Child behaviour in the school years: what to expect
School-age children often love to be independent, but they still need your love, attention and approval. Your child also needs limits to guide them as they grow and explore. These limits help your child feel both secure and ready for the new rules, routines and responsibilities that come with starting school.
At this stage, children are developing and practising skills and abilities that help them meet new people, get along with others and make friends at school. This includes self-regulation and the ability to see other people’s points of view.
School-age children can pay attention for longer, might have more patience, and might even be open to reasoning with you. Your child will still need help with expressing emotions and behaving in positive ways, especially when they’re tired or in challenging social situations.
And your child’s growing understanding of the world around them might lead to some fears. For example, some children might be afraid of criticism, tests, failure, physical harm or threat, and supernatural things like ghosts.
Going to school
Starting school is a big step, and children can feel anxious as well as excited. If you’re enthusiastic about your child starting school, this sends your child the positive message that school is exciting. It helps your child believe that they’ll cope and have fun.
School days can be long and tiring for children. This can lead to some grumpy behaviour when your child gets home. Planning for these times of day can help. For example, it’s often best to give your child time for a snack and quiet play before you get into after-school activities.
Sometimes children don’t want to talk about school when they get home. This might be because it’s hard for your child to sum up a big school day in words. But it’s important for your child to know that you’ll stop and listen when they’re ready to talk about school. You can also talk with your child’s teacher to find out what’s happening in your child’s school day.
Guiding school-age children towards positive behaviour
A positive and constructive approach is the best way to guide your child’s behaviour.
This means giving your child positive attention, praise and encouragement for behaviour that’s important in your family – for example, being cooperative, thinking of others and sticking to family rules.
School-age children still need help to understand, remember and practise this kind of behaviour. These strategies and tips can help:
- Family rules – these are positive statements about how your family wants to look after and treat each other. For example, ‘We say please when we ask for something’. Learning about rules at home is good practice for sticking to new rules at school.
- Routines – these help families know who should do what, when, in what order and how often. For example, ‘We take turns setting the table for dinner each night’. If your child is used to a routine at home, it might help them settle into a routine at school.
- Clear and positive instructions – these tell your child what to do and can help your child do things well. For example, ‘Please put your lunch box in your backpack’. Following instructions at home can help your child with following instructions at school.
- Reminders – these can keep your child on track, especially if your child is distracted or forgetful. For example, start by saying, ‘We’re going soon’. Then remind your child by saying, ‘One more game of snap and then we’re going’.
There will be times when you need to use a consequence to reinforce messages about positive behaviour. This might be when reminding your child of the rules or giving a clear instruction hasn’t worked. You can tailor consequences to different situations, but consequences are always best when combined with a focus on positive behaviour.
And if you find yourself in a conflict with your school-age child, you can try a problem-solving approach. You might be able to sort things out by talking about the behaviour you both want and coming up with a win-win solution. Your child is more likely to buy into a solution that they’ve helped to work out.
Positive behaviour strategies work best when you’re spending warm and responsive time with your child, strengthening your family relationships with affection and communication, and tuning in to your child’s emotions. This is what children need to develop and learn, including to learn about positive behaviour.
Child behaviour concerns in the school years
Anxiety, worries and fears are a typical part of children’s development. For example, your school-age child might feel anxious about things like answering questions in class. You might notice that your child seems more clingy or tries to avoid things that make them feel anxious. To help, you can acknowledge your child’s feelings, gently encourage your child to do things they’re anxious about and praise your child when they do. If anxiety is affecting your child’s life at home or school, see your GP for advice.
You need to step in to help if your child is experiencing bullying at school. You can help your child deal with bullying by getting the school involved in sorting it out as soon as possible. Your child’s teacher is a good starting point. Giving your child plenty of love and support at home is important too.
Sometimes school-age children cheat on schoolwork or sport because they don’t know how to cope with the disappointment of losing. Or they cheat because a task is too hard for them. Occasional cheating is usually harmless, but if cheating becomes a pattern, you might need to step in. Talking about rules and fairness is often a good way to start with school-age children.
Disagreements and fighting among children are very common. When you handle fighting constructively and help children learn to work out their differences, it can be a great chance for them to practise the social skills they’ll need as adults.
Your child will meet a lot of new children when they start school, and you can support new friendships. You can try arranging playdates by talking to other parents, or you could look for extracurricular activities so your child can meet children with similar interests.
Many children have habits – for example, biting their nails. Your child’s habits might bother you, but usually it’s nothing to worry about. Most habits go away by themselves.
Lying is part of school-age children’s development. Children aged 4-6 years usually lie a bit more than children of other ages. If this happens with your child, try to focus on the value of honesty and telling the truth.
Your school-age child doesn’t understand time in the same way as an adult. This can make school mornings rushed. A school morning routine can help everyone get out the door ready to face the day in a positive way.
It’s common for school-age children to try swearing. If swearing isn’t OK in your family, speak to your child about their choice of words, rather than ignoring your child’s behaviour. School-age children do understand that words can hurt or offend others.
Your child’s teacher might notice that your child has higher levels of activity or more difficulty concentrating than what’s expected for their age. If you or your child’s teacher are concerned, talking to your GP is a good place to start.
School-age behaviour and your feelings
It’s natural to find your child’s behaviour challenging at times.
Calmly telling your child how you feel is a great strategy at these times. For example, ‘I'm getting upset because there’s so much noise, and I can’t talk on the phone’. When you start the sentence with ‘I’, it gives your child the chance to change things for your sake. Naming your feelings also helps your child learn words to describe and understand their own feelings.
It can also help to talk about your feelings with someone you trust, like your partner, a friend or your GP. Or you could call a parenting helpline in your state or territory.
Corporal punishment including smacking doesn’t teach children how to behave. It can hurt children and affect them in the longer term. It can also make children scared of you, so it’s harder to encourage them to behave in positive ways.