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Here’s Why Some Kids Behave Better at School

By Pam Dewey and Fraser Day Treatment Services Lead Alyssa Barnes • kids school behavior, kids behaving better at school, why do kids behave better at school, childrens behavior school, school behavior children, why do children behave better at school, kids behavior problems, kids school and home behavior, kids behavior issues, children behavior issues, kids with autism behavior, kids with ADHD behavior, kids mental health, childrens mental health, kids tantrums, children tantrums • August 31, 2023

At parent-teacher conferences, you may expect to hear about the chaos your child is causing at school. At home, it seems like they’re either hitting their sister, chasing the dog or having a meltdown because you asked them to do their homework. But when you meet with their teacher, they say your child is thoughtful and attentive and plays nicely with their classmates.

So what gives? Why is your child well-behaved at school and a tiny terror at home? The truth is this type of behavior is a common phenomenon. Here’s what you need to know about why kids behave differently at home and school.

They learn by watching other kids

Maybe you’ve heard of social modeling. It’s the idea that people, kids especially, learn how to behave by watching those around them.

“Kids want to be accepted by their peers and feel like they belong,” says Fraser Day Treatment Services Lead Alyssa Barnes says. “So learning to behave at school can be a way to gain acceptance and build their self-esteem. At the same time, if other kids are acting out, they may do that too, just to fit in.”

The environment is more controlled

Children have a set schedule at school, and they know what to expect next. Teachers also typically have clear expectations for kids. The Child Mind Institute states, “Finally, teachers have no time for dawdling: If a child doesn’t follow a direction on the first or second prompt, the teacher will likely have an immediate consequence, whereas parents might end up allowing their child to avoid or delay the next step because they spend a lot of time talking about it.” A parent might also give in — in the moment —because they’re busy doing something else. But sometimes delaying or skipping a punishment can be confusing and frustrating for the child, because they don’t know what to expect.

Some kids prefer structure

The more controlled environment at school can also benefit kids who like structure. Some kids on the autism spectrum have difficulty with transitions, so knowing what will happen next makes transitions easier. Home life isn’t typically as scheduled, nor does it generally have the same consistency. This can make it much harder to cope with, and for some children, can lead to meltdowns or tantrums.

They’re exhausted from meeting expectations

On the other hand, sometimes, the structure and expectations at school are difficult for kids. Some children with ADHD, autism, anxiety and other disabilities find listening to directions and meeting school expectations takes a lot of focus and control. By the time they get home, they’re exhausted from meeting expectations, so they may have a meltdown or lash out.

They can be themselves at home

Children may also behave better at school because they feel more comfortable at home. Psychology Today states, “So, while we get their real love and affection, we get their other real emotions too—even the not-so-pleasant ones. With strangers, our kids feel less secure, especially when we aren’t around, so they are more restrained, and as a result, they are often on their best behavior.” While no parent rejoices about an angry kid, just remember that means they trust you enough to show you all of their feelings.

Keep open communication between school and home

Helping kids behave better at home (or school) is all about communication. “Kids are often the happiest at home, but feel a lot of pressure at school,” says Barnes. “But no matter whether they’re better behaved at home or school, no one is getting the same side of the child. That’s why it’s important to have open communication with teachers and staff, so you can work together towards the same goals and objectives.”

If your child struggles with transitions, let their teacher know. Or, if a certain type of fidget helps your child focus, talk to their teacher about allowing them to use it in the classroom. Since many children behave better at school, your child’s teacher might also have strategies you can use at home.

Notice how your child reacts to their environment

Kids who struggle with transitions can benefit from a daily schedule or a visual schedule, so they know what to expect next. Barnes also suggests that you can try “first, then” messaging with them. For example, “First, you’re going to brush your teeth, and then you’re going to get into bed.”

Some children also struggle with sensory sensitivities and regulating their bodies. If your child is bothered by loud sounds, try noise-canceling headphones. Or, if your child always wants to be in motion, Barnes suggests trying a two-minute hallway run to help them release energy and regulate their bodies.

“Try to put yourself in their shoes. Going from school to the bus to home is two transitions — after a full day at school — so they might need a moment to decompress and re-regulate,” says Barnes.

Focus on your child’s arousal level to determine what they need. If they’re wound up, try turning the lights down, playing quiet music and even talking to them slower. For a child who is lethargic, play louder music and give them some sensory input by rubbing their shoulders and arms. Perhaps your child simply needs time to decompress, so give them a snack and let them spend some time alone for a little while.