What are options for coming school year for young son who has been disruptive?

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Q: Our young son is about to start a new school year at a private school. Last year, his behavior was often disruptive and sometimes even defiant, problems his first-grade teacher didn’t have with him. At home, we have no more than typical “boyishness” and nothing approaching serious. Nonetheless, at the school’s request we took him to a private counselor recommended by the school. When that did no good, the school began insisting he had a disorder and wanted him put on medication, something we will not do. We want to take preventive steps to head this off before it becomes a problem in the coming school year. Can you advise us?

A: I’ve heard variations on this story more times than I can count. A child — usually a boy — develops a classroom behavior problem. The school recommends counseling with a counselor with whom it has a working relationship. Despite the counseling, the child’s behavior continues to be a problem and might even worsen, at which point the counselor and/or school claims the child has a behavior disorder and the school begins pushing for medication.

First, there is no scientific validity to the notion that persistent misbehavior constitutes a disorder that arises from a biochemical imbalance or some other unprovable biological cause. Second, compelling evidence supporting the reliable efficacy of “talk therapy” with children does not exist. Third, many parents have told me that having their misbehaving children talk to counselors or therapists resulted in either no improvement or things getting worse. Fourth, if your son had a disorder, it would not be confined to a specific teacher. Fifth, a behavior problem that is confined to a specific teacher is almost surely a teacher problem. Sixth, a school, whether public or private, is not likely to admit that.

Most folks in my profession — child and family psychology — would not agree with the above six points. If you have misgivings about my perspective, I encourage you to seek a third opinion. The more information you collect, the better.

The unfortunate reality is that by the time a school, working with a child mental health counselor, identifies a child as having a (unverifiable) behavior disorder and begins pushing for putting the child on medication, too much water has gone over the dam, so to speak. Sometimes, if the option of transferring the child to another school, giving him a fresh start, is available, that has been my recommendation. Many behavior disorders have been cured by a longer morning ride to school. At this point, however, do nothing more than hold that thought.

Since a new school year is imminent, I recommend you wait and see what effect a new teacher has. I would hope that the school would assign your son to a veteran teacher who is easy-going but a seasoned classroom disciplinarian. Given that last year’s problems weren’t typical, I would predict that a new teacher will be all that’s needed to get your son back on track.

If, however, the problems persist, then I recommend the “nuclear option.” That would involve taking away all privileges (including birthday parties and sleepovers), toys, electronics and after-school activities until your son’s classroom behavior returns to first-grade standards and remains steady for at least four weeks. The key is to put these measures into effect immediately. In hesitation, all is lost.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website,

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