Q: Our son is a rising second-grader at a private school. Last year, his behavior was often disruptive and sometimes even downright defiant - problems his first-grade teacher did not have with him. At home, we have no more than typical "boyishness" - nothing approaching serious. Nonetheless, at the school's request, we took him to a private counselor they recommended. When that did no good, the school began insisting he had a disorder and wanted him put on medication - something we will not do. Anyway, we want to take preventive steps to head this off before it becomes an issue in the coming school year. Can you give us any advice?
A: I've heard variations on this story more times than I can count. A child - usually a boy - develops a classroom behavior problem. The school recommends counseling with a counselor with whom they have a working relationship. Despite the counseling, the child's behavior continues to be a problem and may even worsen, at which point the counselor (and/or school) claims the child has a behavior disorder and the school begins pushing for medication.
First, there is no scientific validity to the notion that persistent misbehavior of one sort or another constitutes a "disorder" that arises from a so-called biochemical imbalance or some other equally unprovable biological cause. Second, compelling evidence supporting the reliable efficacy of "talk therapy" with children does not exist. Third, many parents have told me that having their misbehaving children talk to counselors or therapists resulted in either no improvement or things getting considerably worse. Fourth, if your son had a disorder, it would not be confined to a specific teacher. Fifth, a behavior problem that is confined to a specific teacher is almost surely a teacher problem. Sixth, a school, whether public or private, is not likely to admit that.
Now, it is my bounden duty to tell you that most folks in my profession - child and family psychology - would not agree with the previous six points. If you have misgivings about my perspective, I encourage you to seek a third opinion. The more information you collect, the better.
The unfortunate reality is that by the time a school, working in conjunction with a children's mental health counselor, identifies a child as having an unverifiable behavior disorder and begins pushing for putting said child on medication, too much water has gone over the dam, so to speak. Sometimes, if the option of transferring the child to another school - giving him a fresh start - is available, that has been my recommendation. Many behavior disorders have been cured by a longer morning ride to school. At this point, however, I want you to do nothing more than hold that thought.
Since a new school year is imminent, I recommend you simply wait and see what effect a new teacher has on the situation. I would hope that under the circumstances, the school would assign your son to a veteran teacher who is easy-going but also a seasoned classroom disciplinarian. Given that last year's problems were not typical of your son, I would predict that a new teacher will be all that's needed to get your son back on track.
If, however, the problems persist, then I recommend what I term the "nuclear option." That would involve taking away all privileges (including birthday parties and sleepovers), toys, electronics and after-school activities until your son's classroom behavior returns to first-grade standards and remains steady for at least four weeks. The key is to put these measures into effect immediately. As is said, in hesitation, all is lost.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his websites, johnrosemond.com and parentguru.com.