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Your Child's Class Behavior Decoded
What's behind your child's behavior at school, whether she's the chatterbox, know-it-all, class clown or teacher's pet
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From the dawn of the spitball, it seems, classrooms have been filled with certain recurring characters. There's the Class Clown. The Teacher's Pet. And, yes, the Know-It-All. So what is it that makes kids take on these identities? “The child's natural desire for attention is at the heart of all of these different roles,” says William Purkey, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Teaching Class Clowns (and What They Can Teach Us). “The endless quest to feel special and unique, to be valued and seen in a social group—that's a basic drive of human beings.” Somewhere in their 5-year-old subconscious, kids figure out which behaviors win them attention, using that to create a classroom social role that affects everything from how they learn to how easily they make friends.
Jenifer Fox, author of Your Child's Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them, says kids will be who they are. Remember that even an annoying trait has an upside, like curiosity or eagerness to please. Want to figure out who your child is in the classroom? Check our field guide for clues, along with tips on how to turn those traits into school success.
How to spot one: Like my daughter Ella, your little brainiac may be insatiably curious, and, yes, a bit of a show-off. (Cue the rolled eyes and sighs of “Yeah, Mom, I know that already.”)
What to love: Know-It-Alls are good at absorbing and spitting out information. The fact that they want to answer every question usually means you value education at home. “You brought her up in a household where talking about ideas is rewarded,” points out Vickie Gill, a teacher and author of The Ten Students You'll Meet in Your Classroom.
What to watch: Utterly confident, Know-It-Alls can seem like they're bragging (and sometimes they are). For teachers, one student who insists on answering all the questions can divert energy away from less outspoken kids. “My eleven-year-old son's teacher told us he shouts out answers. It's not that he's rude, he just wants to show everyone how smart he is,” says Bethany Cousins, a mom of six from Tonawanda, NY. She had a chat with Lucas about giving other children a chance to show how smart they are, too. “He's figured out he needs to let other kids participate.”
How to make the most of it: Explain to your child that she has two important jobs: “One is to be successful at school, but perhaps just as important is to be nice so that you get along with others,” says Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child's Learning Problems. Cultivating the ability to make people like her is something that will pay off for your child long after she graduates high school. Making the honor roll is great, but as most of us have figured out, it's traits like being easy to work with and making others feel valued that make the real difference in life. It can also help to talk to the teacher about giving your Know-It-All tutor duties. Helping other kids master class material will channel smarty-pants energy—and maybe teach a little humility.
The Class Clown
How to spot one: He's cracking jokes at dinner and hamming it up on the soccer field—so it's no surprise that at school he lives to make kids spurt milk out of their noses. Getting a genuine laugh makes him glow.
What to love: The ultimate entertainers, Class Clowns use their sense of humor to make friends, defuse tense situations, and turn themselves into the life of the playground party—skills that will serve them well. Heck, they may even turn into a career. “Without fail, major comedians were cutups early on,” says Purkey.
What to watch: He could use his biting wit to mock other kids or sass the teacher. Plus, all the laughing sometimes masks the fact that these kids are struggling in school—or bored stiff. “My first-grader picks everything up quickly,” says Linda De Los Reyes of Los Gatos, CA, “so she gets bored and starts making faces at the other kids to get their attention.”
How to make the most of it: Trying to stifle a class clown is “like trying to bottle up a tornado,” says Purkey. So help your child's teacher find ways to put your kid's positive energy to work—say, by letting him emcee the class book-report extravaganza or start the day with a knock-knock joke. After school, improv classes might ring his bell—and teach him when and where to be witty. But when your child crosses the line from funny to fresh, don't give him a pass. Instead, stop and say “I will not speak to you when you're talking this way,” then insist on a more respectful line of conversation. Yes, you want to embrace your kid's zany sense of humor, but not at the expense of appropriate behavior.
How to spot one: After school, he fields drop-by visits from pals and calls the shots in Nerf-gun wars. A born leader, he's a wanted commodity at birthday parties, where other kids crave his attention and approval.
What to love: One of the biggest tasks of grade school—okay, life—is figuring out how to connect with other people, so Mr. Popularity is ahead of the game. Plus, his natural charisma helps him navigate groups and feel comfortable with public speaking. “Seth is the kid that everybody likes,” says San Francisco mom Michele Jones of her 11-year-old. “He was elected to student council in his first two weeks at a new school.”
What to watch: He may use his power to exclude children or boss them around. He may also try to milk his charm, sweet-talking his way out of trouble.
How to make the most of it: Encourage your child to be a social butterfly without winging toward King (or Queen) Bee territory. Talk about how he can use his playground prestige to befriend the new kid or say no to cliques. And to give your grade-schooler a reality check, helping him get a grip on the fact that not all life's opportunities will be handed to him, “Put him with peers who are better than he is at his chosen passions,” recommends Janine Walker Caffrey, an assistant superintendent in the New York City Department of Education and author of Drive: Nine Ways to Motivate Your Kid to Achieve. “Put him in bigger and bigger ponds until he is no longer the shiniest.” Caffrey's popular daughter Alison learned that lesson when her drama teacher assigned her to work on the stage crew for the school musical, helping with costumes instead of taking the starring role (again). Learning that she won't always be the center of attention helped her develop empathy for kids who usually aren't.
How to spot one: He's got a serious gift of gab, so the Chatterbox will lure anyone into long conversations about Pokémon, or his violin lessons, or his new dog, or his favorite movie, or…you get the picture.
What to love: Chatterboxes are usually likable. “On my third-grader's report card, it'll say ‘Audrey is very social,’” says Colleen Evans of Washington, DC. They excel at connecting with shy, left-out kids.
What to watch: A Chatterbox may be almost congenitally incapable of zipping it, which can keep her—and anyone nearby—from focusing, which irritates teachers.
How to make the most of it: Instead of trying to silence a Chatterbox altogether, set some ground rules, says Fox, like listening to three sentences before interrupting. Ask her to write what she's thinking on a notepad and pick the most important thing to say. Then give your Chatterbox an after-school outlet for all that vocal adrenaline, like musical-theater classes. The gift of gab is great, but explain that she'll keep friends and family happy and do better in school if she gets the yapping under control. If she needs help, develop a hand signal to let her know when it's time to clam up—and work with her teacher to enforce it.
How to spot one: The Teacher's Pet sure takes a shine to her teacher. A people-pleaser, she strives to make adults happy by doing well on schoolwork and being genuinely helpful in class. (Warning: You may not see quite the same efforts at home.)
What to love: Anne Albanese of Fairfield County, CT, suspected her daughter might have wormed her way into Pet-dom when Libby's first-grade teacher declared, “I wish I had a whole roomful of Libbys.” And why not? Teacher's Pets bend over backward.
What to watch: Teacher's Pets can be sensitive; a disapproving look from an authority figure can make them dissolve into tears. One low grade can derail them. “Usually this comes from a need for perfection in an educational system that stresses grades over learning,” says Caffrey.
How to make the most of it: Lavish Teacher's Pets with praise for their hard work—and downplay standardized tests and other insomnia—inducing events. Caffrey suggests emphasizing that how much you love her has nothing to do with how much her teacher likes her, or with her grades. “Explain that learning is the most important thing, and although you want her to please the teacher, her value to you and everyone else is not connected to that.”