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Ask Dr. Sears: Acting Out in Kindergarten

Q. Our 5-year-old son just started kindergarten. He gets notes sent home for not following directions, not keeping his hands to himself, and talking out of turn. We've tried putting him in time-out and taking things away, but nothing seems to be working. We emphasize the importance of listening so he can learn along with his classmates. He tells us he understands, but then he comes home the next day with yet another note. He is not a hyper kid or very rowdy, but he does like to have fun and make people laugh. What do you suggest to help improve his behavior?

A. Your child is showing the behavior that is typical of many children, especially boys, when they begin school. In his journey to become accepted and popular among his peers, he is figuring out what social behaviors get him the most attention, both positive and negative. Over the next year or so, he will gradually shed those behaviors that don't work for him and stick with the ones that do. Here's how you can help him have a more pleasant social journey:

Begin the day with a brainy breakfast

Recent research has shown that kids who eat a nutritious breakfast are more likely to be well-behaved, pay attention and get good grades than kids who eat unhealthy, sugary foods or skip breakfast entirely. Intellectual and emotional behavior in the brain depends upon a steady supply of the right balance of proteins and carbohydrates. Note the word steady: If your child goes off to school after eating a high-carb breakfast (e.g., low protein, low-fiber cereal and high-carb processed foods), the brain gets a sugar rush, which triggers a hormonal imbalance followed by a sugar crash mid-morning. The rise and fall of your child's blood sugar also has a roller-coaster impact on his behavior. A "right-carb" breakfast is one in which the carbs are partnered with protein, fiber and healthy fats. This combination steadies blood sugar and, like a time-release capsule, delivers a steady supply of fuel to the brain throughout the morning.

Send him to school with a nutritious mid-morning snack

Little brains that run out of fuel are also going to run out of the ability to pay attention and behave. A mid-morning snack such as a homemade oatmeal/raisin cookie, a handful of trail mix, or a cup of yogurt may be just what your child needs.

Know your child.

During pre-kindergarten checkups, I prepare parents to expect some degree of acting out, like the behavior your child is showing. This is particularly true in children characterized by the three B's: bright, bored, boy. Bright children, especially boys, often get tagged as hyperactive or A.D.D. when they get bored at school. A bored child will often act out or exhibit annoying behaviors as a type of self-stimulation to prevent apathy.

Use peer pressure

Be your child's social chairman. Get to know your child's friends. Pick out the ones whose social behavior is a bit more mature, and invite them over. Through peer modeling, your child will pick up which social behaviors are most popular and which ones aren't.

Go to school yourself

Volunteer to be a teacher's aid, perhaps once a week for a few weeks, to get to know your child's classroom. You'll be surprised what an intuitive mother can learn. Perhaps your child is seated next to a group of rowdy boys and is picking up behavior from them and getting positive peer feedback for his acting out. Sometimes a simple modification like a change in seating arrangement will help. Or, suggest to the teacher that your child be given a job in the classroom. One kindergartener in my practice who had the same behavior as your child showed dramatic improvement when he was given the task of passing out all the drawing materials and take-home notes. This got him moving around the room and made him feel important—and was socially acceptable behavior. You can also use your visit to the classroom as an opportunity to assess whether the teacher, the grade and this particular class are the right fit for your child. A poor fit is one of the most commonly overlooked causes of inappropriate school behavior.


Finally, keep a diary of the three behaviors that concern you the most. Track them for improvement. If you see progress, then you can rest assured that time and maturity, in addition to the wise parenting you are now doing, will gradually help your child shine in his class.