Why would a child act differently at school than at home? I have lost count of how many parents who come to our clinic, Everlief, who have been in this situation. The usual scenario is that a child is described by teachers as “fine” or even “a model pupil” at school, yet at home all hell breaks loose. Mood swings, anger, meltdowns, and sometimes anxiety attacks.
The Effect on Parents’ Morale
Knowing that a child seems to be able to contain challenging behaviours at school, but not at home, can be so demoralizing. It can make you feel:
- Alone and not “heard”.
- Confused, powerless.
- Like your child is somehow choosing to switch on and off their behaviour.
Why Does My Child Act Differently at School?
Have you ever had a really bad day at work, but managed to hold your emotions together because you didn’t want to appear unprofessional? When you get home you may release your emotions in any number of ways: crying, irritability, drowning your sorrows? It’s no different for your child, except they have less control.
Children have less control over their emotions because their brain is still developing. The limbic system (responsible for emotions) is not yet properly connected with the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for rational decision-making). So although your child may have some control of their emotions at school, the truth is your child is not in control of their behaviour. Observing a child act differently in school is generally a sign that they are overloaded and stressed. They may just about be able to hold things together at school, because it is so important to them. Reasons for this include:
- They don’t want to “lose it” in front of their friends or peers.
- Being viewed as well-behaved is important to them.
- They are scared of getting into trouble at school.
All these reasons, and others, may make your child act differently at school. This “holding it together” at school takes a great toll on your child. By the end of the school day, their “stress cup” may be ready to overflow.
Even at school, there may come a point where your child can no longer hold it together and starts to struggle more openly at school, or refuses to go.
What Causes the Behaviour?
Stress and overwhelm. School – or life in general – could be difficult for so many reasons, including:
- Finding it difficult to focus or concentrate (the extra effort causes stress and fatigue).
- Senses overwhelmed (noisy classroom, too many smells, too much visual stimulation, crowds, uniform feels uncomfortable).
- Struggling to complete work on time or to understand the work.
- Not feeling safe at school (eg not feeling understood by teachers or other pupils).
- Poor quality or quantity of sleep.
- Sensitivity (eg worrying about things going wrong or getting things wrong) leading to anxiety.
Home is Your Child’s Safe Space
If your child is letting out all their emotions at home – rage, stress, irritability, or worry, in many ways you should feel proud. You have created a home life that feels safe enough for your child to let their guard down and release all the pent up emotion they have held on to at school.
Help your child’s teacher understand
Your child is doing an excellent job of “masking” difficulties and coping in school. Teachers will need your help to see beyond this.
Talk to your child in a warm and understanding manner about it. Choose a day when you are feeling calm, and you can support your child whatever comes of the discussion. Depending on their age and emotional development, they may be able to understand why they act differently in school, especially if you talk openly about it in a calm, sympathetic way.
If your child does understand, they may be able to express more about it in a creative way. For example, they may be able to use a metaphor to explain how they feel, such as a volcano exploding, or a tidal surge. This may lead a discussion, a piece of art work or a poem, which could help your child’s teachers to understand.
Make an appointment to discuss what’s happening with the key member(s) of staff. Be honest about what is happening at school, and your hunch that actually things are not as “fine” as they seem for your child in school.
Make a list of subtle signs of distress that your child shows when struggling to cope. This might include:
- Going very quiet.
- Engaging in a repetitive/soothing behaviour such as tapping the desk or smoothing their hair.
- Becoming restless and distracted.
Share this in a written list with teaching staff, so they can be on the lookout.
Share your knowledge about stress and coping. Introduce the teacher(s) to the idea of the stress cup. Make sure they understand that the stress cup fills up silently.
See if the school can put in place a written plan to support your child with stress and overwhelm, even if it’s “hidden”. This might include regular check-ins with a teacher, sending your child on errands to “decompress” from lessons, or assigning your child to a nurture group.
What to do at home
Understand how stressful school (and other issues, such as friendships or worries about the world) might be for your child.
Think about ways you can reduce stress generally for your child, to help them manage emotions more successfully. This article will show you how.