Nothing Works All the Time for Acting Out


Dear Dr. Sylvia:

Q. You spoke about not giving too much attention to children when they exhibit negative behavior, such as acting out, because they will continue to seek attention that way. I had an issue with one of my fifth graders (who had a history of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, was raised by his grandparents and has many half siblings). He lived with two other brothers, one older and one younger. He would continually act out several times a week and, eventually, I would ignore him and even told the other students to ignore him when he chose to act out. Of course, this didn't work for long and he didn't back down which lead to a trip to the office almost weekly. What could I have done or said in a situation like this? I tried verbal praise, small positives and passes to recess, but these only seemed to work half the time.


A. Nothing really works all the time for a child who comes from such a difficult home life. I'm not sure what happened in his visits to the principal's office, but if the boy could have had a very boring time sitting in a quiet place and doing school work alone, it would undoubtedly have been what he wanted to avoid most and could have encouraged him to use some self-control and reduce his acting out behavior. Boredom can be the worst punishment.

Your very personal, private attention for the good things he did could have been most effective for him. You could have selected one good behavior at a time that you wanted to promote and told the boy you were watching for improvement in that area and that you'd just walk near his desk and touch him on the shoulder or back when you saw the improved behavior. That gentle reinforcer could have meant more than anything because he would have known you cared about him.

If he had a problem with temper or aggressive behavior, perhaps the school counselor could have met with him once a week to help him with anger management. He probably would have benefited from talking to a counselor regularly considering his history and it's unlikely that would happen without the school's assistance. I expect that he was not an easy student. Thanks for caring enough to help him and hopefully these suggestions can be used for others like him.

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