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Q: My 5-year daughter keeps misbehaving at school. The school uses a red, yellow, and green light system for behavior, and my daughter almost always comes home with a yellow or red light. Her teacher says that our daughter often tries to grab other student’s work, won’t stay standing in line, doesn’t sit quietly during reading time, and often talks when the teacher is talking. At home, she’s sweet and very obedient. We’ve tried talking with her about what she needs to do better at school, and she promises that she will, but nothing works! Help!

 

A: It’s a good start that she’s obedient at home. I’ll wager that her home environment has fewer rules and less structure than her school environment. When you look at the conflict areas, it’s almost entirely in things that are unique to a school setting: standing in line, being quiet while the teacher is talking, and being told not to touch other students’ things. So, the primary issue is her adjustment to a very structured environment, with new expectations for her behavior.

So, she’s not ready to follow all the new rules, all the time. Unfortunately, constantly getting sent home with a yellow or red light will make her feel negatively about school, and she’ll start to feel that it’s impossible to be “good” all day. After all, she hasn’t succeeded in doing this regularly yet. What often happens is that kids will start to view themselves as “bad” and will give up on even trying to behave. From their perspective, what’s the point? They’ll just mess up again anyways, even if they tried really hard not to. Not to mention, if their indiscretion happens early in the morning and they have already earned a red light, they have no incentive to keep their behavior good for the rest of the day.

I would recommend breaking up her behavior evaluations into smaller segments. Instead of making it the “impossible” goal of being good all day, maybe break the day up into thirds. She’ll get a color rating for the morning hours, the midday hours, and the afternoon hours. Having to behave for shorter amounts of time will take the pressure off, and help her manage her emotions better when there’s a realistic end in sight.

I’ve found that positive reinforcement works very well, so I would recommend giving her a reward for each green light she gets during the day. It can be a small sticker, a new marble, or another small toy for a collection. Make sure you draw attention to how good she was, how hard she worked to earn that green rating, and therefore, how she directly earned that object she wants. Immediate rewards for good behavior are great for small kids who don’t really understand long-term planning.

I would caution to make the rewards somewhat small; it should be enough to make her feel accomplished, but not so much that it impacts her life significantly. You don’t want to create the expectation of a big, expensive toy for every time she behaves herself. That’s just asking for disaster when you wean her off the rewards.

If she does have a concept of saving for the long term, you could even use green ratings as a currency: give her a green bingo chip for each green rating she gets, and she can save them up to spend on a bigger toy or activity she wants. Perhaps the new Barbie costs 15 green chips, and the Lego Star Wars set costs 45. Going to the zoo might cost 60 green chips. Saving for big objects can help reinforce the idea that constant hard work will pay off in the end. A side benefit of this option is that counting her chips with her (and calculating how much she should save) can be a good math activity, too.

If she is attached to the green chips, but doesn’t mind getting red ones either, you may want to have the red be “opposite chips” which cancel out a green one. Always provide advance notice if you change the way chips are counted, though, so kids have a chance to modify their behavior appropriately.

Sometimes I use the idea of currency with my older students, especially if they have trouble motivating themselves to complete lots of homework. If they work on their essay every day for the next two weeks, I’ll bring over the HTC Vive and we can do a Virtual Reality session instead of more school practice, for example.

As her behavior improves, you can reduce the amount of sections in the day. Reduce it to mornings/afternoons, and eventually to the entire day. It might be difficult to wean her off the constant prizes, but in my experience, most kids don’t mind too much. And in the end, they feel far more empowered to control their behavior than they did before.