Why Disruptive Children Misbehave at School

Badly behaved students may be telling us they're just bored

Posted Aug 20, 2010

When my son went into grade one, a decade ago, he refused to sit in his seat. He got up and went to the garbage can repeatedly. He fidgeted. When he came home he was upset and moody. He eventually refused to go to school altogether. The school was sure he was showing signs of an attachment disorder, or ADHD. We knew our son as a rambunctious little tyke who hated being confined. He hated snowsuits, car seats, and when younger, high chairs. He was an emotionally secure child who gladly went on sleepovers or spent weekends with his grandparents to give us parents a break. We were sure the problem wasn't our child, but we didn't know how to convince the school otherwise.

Some interesting observational research by Jackie Ravet from the University of Aberdeen in the UK suggests that teachers and pupils in elementary school classrooms can have very different perceptions of a child's behavior. In fact, Ravet shows through interviews with the children and long periods of observation that many children use their disruptive behavior as a way of coping. It is the only survival strategy available to them. Where parents and teachers see 'attention seeking', 'disruptive' and 'distracted' behavior, the kids themselves label their behavior in more positive, or neutral ways. They say they are 'daydreaming', 'having fun', 'having a laugh' and 'doing nothing'.

Thinking about my son, it makes a lot of sense. Were 6-year-olds made to sit in tiny chairs and focus for hours at a desk? For little boys especially, this seems like a set up for misdiagnosis of ADHD and other conduct disorders.

My heart goes out to teachers who have to balance the needs of their educational systems with what they know about healthy child development. Listening to the children, especially those that don't fit in so well, we may want to rethink the structure of our classrooms, and even the timing of when we insist children attend school.