Challenging behaviour – school-aged children

  • Children experience a range of emotions and express themselves in many different ways. It’s normal for school-aged children to show defiance or sometimes lose control of their emotions while their social and emotional skills are developing.  

    It’s important that you and other caregivers provide support while your child is developing and learning to manage their own emotions. Guiding your child and encouraging positive behaviours will help them learn appropriate ways to behave.  

    Signs and symptoms of challenging behaviour

    Different families will have different expectations about what is acceptable and what is considered difficult behaviour. Some behaviours that families commonly find challenging in school-aged children include: 

    • defiance (e.g. ignoring or refusing to follow your requests)  
    • fussiness (e.g. refusal to eat certain foods or wear certain clothes) 
    • hurting other people (e.g. biting, kicking) 
    • excessive anger when the child doesn’t get their own way.

    What causes challenging behaviour?

    As your child gets older, they become more aware of what behaviour you expect of them and will be better able to control their behaviour. School-aged children begin to understand empathy and are much better at planning and making decisions about their behaviour than toddlers or pre-schoolers, because they begin to understand that their actions have consequences.

    During primary school, children also begin to learn how to take on more responsibility, but they still require boundaries or limits to guide them as they develop.

    Challenging behaviour is often due to your child not yet having the social and emotional skills they need to behave the way you would like them to.

    There are a number of other things that may affect your child’s ability to control their reactions, emotions or behaviours, including: 

    • being unwell 
    • not enough sleep and being tired
    • too much screen time 
    • poor diet and feeling hungry
    • a change in family circumstances or routine
    • change of environment (e.g. starting a new school)
    • being bullied or having problems at school
    • the development of mental health issues (e.g. anxiety, depression). 

    Sometimes, ongoing challenging behaviour can indicate other health issues, particularly if it is affecting your child’s ability to cope with everyday life. It is also important to consider their current situation or environment and how it may be affecting them. If you are concerned about your child, see your GP. 

    How to deal with challenging behaviours

    While dealing your child’s ongoing negative behaviour can be very stressful, constantly responding to negative behaviours can teach a child that this is a good way to get your attention. Effective ways to discourage challenging behaviours in your child include: 

    • Ignoring – for minor attention-seeking behaviours, it is best to ignore the behaviour (e.g. turn away from your child and respond only when they stop doing it).
    • Offer choice – allow your child to make decisions by offering choices and teach them to consider consequences of the choices they make (e.g. “You can put the iPad away or give it to me”)
    • Encouraging empathy – point out how your child’s behaviour is making another person feel (e.g. sad, hurt) and ask your child how they would feel if someone did the same to them.  

    Positive reinforcement

    The best way to guide your child’s behaviour is to use a positive and constructive approach. Reward good behaviours often and focus on positive aspects of your child’s behaviour, rather than directing attention to negative behaviours.  

    • Reinforce positive behaviours before they become negative (e.g. “I think you’re doing a great job at playing gently with your brother”). This encourages your child by giving attention to their positive behaviour, rather than waiting until they become too rough and having to focus on the negative behaviour. Make sure you are specific about what behaviours you really like and want to encourage. 
    • Consider implementing a positive behaviour system in your home. A reward chart for younger children can add incentive for your child to increase desirable behaviours. This strategy can also help you focus on the times when your child is behaving well. For older children, incentives can be things like letting them choose an activity you can do together.
    • Be a role model for your child. Children pick up clues from watching others about how to behave, so it’s important to act and talk in a way that you’d like to see your child behave (e.g. if you want to discourage your child from shouting at you, it is important to try to keep a calm voice when you are becoming frustrated).  

    Set boundaries and consequences

    Set clear rules and involve your child in this process. Setting rules is important so that your child knows what behaviour is expected of them and what the consequences are if they decide to break the rules.

    If your child is breaking the rules, communicate to them that they are doing the wrong thing and, if appropriate, give them a second chance to correct the behaviour. If the negative behaviour continues, there should be a logical, age-appropriate consequence that you are willing and able to carry through with. Immediate consequences are fairer and more effective than delayed consequences. 

    Time-out is a common way to deliver an immediate consequence, but it needs to be used appropriately to work well. Keep time-out as a consequence for more challenging behaviours (e.g. deliberately hurting others, dangerous behaviours or deliberately breaking things) rather than behaviours that can be ignored (e.g. whinging, swearing).   

    Time-out should not be used to make the child suffer (e.g. isolating them for long periods), but can be used to remove your child from the situation for a few minutes and give them an opportunity to change their behaviour. Generally, it is recommended that your child stays in time-out for a maximum of one minute for every year of their age, and that you allow them out of time-out when the time is up, even if they are not yet calm or quiet. Leaving your child in time-out or isolation for longer periods is likely to cause them to become more distressed.

