Effective classroom management is an ongoing challenge in all schools. Numerous cottage industries have sprung up to help schools and their teachers manage behavior and maintain discipline. What they have in common is that they relate almost exclusively to the school and classroom environment. There are, however, behavioral issues that transcend the regular challenges of a classroom teacher, and that can really be handled effectively only when both the school and home work cooperatively.

Among the issues which can benefit from such home/school cooperation is one which is growing and becoming more pervasive; it is the problem of the child who is overwhelmed by school. He hates getting up in the morning and hates going to school. He feels inadequate, helpless or stupid in comparison to others. He is the child who at times acts so lethargic he seems helpless; he appears to want nothing more than to be left alone. His lack of self-worth frequently motivates contrary behavior. His teachers would like to help him, but every effort seems to backfire, though they are well aware that if things continue unabated he is a potential dropout. His parents are frustrated and at wits’ end.

A closer relationship between home and school is essential if we are to deal effectively with some of the challenges our children present us with

A mother of such a youngster, whom I’ll call Danny, came to see me recently and asked if I might be able to suggest a special school for her son, who appeared to be totally incapable and unwilling to cope with the demands of school. Danny has been evaluated by a child-study team who did a whole battery of tests and pronounced him “average” with a mild processing problem. Danny hated the evaluation and told the evaluators, in advance, that he was just plain stupid. A psychologist met with Danny’s parents and teachers, and suggested modifying the program for him, but Danny continues to be uncooperative. The school, his mother told me, is supportive of the idea of a change of venue.

Danny’s teachers say that they have tried to follow the psychologist’s suggestions, and while there was some improvement for a short time, before long Danny reverted back to his lethargic behavior and they felt they were back on square one. What appears to have happened in Danny’s case, and with so many others like him, is that while everyone involved is doing the right thing, the sum of all these parts does not make up a whole.

What I would like to suggest is that a closer relationship between home and school is essential if we are to deal effectively with some of the challenges our children present us with. Neither home nor school alone can set Danny on a new path, but if they work together, it may be possible. Furthermore, it seems logical to me that if Danny is not just a problem, but the subject of a challenge to his parents and teachers, then he needs to take an active part in its resolution as well. The “whole” in this and other such cases will add to much more than the sum of the parts.

Let us try to understand what Danny is going through and what he is feeling. We certainly know this much: when children feel inadequate, they may give up doing what is appears to them to be too difficult to succeed at, and become generally uncooperative. These children frequently feel that if they make no effort, at least they have an excuse for not being successful. In fact, they may sometimes even set arbitrary goals which are unattainable, and then make no attempt because the goals are too demanding and are out of reach. “See, I told you I can’t do it, why don’t you just leave me alone?” is a frequent refrain. So clearly, it is Danny’s naturally defensive response to his problem which has created the mess he’s in. If we are going to help him dig himself out, he must be the center of our strategy.

First let us agree about what won’t work. Will reprimanding him help? Will telling him that he is being lazy and being manipulative help him? Danny is already suffering from a lack of self-worth, so how could browbeating him help? It will only reinforce his feeling about himself. He knows he is incapable of producing what we expect; are we are going to reinforce what he feels about himself? What he may more likely do is retreat into himself further, and refuse to perform at all.

Will demanding of him that he makes an honest effort, and then seeing how far he is able to get, do any good? Unlikely. In fact, what he may feel that he is far better off not making any effort, which at least gives him an excuse for not being successful. Children such as Danny justify their lack of effort by saying to themselves that they can’t meet the goals anyway, so why try?

So what then? We need to comfort Danny by helping him understand the reasons for his own behavior, and that he must take an active part in our helping him to become successful. We must assure him that we like him and will be supportive of him. Danny needs to overcome his approach of avoiding failure by not making an effort, and learn that he is, in fact, capable of success.

Here is where home and school both have an equally important role to play, and they need to work cooperatively. The school needs to show Danny how to set realistic goals, and his teachers need to assure him that they will help him reach those goals. They must help him experience success and compliment him for it. If, for example, Danny has been getting 60% correct on his tests, he needs to be told that he will only need to answer, let us say, any fifteen of the twenty questions on the test, and on the first attempt, that we will help him choose the questions he is able to handle. His mark on the test, or for that matter his classwork, should be graded based only on the questions he was held responsible for. On his first attempt Danny may answer 80% of the questions he attempts correctly, and receive compliments and congratulations, both is school and at home.

We need to comfort Danny by helping him understand the reasons for his own behavior, and that he must take an active part in our helping him to become successful

At home, the same approach needs to be taken by Danny’s parents. Everything Danny is expected to undertake should be discussed with him, and he should learn to set realistic goals for himself. As he makes an acceptable effort, he should be rewarded—with a compliment, or, for a young child, something tangible. He should not receive anything for half an effort, or for not realistically trying to reach his self-set goal. This must be made clear at school, and the same policy must be enforced at home. Both parents and school must show him how he can be successful, by helping him set the kind of goals at which he can be successful and them making sure he puts in the kind of effort necessary to be successful. Success will breed success. As Danny begins to feel better about himself, he will not need to torment himself about his inability, and his lethargy will dissipate.

Home and school need to communicate often and exchange anecdotal notes about how Danny is proceeding, and share their understanding of how things are progressing with him. This goes for an eight-year-old Danny as well as for an eighteen-year-old. Obviously, the discussion with him will vary with his age, but the thrust of what needs to be done is the same.

In subsequent pieces I hope to discuss some of the other key motivators of negative behavior, and perhaps shed some light on a cooperative approach to changing children’s behavior.