Feeling bad when teacher says my kid is naughty at school

Last week, my 4-year-old son started school. My post about that important milestone said that I didn’t feel sad, despite feeling lots of other emotions. But after a week and a half of him going, I’ve been experiencing an entirely unanticipated emotion:

Guilt.

Why guilt, you wonder? Is it because I’m enjoying the extra child-free work time I get while he’s at school? Hells no – not guilty about that at all.

I feel guilty because he is struggling to settle in, and I don’t know how to help him.

What’s going on

When I picked him up on the first day at school, the teacher took me aside to say that his behaviour is “challenging”. He doesn’t like to share and starts screaming in distress sometimes if somebody encroaches on what he sees as his territory. He has trouble transitioning between activities – he gets upset if they ask him to move on from something before he’s finished. And sometimes he just plain old doesn’t listen or do what the teacher says.

On the walk home from school on that first day, I was holding back the tears the whole time. My son wasn’t unhappy about his first day at school. But I was so disappointed about the teacher’s negative report. I didn’t want my son to know how much it upset me.

On the second and third days of school, I got more negative reports from the teacher. The teacher asked that I pursue a referral to a paediatrician that had been commenced back when he was at nursery. I felt like the only mum in the whole school whose child wasn’t settling in smoothly. I didn’t see the teacher talking to any of the other parents after school.

Over the weekend, we started using a pasta jar as a reward system. Good behaviour = a piece of pasta. Bad behaviour = lose a piece of pasta. Full jar = a special treat. It worked well for us at home and we told him that he would get lots of extra pasta for good behaviour at school.

The teacher reported a lukewarm improvement. Then I didn’t hear from her for the rest of this week. Apparently, however, she told my husband that his behaviour was “too complicated to say whether it’s good or bad”.

I’ve got all the feels (and neuroses)

Talking to the teacher makes me feel so uncomfortable! I feel like I’m the one who’s been naughty. I feel like my son’s behaviour is my fault. I feel a bit like it’s a parenting fail.

I also feel powerless because I don’t know how to help him. If I could be a fly on the wall and see what he was actually doing in class, then I might be able to better help the teacher manage his behaviour. But that’s not possible, and she is busy with 30-odd kids to look after. I feel guilty for taking up her time!

I actually realise that I’m overreacting a bit. Perhaps these feelings are rooted in my own feelings around school. I was also naughty at school. I had serious issues with authority, and I was a late bloomer in terms of social skills. My reports always said “does not play well with others”.

And I’ve worked hard to reform myself. At university, I was the perfect student. I’m good now and I follow the rules, and I (mostly) play well with others. I don’t want my son to be labelled as a naughty kid, or to not be liked by his peers.

I always blamed my bad behaviour at school on some of the dysfunctional aspects of my upbringing. I’ve worked hard to give my son the most “normal” family life possible. His upbringing is much different from mine and much more stable.

So is being naughty at school, like, genetic or something?

Why I’m sharing

The reason I’m sharing this information with my readers is that I suspect I’m not alone in getting upset about my child’s behaviour at school. I’ve talked to other parents who feel equally as powerless to help their children improve in areas in which they might be falling behind. These other parents often feel as though they are being blamed – that teachers and others have implied that bad school behaviour starts at home.

Is it our fault? I’m not sure if there’s a clear cut answer to this.

But I have to say that it makes me a little angry that so much is made of a child not behaving well in his first week at school. Starting reception class asks an awful lot of little 4 and 5 year olds. It entails long days, a new environment, new people, different food and a complete change of routine.

Was it really necessary to take me aside in the first week and already label my child as being naughty?

And of course there’s always the different implication that my child might have special needs, which brings more worry and the stress of the protracted diagnosis process you face within the NHS.

Ticking all the boxes

I feel our education system can sometimes suffer from a tick box culture. No doubt many of you will be familiar with the Early Years Framework, which is used in nursery and pre-school as well as at Reception. It aims to ensure that all aspects of the children’s developmental needs are meant, and has 6 areas of focus:

  • communication and language
  • personal, social and emotional
  • physical development
  • literacy
  • mathematics
  • knowledge and understanding of the world

If your child went to nursery, you probably received occasional charts that showed whether your child was achieving as expected for their age group in each of these areas.

It’s great that childcare and education settings are aware of important development areas for children, and that they’re trying to develop all of the areas and help to shape a balanced person as the child grows.

But what bothers me is that it seems like they are so quick to raise concerns if the child isn’t achieving in every area. My son has above average literacy and numeracy, but he falls behind in personal, social and emotional development.

Does that really mean there’s something wrong with him? Or could it be that he is only 4 years old, and he’s only human, and he’s developing in his own unique way?

So if you’re experiencing some of the same issues as your child starts school, just remember that you’re not alone. That you’re trying your best. And that every child develops at their own pace.