    If your child continues to misbehave after the time-out has finished, they can be put back into time-out for another session or two if their inappropriate behaviour continues.  

    Taking away privileges can be an alternative consequence to time-out. The privilege should be taken away within a few hours (or the next day) of the negative behaviour (e.g. “If you don't stop hurting your friend, you won't be allowed back on the trampoline for the rest of the day”).

    Be consistent with your approach to consequences and your child will be more likely to understand what is expected of them. 

    Why negative discipline can be harmful

    Physical discipline

    Physical discipline is anything that is done to a child to cause physical pain or discomfort in response to their behaviour. Physical discipline includes smacking, hitting, spanking, slapping, pinching or pulling.

    Many studies have found that physical discipline can have long-lasting negative effects on a child, including: 

    • increased aggression and antisocial behaviour   
    • teaching children that violence is OK 
    • low self-esteem 
    • mental health problems 
    • a poor relationship between the child and parent. 

    Physical discipline is also not effective in improving behaviour in the long term – while it may stop a child’s unwanted behaviour at the time of the punishment, it doesn’t help them learn the more desired behaviour. This can result in repeated unwanted behaviours.

    If there is violence or aggression in your family, you feel unsafe, or you or your child is at immediate risk of harm, contact emergency services on 000.

    Shouting or shaming

    Shouting or yelling may be an understandable response when you are frustrated; however, studies have found that shouting at children can have similar harmful effects to physical punishments. By shouting at children, you are not modelling acceptable behaviour or showing their children how to deal with anger and frustration appropriately.

    Being shouted at – especially by someone much larger than them – is very stressful for a child. Shouting at, shaming, belittling and humiliating children does not improve children’s behaviour, and it can lead to more behavioural problems (e.g. increased aggression) and mental health issues (e.g. anxiety, depression) in the future.

    Isolation as punishment

    Spending long periods in isolation without explanation or emotional support can be harmful for young children. Being isolated (especially at a time when they are upset) can be perceived as rejection, which can cause distress and confusion for your child. At times it can be effective to take your child away from a challenging situation and have a quiet change of scene, but it is not helpful to keep them away for longer than the recommended period of one minute per year of age. 

    When to see a doctor

    Sometimes, severe and persistent challenging behaviour can be a sign of a developmental condition or a more serious social or emotional problem. A GP can investigate this and refer you to a specialist if needed. 

    Challenging behaviours include behaviour that disrupts a child’s learning, interrupts or interferes with others and behaviour that causes the child and family distress. Behavioural challenges can have an ongoing, negative impact on family life. If you are having difficulties managing or coping with your child’s behaviour, you can talk to a GP who may refer you on to a specialist in paediatric behaviours.  

    Key points to remember

    • It’s normal for school age children to show defiance, yell or have emotional ‘meltdowns’ while their social and emotional skills are developing. 
    • Encouraging empathy can help improve negative behaviours.  
    • Positive reinforcement and focusing on your child’s good behaviour is the best way to guide your child’s behaviour.  
    • Setting rules and being consistent with age-appropriate consequences is important.  
    • Punishing your child with physical discipline, shouting or isolation can be harmful.  

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    What effect will too much screen time have on my daughter?

    Studies have found that being ‘addicted’ to screens, in particular for internet and gaming use, can cause changes in the brain that affect emotional processing, decision making and ability to control behaviour. Too much screen time can lead to poor quality sleep, which can contribute to challenging behaviour. Furthermore, spending lots of time on a screen means less time exercising, getting fresh air and spending time with family and friends, which can also negatively impact on mental and physical wellbeing.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that for all children aged five to 18 years, screen time should be reduced where possible. Screen time should not replace time needed for sleeping, eating, being active and interacting with family or friends.

    Is using a behaviour chart to offer rewards a good idea? I don’t want my son to start expecting rewards for the chores he helps with.

    Sticker charts or reward charts are a great way to encourage and reward good behaviour, but should only be used in certain situations. If rewards or charts are used too often or for the wrong type of behaviour, children may become reliant on rewards, and may then develop an attitude where they only help with tasks around the house or behave appropriately if they get something out of it.

    Reward charts work well when children are learning a new skill (e.g. making their bed) or when you want to teach them a new behaviour (e.g. saying ‘please’). The chart should only be temporary – rewards should be offered less frequently and sporadically as the skill or behaviour develops and then phased out completely.

    Reward charts should also never be used on their own to try to ‘fix’ a behaviour. Always use charts in conjunction with other positive parenting strategies, including positive reinforcement and setting boundaries.

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Community Information, Department of Adolescent Medicine, and The RCH Child Health Poll. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers. 

    First published October 2018. 

    This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.

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