The Big Bad “Bad Report”: Navigating Misbehavior at School (And Mom Self-Blame)

I’m a teacher. An elementary school, special education teacher. So I’m used to giving unpleasant news to parents. I’m used to sending messages letting them know their child is “off-task” or “being defiant.” I’ve had to tell parents of young children – like, under 10 – that their child just used every curse word under the sun because I told them they couldn’t play with slime. I’ve been on the delivering end of this kind of information for years now, and honestly, it’s such a big part of my job that I’d become a little numb to it. I had strategies that I used to soften the blow, like always preceding and following up with a positive of some kind or phrasing it as gently as I can – “having a challenging morning” is a good one – but still, I never really thought of what it’s like to be on the other end of that news – until this school year.

A few months ago, I walked into the twins’ school to drop them off one morning, and their teacher gave me a look I hadn’t seen before, seemingly choosing her words carefully.

“We haven’t been doing a very good job of listening lately,” she said. “We’ve been telling adults ‘no’ and not following directions.”

I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings well, so I’m sure the shock and embarrassment were written all over my face.

“Both of them?” I asked.

“Both of them,” she said.

She could have said way worse things to me. She could’ve told me that they went berserk and sent a kid to the ER or chucked a dirty diaper at someone or spent all 8 hours of the school day screaming bloody murder into the void. She didn’t, though. She just told me they hadn’t been perfect angels recently. And it felt like a total gut punch. Despite giving it dozens of times, I’d never received the “hey, your kid’s being a jerk” bomb and it actually stung. Like, a lot.

And so was born a whole new layer of mom guilt and anxiety that hadn’t been there before but was in company with allll the other things about motherhood that keep me up at night. Oh my God, I have the bad kids in class. I’m raising the bad kids! Somewhere, in the two-and-a-half years they’d been earthside, I’d ruined them forever. As I am wont to do when something in my life goes wrong in even the tiniest of ways, I called my mother in a panic. “They’re two,” she said plainly. “You don’t arrive here knowing how to behave. You still have to teach them.” But I countered that I never misbehaved when I was a kid. I was well-behaved to a fault, totally devastated if I ever got even a stern look from an adult. “Yeah, I put the fear of God in you,” she said. Which didn’t help matters much – all it made me wonder was why whatever I was doing for my kids wasn’t working like whatever she did. Why don’t my kids fear or respect me enough to behave well all the time? Where is my parenting so lacking?

I talked to James about it, and he agreed. We had to address it in a way more direct fashion than we’d been doing. I was caught off guard, honestly. They weren’t perfect at home, but at school and at the Y where we go every afternoon, they were always sweet. I wasn’t prepared to have to reinforce good behavior at school yet, but it had to be done. And we didn’t want to just spank and punish into them, either. Call it millennial parenting or whatever, but we wanted to try talking to them first. Positive reinforcement. They’re young, but they’re smart, and I know for a fact they understand most everything I say to them. So we sat them down one Monday morning before school and leveled with them. We reviewed the days of the week. You go to school Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. If you go the whole week without going to time out, you get a prize.

I had low expectations at first. Was a week too long for them? Were they old enough or mature enough yet to understand the relationship between following directions and receiving a reward? But it worked. Not perfectly – we still face bumps in the road and we still get bad reports every now and then. But they got it. We had to reinforce it every single morning and remind them what was expected of them and what they had to do to get a reward. I used a tactic from my teacher bag, to get them to restate the expectation. “What do you have to do to get a prize on Friday?” “Be good,” they’ll say. “Not go to time out.” They usually earn their prize, but they’ve not gotten it before. I try to give them opportunities to get back on track if they got a little off one day out of the week, but if multiple days didn’t go well, we try again next week. Yep, there are tears. I am used to them. They’re two. There are tears over less.

I’d be lying if I said the guilt and anxiety had completely gone away. Though I’m no longer in cold sweats on the drive to pick them up – a Buspar prescription helped with that, but that’s another blog post – I still feel that familiar, awful pang when I hear those words. Just last week, I picked them up from school. “Not such a good day today,” Nathan’s teacher said. “He pretty much did the opposite of everything I told him to do.” I was so embarrassed and disappointed, and Nathan knew it, looking sad and sheepish while his teacher delivered the report. But we tried to be consistent and firm in our punishment. He got no after-school treat, Valentine’s Day M&Ms that day, no TV, and no iPad. The rest of the week, we got good reports.

I talk to my mom everyday and tell her how I’m feeling. She likes to check in on my mental state since she knows I’ve had so many bouts with anxiety and depression, so I was open in telling her how horrible hearing that my kid wasn’t behaving made me feel. “Kayla,” she said, “If you beat yourself up every time your kids make a mistake, you’re gonna be one black and blue lady.” She was right. I thought back to everything my brother and I had put her through and imagined how tormented she would have been if she was overcome with self-blame if she had decided it had all been her fault. It’s an important perspective to keep in mind, especially as my children grow and I learn to view them as real individual human beings and not just an extension of myself.

The biggest things that I’ve had to keep in mind as we navigate this new territory of behavior is:

  1. Be consistent.
  2. Remind them of the expectations.
  3. Make sure they understand the expectations.
  4. Reward, reward, reward the positive.

No matter what happens, what they do, or what we do, I’ve found that our weeks go better when we keep those four tenants in mind.