THE BLOG
05/15/2013 02:27 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2013

My 6-Year-Old Got in Trouble at School and Isn't Sorry!

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Hi, my 6-year-old brought home a yellow card today for talking too much, not listening and not following directions. I asked him if he felt bad when he got the card and he said no. How do I guide my child to be accountable for his actions? How would you discipline him for this? He has a clowning personality and can't stop fidgeting and moving in class.

I love this question because it sheds light on a common predicament we face as parents: trying to make our children feel badly when they have misbehaved. My short response is that you cannot force a child to feel remorse; it is an emotion that comes from inside when someone genuinely regrets having behaved a particular way.

When we require our kids to say the obligatory words, "I'm sorry" without actually meaning them, we teach them that words alone can let them off the hook and they don't have to genuinely feel empathy for whoever they have wronged. Instead, here are some ideas for helping your son avoid getting into ongoing trouble at school.

• Make sure your child's teacher provides adequate time to play outside. 6-year-olds are not meant to sit silently at desks for long periods of time, quietly completing written assignments. While it is important that your son learns to manage his behavior, don't make him feel ashamed for having trouble with expectations that, frankly, may not be developmentally appropriate. Because of "teach to the test" policies, children get increasingly shorter periods of outdoor play, depriving them of a vital break in the day to be, well --children! Historically, 6-year-olds spent most of their time outdoors, being noisy and physically active. It is difficult, if not impossible, for many children that young to stay quiet and on-task for hours at end.

• Rule out the possibility that your son is acting out to impress his peers. Some children thrive on the attention they get when they take on the role of class clown. Find out from your son if he is relishes the focus he gets when he goofs off. If your son is exhilarated from being in the spotlight when he misbehaves, he won't feel badly about getting the yellow card. You will want to work with his teacher to ensure he is getting plenty of positive attention for being a helper, and that she points out to him not only when he's being disruptive, but also when he is being a good listener and is staying on task well.

• Come alongside your son, rather than at him. If you attack your child for receiving a yellow card, there's little chance that you will be able to get to the bottom of what caused his misbehavior. Putting him on the defensive will simply motivate him to blame others or come up with excuses for his problematic behavior. Invite your son to speak truthfully with you about what goes on at school and what fuels his restlessness. You wlil only be able to move him toward a feeling of regret and responsibility if you let him know that you're willing to listen to what happened (from his vantage point) while reinforcing that you're on his side.
I understand a yellow card is a serious thing. Ms. Jones must have been pretty upset. I know you like Ms. Jones. Can you tell me what happened? I want to listen and understand what goes in for you in her class so I can help you do well.

• Address underlying challenges that make it hard for your son to manage himself in class. You mentioned that he behaves like a class clown and has trouble sitting still. A child who has trouble being quiet and paying attention may struggle with demands and expectations that exceed his maturity level. Meet with the teacher and/or school psychologist to rule out any legitimate reasons that he has trouble following directions, listening and being quiet, including learning issues or ADD-like tendencies.

While it is important to teach your son to be responsible for his actions, please keep in mind that it is difficult for a young child to constantly rein in his impulsive tendencies and be quiet and compliant for hours on end. Address the root causes of his misbehavior, and you should receive more positive feedback.

Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to askparentcoach@gmail.com and you could be featured in an upcoming column.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter at ParentingWithoutPowerStruggles.com.