave to gain the approval of their peers

Children misbehave at school to gain the approval of their peers. The desire to feel accepted by others can often impact their behaviour at school. When a child gets a lot of attention, laughs, and praise from their peers for acting out at school, it can reinforce these behaviours. Your child might be thinking: “Wow! I can get all my classmates to laugh if I interrupt the teacher with these silly noises!” 

Children misbehave when there’s conflict with their peers

When children are facing challenges in their social lives, it can influence their behaviour. Whether it’s being teased, getting into a disagreement or being excluded on the playground, conflict with other classmates can make kids act out at school. Children might struggle to listen to their teachers or focus on the lesson plan when they’re dealing with social issues amongst the other students. 

Labelling kids who misbehave can reinforce their behaviour. Sometimes, children misbehave because they don’t believe they can change. When kids are labelled “bad” or have been given the name “troublemaker” at school, it can start to become their identity. Instead, use this as an opportunity to remind them of what is true: 

“I know you had a fight with your friends today. It’s okay to be upset when your friends exclude you, but it’s not okay to push. I know you’re a good kid, and you want to make this right. I wonder what we could do together to fix this?”

Notice the good to keep the good going!

Related Post: Helping Your Shy Child Make Friends: A Parent’s Guide

3 Ways to Encourage Consistent and Positive Behaviour

Here are a few practical ways to encourage more consistent and positive behaviour in children across different settings.

1. Connect with your child through stories of sameness

Children are wired for connection. Challenging behaviour can often be a signal that a child is looking for more connection or closeness from a caregiver. When kids feel like they aren’t seen or heard, they often “act out” to become seen and heard. This is why it’s so important for caregivers to promote connection and emotional safety with kids consistently. 

This can sound like:  

Example: “When I was your age, I had a hard time sitting still in class. If I needed a break from sitting, I would ask if they needed help handing out the next assignment or cleaning the classroom to help my body get the wiggle break it needed during class.”

Example: “When I was in school, my friends called me the “class clown.” I know how good it feels to make people laugh, and I get how tricky it can feel to sit still and be quiet when the teachers are talking!”

Related Post: The Ultimate Guide to Aggressive, Lying, Whining, and Defiant Behaviours in Children

2. Connect with the school staff

Consider setting aside time outside of school hours to connect with your child’s teacher to clarify classroom expectations, their management style and to nurture the parent-teacher relationship. 

Questions to consider asking:

  • How can active kids release their energy in productive ways?
  • How can kids with sensory overload get a break/ask for a break?
  • What are the consequences of misbehaviour in the classroom or at recess?

The more consistent the expectations, discipline and consequences are between home and school, the more likely a child will be able to meet those expectations. When there are two differing opinions about a response to certain behaviours, it can help to consult with a third-party mediator like a social worker or mental health counsellor. 

3. Set up the environment for success

To promote positive behaviour, use visual cues, reminders or schedules to help kids know what to expect and how to behave. We can’t expect kids to behave if we haven’t created the conditions for them to succeed. Caregivers are responsible for setting the stage and providing clear expectations. This might involve collaborating with the teachers to advocate for your child if they need clearer expectations in the classroom, opportunities for quiet time or more frequent wiggle breaks. 

Example: “If you are struggling to sit still in the classroom, you can ask your teacher to take a wiggle break.”

Example: “I know the classroom can feel overwhelming for you, making it hard to listen. If the noises in the room are distracting, you can use these noise-cancelling headphones to help you focus on your work.”

Conclusion

It’s important to get curious when children’s behaviour is different at home. Mason’s story sheds light on just one example of how a child’s home life can significantly impact and make sense of behaviour at school. 

By connecting with kids through stories, collaborating with teachers, and setting up the school environment for success, we can help children like Mason navigate the school environment more effectively and promote more consistent behaviour. 

For more support, check out The School Toolkit, which includes over ten worksheets to help your child navigate friendships, the school environment and routine, tough separations and more!

Explore The School Toolkit  →


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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.