Understanding children’s behaviour in the school years

School-age children need limits that guide them as they grow and explore. Limits and routines give your child security, and help him take on responsibilities when he’s ready.

School-age children are learning to follow rules at home and at school. They might need reminders at first – for example, ‘It’s a school day so you need to wear your school shirt’.

School days can be long and tiring for children. At the end of the day, this can lead to some grumpy behaviour. Planning ahead for these times can help.

Going to school
How things go at home in the morning can set the tone for the day. Children who arrive at school calm, relaxed, fed and ready can make the most of the first few hours of the day, which is the best learning time for children.

Here are some tips to help you and your child on school mornings:

  • Try getting up 15-30 minutes earlier – a little more time in the mornings might help things run more smoothly.
  • Prepare a list of things your child can do to help in the mornings – this can be in pictures if she can’t read yet. She might be slow and make mistakes at first, but she’ll get the hang of it all with practice.
  • Consider turning off TV, tablets and computers in the mornings. They can distract your child from getting ready, and make it harder for him to hear you.
Read more tips for low-stress school mornings in our articles on school mornings and  dealing with school practicalities.

Cheating and bullying at school
Talking with your child’s teacher is a good way to find out what’s happening in your child’s school day – especially if your child isn’t telling you a lot.

Sometimes school-age children cheat on their schoolwork or sport. Occasional cheating is usually harmless, and isn’t much of a concern in the early years. But if children cheat because they feel pressured to win or succeed, or if cheating becomes a pattern as they get older, you might need to step in. Talking about rules and fairness is often a good place to start with school-age children.

Bullying can be teasing, name-calling or being left out of groups or games. It can also involve physical violence. Bullying is never OK, and you need to step in to help if your child is being bullied. It’s important that your child knows that speaking out against bullies and getting help isn’t ‘dobbing’ – it’s an act of bravery.

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 lots of love and support at home is important too.

What to expect from school-age children’s behaviour

Habits and lying
Lots of 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. But if your child’s habit is interfering with everyday activities or is causing some harm, you can try to help your child break the habit.

You might have caught your child telling the occasional lie. Lying is part of a school-age child’s development, and it often starts around three years of age. Children aged 4-6 years usually lie a bit more than children of other ages. It’s often better to teach children the value of honesty and telling the truth than to punish them for small lies.

School-age children might try swearing. If swearing isn’t OK in your family, speak to your child about her choice of words, rather than ignoring her behaviour. School-age children do understand that words can hurt or offend others.

is a normal part of children’s development.

If your child shows signs of anxiety, you can support him by acknowledging his fear, gently encouraging him to do things he’s anxious about and praising him when he does. It’s also good to avoid labels like ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’. Step in to help your child only when he actually gets anxious. If shyness or anxiety is affecting your child’s life at home or school, see your GP for advice.

Pestering can be annoying, so it helps to have a plan for when your child pesters. You can start by letting your child know you won’t consider what she’s asking for until she asks politely.

Sibling rivalry and fighting
Some fights are a fact of life when children get together. A few factors affect fighting – temperament, environment, age and skills. You can work with these factors to handle fighting in your family.

Changing children’s behaviour in the early school years: some tips

Share feelings
If you can honestly tell your school-age child how his behaviour affects you, he can recognise his own emotions in yours, like a mirror, and be able to feel for you. So you might say, ‘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.

Use consequences
When you explain the consequences of behaviour, your school-age child can figure out why something is wrong. This helps her understand the world around her. Sometimes it’s OK not to explain too.

Setting consequences for undesirable behaviour can help to change your child’s behaviour. Sometimes you won’t have to set a consequence at all. The natural consequences of your child’s behaviour will help him learn too – for example, feeling a bit cold because he wouldn’t put on a coat.

Time-out is a type of consequence. It involves having your child go to a place that’s away from interesting activities and other people for a short period of time. You can use it for particularly difficult behaviour, or when you and your child both need a break from each other.

Solve problems together
You can try to resolve conflicts together by talking about the behaviour you both want. You might be able to come up with a win-win solution, and your child will probably buy into the solution because she helped work it out.

For more information, read our 15 tips for encouraging good behaviour. You can also learn more about  encouraging good behaviour and discouraging unacceptable behaviour in our School-age Behaviour Toolkit.


Discipline is helping your child learn how to behave – as well as how not to behave. Discipline works best when it’s firm but fair and when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child.

Discipline doesn’t always, or even often, mean punishment. Punishment by itself doesn’t guide children towards what they should do – it teaches children only what they shouldn’t do.

Punishment doesn’t mean physical punishment. Physical punishment like smacking doesn’t teach children how to behave and can hurt children.

Contact a child health professional if you have concerns about your school-age child’s behaviour or you don’t know what to do about your child’s behaviour.

When your child’s behaviour is challenging you might feel angry or stressed. Looking after yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep and doing some physical activity can help. 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.