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I’m struggling to find ways to influence my 5-year-old son's behavior. What we’ve done at home seems to result in only short-term effects. He is the middle child between a 10- and a 2-year-old sister.

My husband and I have tried everything we can possibly think of: explaining consequences, positive reinforcement, replacement behavior, behavior charts, quality time with parents, short-term goals and long-term goals, time out, and grounding. Each morning we discuss what is expected of him. We outline three specific ways to achieve his behavior goals. He can repeat each of them back to me more than once.

We’ve tried to find a reason for this behavior. There has been nothing at home that’s changed. He receives plenty of attention. He has social interaction as often as possible. He has a morning/bed-time routine. He goes to bed early and wakes up easily. He eats a regular balanced diet. He takes no medications whatsoever.

At home, we see behavior issues that we can typically correct with one warning, and/or time out. Most often, his issues at home are related to not listening the first time he's told, or irritating his older sister. I've noticed that he doesn't know when playfulness goes too far and becomes hurtful, annoying, or disrespectful.

At school, the behavior problems are becoming more frequent and severe. He’s been sent to the principal's office twice in the last three weeks and is receiving yellows (warnings) on a near-daily basis. At his worst, he steps on, trips, and hurts his classmates. Most often, he needs frequent reminders and the teacher tells me, "he thinks he's being silly even though his friends are sad." Teacher says he's pushing boundaries with classmates to see their reactions (repeatedly poking a classmate to see what they'll do or what the teacher will do).

He goes to the after school program at his elementary school until my husband or I pick him and his sister up after work. I don't believe anything at school has changed. When I ask him questions, I get very vague answers. Previously, they were both going on the bus to the YMCA after school, but after problems with repeating some of the foul language and topics that the older kids on the bus were discussing, we transitioned to the after school program - excluding the bus ride all together.

The teacher recommends observation by the school behavior counselor, which I've agreed to. What additional actions can I take at home/school to prevent more misbehavior?

  • This is very difficult as it seems that everything you are trying is great. How busy is home? Is he the youngest? I assume he is in kindergarten and I know that is busy. Is it a full day? Does he have daycare as well? Nothing at home has changed... what about school, transportation or daycare? – WRX Feb 27 '17 at 21:18
  • He is the middle child. Older sister is 10, younger sister is 2. He goes to after school program at his elementary school until my husband or I pick him and his sister up after work. I don't believe anything at school has changed. When I ask him questions, I get very vague answers. Previously, they were both going on the bus to the YMCA after school, but after problems with repeating some of the foul language and topics that the older kids on the bus were discussing, we transitioned to the after school program-excluding the bus ride all together. – Nicole Hornberger Feb 27 '17 at 21:38
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When he does something that ends up hurting his sister, how do you address it?

Specifically, do you focus on the thing that he just did? Or do you focus on how his sister feels?

The latter is very important in helping a child learn how to appropriately set boundaries, and how to read the emotions of those around him. It's far more important that he learn to read when those around him are uncomfortable, sad, or upset, rather than to learn not to do specific actions - even when they are "never do" actions, unless they're actually dangerous - because once he learns to read the emotions of those around him, and accepts that it's important, he'll stop doing the things he shouldn't do.

Five year olds are also typically very self centered. Hopefully not as much as a two or three year old, but they're still well on that side of things. This means that one of the things he needs to be learning here is that other people's feelings are important.

So, when he (let's say) hits his sister, or gets a bit too into a physical game and hurts her, the best approach in my experience is to show him his sister, and point out her physical cues that show to him that she's feeling (whatever she's feeling).

Then help him see how his action led to that emotion, and help him find ways to avoid that action in the future. Avoid any sort of comments like "You're a bad boy" or otherwise suggesting that this is anything other than a single, specific action that he has control over and can do differently next time.

Junior, do you see your sister? Things got a bit out of hand, and now look at her. She's crying, because she's hurt, because you hit her on the arm there. Can you see how sad she is?

But mommy, we were just playing tag.

I know, Junior, but when you play tag you have to be careful to keep things in control, right? Tag is fun as long as you don't hit the person you tag too hard. But you got a bit out of control, right? When you get excited, is it easy to get out of control?

We were having fun, mommy!

Yes you were, and tag is a lot of fun until someone gets out of control, right? If she'd hit you that hard, you'd be pretty sad and not having fun, wouldn't you? And you probably wouldn't want to play tag for a while, either.

(pouty face with big lip)

Why don't you go give your sister a hug and apologize, and next time do you think you can focus on not hitting too hard when you tag?

Sis, I'm sorry I hit you. Can we play tag some more? I'll stay in control, I promise.

  • I appreciate your help. Thank you so much and will do. – Nicole Hornberger Feb 27 '17 at 21:56
  • Good luck. I can say (as the parent of a 5yo who sometimes also has issues like you descbe) that it does get better, that this sort of thing is learnable. – Joe Feb 27 '17 at 22:10
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I think Joe has the right idea. Empathy is learned. In addition to Joe's advice, I'd recommend showing your son people having emotions. "He is hurt. He has a bloody knee." "She is laughing. She likes the swing!" "He is angry. That kid tripped him." And so on. Watch TV together and discuss the feelings the characters are showing. Make faces and let him guess your emotions.

Read stories:

LINK

LINK

Other than these ideas, I think you are doing well. It takes time. It is a stage like any other and you will get through it and so will your little guy.

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