Child misbehaving in school? Home woes may be the cause

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

A stable family environment is vital for children to thrive in school and in life

I was teaching English in a Primary 3 class when a pupil, Randy, stuck out his leg as his classmate walked to the front of the classroom.

She tripped, fell and cried.

He laughed.

I comforted her and called for him.

This was just one of many occasions when he had misbehaved and I was concerned.

Executive function is critical for learning and is increasingly recognised as essential for success. This means that a stable home environment, anchored by a loving couple, is vital for children to thrive in school and in life. When the home environment is unstable and parents fight in the presence of their children, children often think it is their fault and are traumatised. They worry that their parents will not stay together and suffer emotionally. This affects their psychological health adversely, takes a toll on their development and shows up as bad behaviour and poor results in school.

Moreover, he was failing in all his subjects.

I sensed something amiss.

"Randy, why did you do that?" I asked.

"Because it's fun," he said with a smirk.

I said: "If you want attention, you can come and talk to me. You don't need to behave badly to get it."

He looked away and grinned, seemingly unaffected by my words.

I warned him: "Randy, from now on, you are invisible to me. I will treat you this way until you apologise and change your behaviour."

For the next two days, he continued with his usual mischief and I stayed true to my word, ignoring him.

On the third day after school, he came to me with his head held low and tears flowing down his cheeks.

Between sobs, he said softly: "I'm sorry, Mrs Yeo."

I seized this teachable moment and sat down with him.

After some probing, he revealed that his parents were constantly fighting and he was terrified that they would split up.

When children are in an emotional turmoil, they are unable to concentrate and learn.

Instead, they will either "act up" and become aggressive or withdraw.

Researchers at the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University in the United States have reported that "when the home is not stable... executive function skills may be impaired, or may not develop at all, limiting a child's success in elementary school and later life".

Executive function skills are the mental skills that enable people to plan, remember, reason and solve problems.

Simply put, executive function is critical for learning and is increasingly recognised as essential for success.

This means that a stable home environment, anchored by a loving couple, is vital for children to thrive in school and in life.

When the home environment is unstable and parents fight in the presence of their children, children often think it is their fault and are traumatised.

They worry that their parents will not stay together and suffer emotionally.

This affects their psychological health adversely, takes a toll on their development and shows up as bad behaviour and poor results in school.

I will always remember the angry, tormented cry of a troubled student who I used to counsel.

"I didn't ask to be born into this world!" he shouted with anguish.

He had hit the nail on the head.

When we bring children into this world, it is clearly our responsibility to create a safe and loving environment - one that will nurture the child and help him to develop into a confident and responsible adult.

One of the key factors of this safe environment is a positive relationship between parents.

Just as we need to build strong bonds with our children, we also need to make an effort to nurture our relationship with our spouse, such as by scheduling regular

dates and spending quality

time as a couple, not just as a family.

Many couples with young children struggle to find time to be alone with each other, and often stop trying to do so.

Although it is challenging, parents must work on building a loving and happy relationship in order to raise happy and confident children.

During aircraft safety briefings, adults are told to secure their own oxygen masks before attending to children. Similarly, parents have to first ensure that their marriage has enough "oxygen" before attending to their children.

I have found books such as relationship counsellor Gary Chapman's The 5 Love Languages and psychologist John Gottman's The Relationship Cure very helpful for advice on strengthening marriages.

There are also many family- focused websites that offer ideas

and tips on making marriages stronger.

We cannot expect relationships to be always smooth sailing.

Nevertheless, parents should be especially careful about how they treat their spouse in front of children.

If you quarrel, make sure you are out of earshot of the children and, above all, keep them out of it.

Remember that the children suffer most when they witness their beloved parents quarrel or fight.

If issues cannot be resolved and the clashes recur too frequently, you should seek help.

Professional help is available at family service centres as well as religious and private organisations.

Ultimately, our children need to feel safe and loved to be ready for school.

Only then can they begin to focus on learning and doing their best in school.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2015, with the headline 'Child misbehaving in school? Home woes may be the cause'. Print Edition | Subscribe