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Child is Avoiding School with Tantrum Behavior

Page history last edited by Jess Ledbetter 1 year, 8 months ago

So, your child is avoiding school (or other transitions) by throwing a big, scary tantrum. How stressful and frustrating! I have looked for resources related specifically to this topic without success, so I thought I would create a resource page. Navigating this behavior requires quick, careful, intentional steps.


When children cannot clearly communicate the ideas in their head, they use behavior to bridge the gap. Perhaps your child is using behaviors like crying, hitting, falling on the floor, rolling around, biting, scratching, kicking, head banging, throwing up, destroying things, etc. Let's call this group of actions "maladaptive behaviors." These types of behaviors are likely to upset you. (Of course they do!) In fact, you might get so upset that you give in to your child's request so that the behaviors will stop. (Who wouldn't? Witnessing these things is STRESSFUL and no one wants to see their child get hurt!)


Here is the most important part: If you give in to your child's maladaptive behaviors, you are teaching your child that maladaptive behaviors are a successful way to communicate with you. Worse yet, your child will continue communicating with you this way for as long as the behavior is successful to accomplish their goal. 


So your child is using these behaviors to avoid school? Even more frustrating! Your child needs to come to school to get services to help them communicate more effectively so they won't have to communicate with behavior! (And let's be honest, you need time to run to the grocery store or finish that load of laundry!) I want to work with you to make sure your child gets to school. Of course your child might occasionally prefer to stay with you. (Because let's face it, you're awesome!) If your child is having good days once they arrive at school but throwing a tantrum to avoid school, they are simply asking for more time with Mommy/Daddy/Family. We can work together to help your child understand that school is non-negotiable, that you love him/her, and that you will be back when school is over.


Here are some steps to take at home if your child is using maladaptive behaviors to communicate with you:  

(1) Meet as a family (all adults or teenage siblings in the home). Talk about what the behaviors look like. List them and talk about what everyone has seen so far.

(2) List when the behaviors are happening.

(3) Discuss what your child is trying to gain through the behavior. (What is s/he trying to communicate?)

(4) Decide as a team how to respond when these behaviors occur. Visual communication can be helpful (less information to process). Any spoken communication should be short and sweet (e.g. "Time for school!"). Everyone must agree and be willing to be consistent. (SIDE NOTE: If some team members behave differently than others or one member responds differently each time, it will be confusing and stressful to your child. Worse, it might make the maladaptive behaviors last longer because the child is not sure if they will work or not.)

(5) No matter what, you must help your child to follow your request (e.g. "Time for school!"). This might be hard at first, but continuing to help your child follow the request will help your child learn that you are consistent. The more times you are consistent, the less likely your child will be to use the behavior to communicate.


Ok, you are getting an extinction burst (aka: Your child has turned into an angry, fire-breathing dragon who fiercely insists on using maladaptive behaviors to communicate with you!) You are consistently implementing the steps you've decided as a family team but your child's behavior gets dramatically worse at first. Here is what's happening: Your child is confused. They have been using maladaptive behaviors to communicate and this communication used to be successful. Suddenly, Mom/Dad does not understand the message anymore. You have to endure this short time of worse behavior (called an "extinction burst") while your child learns that the maladaptive behaviors are NO LONGER successful to communicate their desired outcome. You must firmly refuse not to let these behaviors result in your child's desired outcome. Your child needs to learn new strategies to communicate about their requests. This time is stressful, but you can handle it. (Remember: You're awesome!) Keep going for at least two weeks. If consistently implementing the new strategy is not changing the behavior after two weeks, meet as a family to follow the steps again and decide on a new strategy.


Here are some strategies we can try at school:

(1) If you are attending your "assigned school" (e.g. not on open enrollment), we could try signing your child up to ride the bus.

(2) Your child can bring a loved item to school to help transition on the walk to the classroom.

(3) I can make your child some pictures of them at school that you can show him/her to get ready each day.

(4) We could try writing a social story together about your child going to school. We can include pictures from home and pictures at school.

(5) We could switch your child to a different class (e.g. morning to afternoon or afternoon to morning). Perhaps the time of day is affecting your child's readiness for school).

(6) Your child can bring a picture of you/family to school and we can find a special place to put it up each day.

(7) I can send you a picture (or two!) during the day to assure your worried Mommy/Daddy heart that everything is ok. (And I will promise to call you and consult if your child continues to be upset).


Basically, I am open to any idea you want to try that will help your child come to school. Whatever we choose, I want to try it for a full two weeks before switching to something else. Remember, consistency is everything. Your child needs to learn that s/he is going to school every day as scheduled. Eventually, this consistency will be comforting!


Once you arrive with your child at school, we need to make a plan together so that you can leave--no matter how your child is acting. If you decide to take your child back home, it will teach your child that the maladaptive behaviors have successfully communicated the message: I want to stay with Mom/Dad/Family. 


This time in your child's life is very, very important. Research shows that early intervention can dramatically improve a child's long term outcomes. Your child needs access to special education services and an opportunity to practice being at school so that s/he can have the best outcomes in kindergarten and beyond.


Consistent school attendance is necessary so that all your dreams for your child can come true. Let's schedule time to chat if you are struggling with getting your child to school. I'm here to help!


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