Featured image credit: Jonathan Khoo/Flickr; Creative Commons licence 2.0

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
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27 thoughts on “Feeling bad when teacher says my kid is naughty at school

  1. Oh god I totally feel you. When my son started a new class last year the teacher was ringing me every day reporting his bad behaviour. It was so upsetting and I also felt really mad at her – what did she want me to do about it when I wasn’t there ?? It’s not enough for the teacher just to report it to you – its up to her to put things in place to improve the situation. Also it’s very early days so she should allow time for everyone to settle in . Hugs to you because I’ve been there ( am still there !) -and it’s not a nice feeling X

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    1. Wow, at least our teacher is just talking after school and not ringing us! It is upsetting though, especially when it’s such early days. I think our teacher means well, but like you say, it’s about putting things in place not just reporting. Sorry you’re going through it as well. xx

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      1. It was last year for me.. my situation is probably different to yours as my son was diagnosed with ASD – but we knew he had issues already before the teacher started calling us ! Eventually we got on really well with her but it was full on to begin with. The point remains that she needs to give it time and do something to help him out if he isn’t settling.

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  2. My son’s preschools initiated a paediatrician referral to assess my son for possible ASD but various things have made this take absolutely ages. So that is still a possibility for us, although I don’t think my son is on the spectrum. The teacher did know about his issues from preschool which are the same now that he’s at school. x

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  3. I totally sympathise. On a couple of occasions at preschool, my son’s key worker took me to one side to say that he had punched another child, hit a member of staff and on another occasion pushed over a chair. I felt absolutely terrible about it, and, when asking my son to explain what he did, just got the answer that it wasn’t his fault, but the other party’s. I felt awful each time this behaviour was mentioned and felt like such a terrible Mummy. I agree with you that a lot is expected of 4 year olds starting school and I do think it’s harsh that you are being taken aside in the first week of his schooling to discuss his behaviour. It’s simply too early, and he needs time to settle. I hope things improve!

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  4. That’s got to be incredibly stressful and frustrating! Well done, you, for keeping it together in front of your son; I’m often found balling in a heap in my bathroom before splashing my face and soldiering on. It’s such early days to be pulling you aside, but if she’s dealing with 30 children, behavioral issues might be her top priority for sanity’s sake. I’m not in any way diminishing your anguish, because at nearly 40, I still hold back tears if someone raises their voice to me, but perspective can ease the worry.
    I’m sure your son is going through normal adjustments and just needs time to feel comfortable in the new space, with new authority figures and friends, and the routine. Bless him, 4yo is so young! Naughtiness is not genetic, he’s a free spirit who likes to express himself!
    You may find his literacy and maths skills help him feel comfortable and confident, and focus on the positive!
    Thank you for sharing, you’re absolutely not alone!

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    1. I feel like crying a lot of the time too – and don’t always manage to hide it from my kids! Thank you so much for the kind comment, and I think you are right about perspective.

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  5. Recently a facebook friend posted about how she’d been told by her nursery that her son was ‘too affectionate and cuddly’ towards other kids and staff. Apparently even being affectionate is a negative thing if it doesn’t fit into their boxes! 😦 I’m sure he will settle in, it is a big transition. I mentioned to my son recently about when he starts school, he got very upset about how he didn’t want to, I was a taken aback. Luckily it’s not until next september for us #KCACOLS

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    1. Gee what’s wrong with being cuddly?! Your son will have lots of time to get used to the idea of school. A lot of times kids get upset when they don’t understand what something really is, but so do adults lots of times! Thanks for commenting.

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  6. Definitely a tickbox culture. I worry about my daughter going to school as she gets distracted so easily and I know teachers will make comments about it. My school did! And yet they never thought to suggest a referral to anyone, just wrote it off as me being inattentive. Had they started the ball rolling I could have got my adhd diagnosis years ago and really had some help for it. Many schools exist to tick boxes, and to try and bend our children to fit into those boxes. We need a big change in the school culture. Great post x #KCACOLS

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    1. That’s horrible that they made you feel as if you were inattentive and it was your fault. I’m quickly learning that part of school years is constantly advocating for your child’s well-being. Even my friends who have kids doing A-levels are still having to! I guess it is good that their pursuing a referral for my son early in case he does need extra support. Thanks for commenting.

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  7. This is the thing that really worries me. Oliver really struggles to settle in at the moment – he’s 4 in December so only a few months younger than some of the kids that have just started. He can be a bit wild too! I have no idea how I would handle your situation, but I think you handled it in the best possible way.
    #KCACOLS

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  8. This is one thing I don’t like about the education system: every child has to act a certain way by a certain age and learn all this stuff by the time they come out of the womb.
    You are right when you say each child is different and just because they have a strong personality doesn’t make them naughty #KCACOLS

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  9. All children are different and will of course cope with the stress of school, a new and unfamiliar environment, differently. My friend is a teacher and she uses the jar reward method in her class to great effect generally. Hopefully if it continues the school can offer some help and support rather than leave it all to you.
    #KCACOLS

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  10. My eldest daughter too started school a few weeks ago. It’s such a massive change for them and all the family. Whilst her behaviour at school is fine, she has turned into a nightmare at home! I hope he settles in soon and starts enjoying his new school life. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS, hope you can come back again Sunday after next x

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    1. Thank you! #KCACOLS is my favourite linky. I’ve heard lots of people say their child’s behaviour at home has gotten a bit more difficult after they started school. It’s such a big change and they’re so tired!

