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Misbehavior may evolve to defiance in elementary school

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Mother upset with crying child

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

  1. Why do kids misbehave?
  2. How to tame misbehavior?
  3. What are reasons for misbehaving?

In kindergarten or elementary school, your obedient, good-natured child may start to show signs of defiance because their peers begin to influence them.

Each stage of childhood has its challenges, especially when it comes to discipline.

Let your children know you understand peer influence and you’re going to help them figure out how to make it better, according to HealthyChildren.org. Give a clear message that you’re on their side.


There are many reasons, says Deborah Newell, director of Positive Parenting Program, known as Triple P, which is funded by Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County and run by Community Partners of South Florida.

“If children are overtired, if they are hungry, if their environment is not consistent, and they are unable to regulate due to constant uncertainties and changes, they are going to act out in some way to get their parents’ attention,” Newell says. “Children, no matter their age, need structure and consistency. They need appropriate boundaries and limits. They learn that misbehaving often leads to the parent giving in just to get the child to conform.”

Offering a reward isn’t necessarily the best, so is there a way to discipline at any age?

“You could promise me $1 million to solve an advanced algebraic equation within five minutes — never mind the fact that I have forgotten nearly everything I once knew about algebra — and as incentivized as I would feel, there is no way I’d win the money,” says Dr. Chris McGinnis, a psychologist and founding clinic director at Boys Town South Florida. “I’d just say you’re being mean or unfair. It’s the same for a child who misbehaves.”


Children excel at explaining what they can do or should have done, but then it has little influence on the next time, McGinnis says. They just make the same mistake again.

Parents need to teach a motor sequence or muscle memory of understanding that there are negative consequences to certain behaviors, just as learning to drive a car or throwing a ball requires practicing the motor sequence over and over until we have “unconscious competence,” he says.

In other words, try to take the misbehavior in stride while instilling and practicing good behavior.

“There is an age-old notion that kids are born perfect little angels, and we can only destroy their perfection by any wrong and unthinking move as parents and teachers,” McGinnis says. “They come into this world not knowing a thing about eating with a spoon and wiping their mouths with a napkin, sharing with siblings or classmates, or using words instead of aggressive behavior to get what they want. All children misbehave. It is our job to socialize them, to teach them right from wrong.”

To achieve that effectively, Newell encourages parents to be available, show affection and maintain clear, calm communication with consistency and structure.


• They want attention: Children often feel left out when a parent is occupied, such as on the phone, so they whine or hit a sibling to get attention. Strive to ignore negative behavior and praise positive behavior.

• They copycat: Children repeat what they see, such as something on TV or a peer misbehaving at school. Monitor your child’s interaction with TV, video games and online. Model your behavior in various situations.

• They test limits: When you establish rules, children want to see if you’re serious. Set clear limits and consistent consequences.

• They lack skills: Teach your child what to do in a situation instead of just punishing with a consequence after misbehavior. Demonstrate alternatives to learn from mistakes.

• They want independence: Children seek more autonomy as they become older, even though they may not be ready. Be firm with discipline and guidance.

• They've experienced a traumatic event: Children who've experienced a death in the family, suffered abuse or neglect, are dealing with serious issues at home or other traumatic experiences may act and react in unexpected ways. If you're concerned that your child's behavior may be cause by a trauma of some kind, you can seek help from the sources below or call Mental Health America of Palm Beach County for additional guidance at 561-801-4357.


• Dr. Chris McGinnis, founding clinic director, Boys Town South Florida
• Deborah Newell, program director for Triple P, Community Partners of South Florida
Verywell Health


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