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  11. I know what you mean. My son has ASD so can be challenging quite a lot! I was pulled aside when I picked him up the other day because he had drawn on the table and I really felt like I was the one being told off! x #KCACOLS

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  12. My children are teenagers now, but one of them had a very bumpy ride in nursery and primary, and I learned a lot through the experience. The first is that, while schools – and in fact all of us – are willing to give children until the age of 11 to master the basics of reading, writing and mathematics, we seem to expect even very small children to immediately pick up and act according to the much more complex rules of social interaction. Over time (and with a lot of research), I came to the view that the difficulty we all have with children’s ‘bad’ behaviour is about the challenge it presents to our feelings. If my (fictional) 3-year-old lies down flat on the floor, kicking and shouting refusal when I’ve spent two hours lovingly preparing a new meal to tempt him, I’m going to feel upset and will probably be cross. In fact, it would be odd if I wasn’t hurt and cross – and my little one would get a skewed message about relationships if I was just calm and accepting. Psychologist Judy Dunn spent years observing young children’s interactions within their families and concluded that what happens around ‘bad’ behaviour is as important to long-term moral learning as what happens around ‘good’ behaviour. Effectively, we can’t learn to live well with each other unless we are sometimes ‘bad’ and experience the consequences. For some children, there are other things going on in their bodies or their lives which take so much of effort or distort experience that learning from consequences takes longer.

    Trouble for teachers in schools is that, as you pointed out, they have benchmarks for everything – including how to behave with each other and in a group setting. They also have the same reaction as me with my (fictional) 3-year-old; they have a job to do and an uncooperative child makes that difficult. It means that there is a tendency to focus on ‘fixing’ the child for conformity rather than questioning what needs to be done so the school can meet the child’s needs. They know it’s ridiculous to place the responsibility for ‘bad’ behaviour on a 4-year-old, so parents tend to be targeted for instruction and you end up feeling that it’s all your fault. In fact, the whole discourse around ‘disadvantaged families’ has made this worse by focusing attention on home environment and quality of parenting as the seat of all ‘under-achievement’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. I used to dread the end-of-school beckoning finger from my son’s classroom teacher. It always meant bad news and I grew to feel sick every time it happened. I still feel sick when I think of it now. I also learned that, however much teachers try to be helpful or appear to be unpleasant over this, however much you try to accommodate them or fail to, however much you feel that people in the playground are helpful or unkind – the only thing that matters is your family and what is happening for your boy. This is his life and he deserves to feel good about himself.

    Be brave, and know this: you are a brilliant, thoughtful, loving mum who has created a wonderful environment in which your children are learning how to live in the world. You don’t need bits of pasta to do that with. Any ‘behaviour’ that doesn’t suit is always an indication of discomfort and unfamiliarity, and it’s just a case of working out what that discomfort is about. In relation to school, for lots of little children it is about the irrelevant expectations they are being put under. (When I carried out research in a reception class, one little girl frequently came to sit on my lap for a quiet hug, sometimes for half an hour at a time. I think she needed something she couldn’t get in that noisy, being-busy environment. If I hadn’t been there, maybe her way of dealing with it would have been less calm.)

    Turned out my boy was experiencing the world in a completely different way from everyone else which made it impossible for him to conform when young. He’s a happy person now because some of the right people listened to him. If you do go for the SEN assessment, any specialists involved should be your best supporters. If you find yourself talking to someone you don’t like, leave – because there are wonderful people out there who will guide you down the right path. Which may, of course, be to say ‘He’s only 4 and just taking his time to settle’. And if it’s not, then they will know how to help.

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    1. Thank you so much for posting this response. It is very reassuring and helpful to have the perspective of someone who has been through the early school years and SEN assessments and come out the other end. The bit about how we experience bad behaviour is particularly compelling. I think the fashion these days is to protect our children from any negative experiences, but we may be doing them a disservice. It’s also useful to think about being more confident in the way I approach these talks with teachers and any specialists I might encounter. It sounds like your children were very lucky to have you as their advocate, and I only hope I can be half as strong!

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  13. So easy to look strong and full of intent in the calm glow of hindsight! Not quite so much at the time, if I remember. Shouted at the headteacher in full view of parents and children at pick-up time once, right in the middle of the playground. Hah! Keep on keeping on.

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